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Why Words Cause More Damage Than Sticks and Stones

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

“You are a dumb-dumb,” my father cracked up. “Dumb-dumb” – a very loose translation from my mother tongue but a nickname that stayed with me through most of my elementary school years.

Image credit: hainguyenrp from Pixaby

I was enrolled in grade one, two months shy of my 5th birthday. Where I grew up, kids are usually 6 or 7 years old in grade one. I have no idea how my parents managed to convince the school to enroll me. One day, in class, we were given an assignment to skip count by 2 until we got to 20, we were told to write our answers in our notebooks. I remember looking around nervously at my classmates who all seemed to know how to do this, but I didn’t. I was terrified.

At the end of grade one, I was ranked 22nd out of 30 students. The teasing continued at home – “You are a dumb-dumb.” This time, they had proof. It was a family pastime to come up with nicknames for me: hurricane, volcano, dumb-dumb to name a few out of many. I was also told I was adopted. In my mind, I suspected this might have been true because I wasn’t smart like my brother whom I was always compared to. They thought their behaviour was harmless, the nicknames were for entertainment purposes – they were entertained by my reactions to those nicknames. They thought the comparison would motivate me to “try harder.”

Second grade came along, we were given an assignment in class which I didn’t know how to do. No one was willing to help me, and I was terrified of being punished – so terrified that I soiled myself. Somehow, I managed to stay in my soiled underwear all day until I got home. No one found out. I was too embarrassed to say anything in school and I cleaned up all the “evidence” at home. I knew I would be made fun of.

By the end of second grade, I topped my class and the first thing my dad said when he saw my report card was, “What went wrong?” And yes, he laughed again. Honestly, I have no idea how I was top of my class that year. According to my family, everyone must have been “dumber” than I was in that second-grade class.

I was an anomaly to the Indian kid – I wasn’t smart, school was exceptionally hard for me, though the family teasing around my alleged lack of intelligence stopped by the time I was 10 years old, the damage was already done.

Damage to my thinking process, actual damage to my brain. I recently connected with John Lenhart of Flowcess who explained to me what my brain went through. He calls the process “synaptic pruning.”

John explains that our brains are made up of dendrites which look like trees with millions of branches. Before 12 years of age, we have access to all these trees and branches. They represent the innumerable ways in which we have the intellectual ability to think, process, understand, and even be creative.

In addition, based on the thoughts we think the most frequently, each of us has worn down paths in our forest.

At approximately 13 years of age, synaptic pruning occurs through glial cells “retiring” the connections for the trees that are off your regular paths. The trees you are left with are those you use regularly. If these trees are infused with positive emotions along with fitting your uniqueness, then the hormones from puberty will turn these paths into superhighways resulting in creating a teenage genius out of you – geniuses like Mozart. Remember, these trees and branches represent intellectual ability.

However, if the trees that are left behind are infused with negative emotions, then a teenager’s thoughts will go through these “negative” trees, throw in puberty and the results can be catastrophic.

By age 14, this “way of thinking” is locked in place. This means that the numerous ways in which one thinks, processes, understands, and is creative has now been cut down to certain set ways. In effect, these negative trees combined with puberty result in limited thinking/processing (which can be perceived as limited intelligence) at the very least and at the other end, can result in drug addictions amongst other unhealthy behaviours.

Negative trees can also be formed by pressure from family members to pursue a certain career, expectations of a child to accomplish parents’ unfulfilled dreams that are misaligned with the child’s uniqueness. Since a topic like this would be discussed regularly, the child would end up wearing a very strong path to and from these negative trees, sometimes to the extent that all of their thoughts could go through one negative tree. This crushes a teenager’s desire for what they want to do resulting in them thinking that what they want doesn’t matter. This is particularly true because the teenager is literally incapable of understanding another option.

According to John, what happened in my case was that although I wasn’t at the synaptic pruning stage, most trees that I had were negative ones. My thinking ability was limited on two levels: I was trying to navigate my brain (think intellectually) while also trying to avoid the “negative” trees. This limited the intellectual ways in which I could think. Avoiding negative trees is “normal” for children prior to synaptic pruning because they have access to all the dendrites. However, the path I took may have been three or more times longer than the shortest path.

Take note, being unable to provide an immediate answer due to the longer path can also increase stress charging the trees on this path with a negative emotion. Driven by the motivation to avoid being teased by my family, I found alternative paths which I didn’t use outside of school for fear of these paths being tarnished by negative emotions caused by my family. Fortunately, I don’t remember much of this.

Else, this would have resulted in being a teen who was unable to bypass “negative” trees because these would have been the only trees used regularly after synaptic pruning given that all other trees were “retired” for lack of use. The result would have been experiencing greater angst along with hormones from puberty causing a potentially explosive situation.

As a child, despite having access to all dendrites, my thinking ability was severely affected because I was avoiding “negative” trees while also trying to navigate my brain intellectually – it was a double whammy. So being “dumb” became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I never was dumb; my family’s words affected my brain to such an extent that it reduced my intellectual abilities at a very young age. We all have heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words don’t hurt me.”

The opposite is true – as you can see from John Lenhart’s incredible work;

Words cause more damage than sticks and stones ever will. What you say to a child becomes their inner voice, their self-belief system, it affects their intellect, so please choose your words wisely.

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