When Words Kill

When Words Kill

It’s a timeless problem: humans who use words to belittle other humans. It happens in the schoolyard with kids and it happens on the internet with (seemingly) adults. It even happens with presidential candidates and their families.

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

You may be too young to have heard that little playground ditty. We repeated that line when someone said something mean to us. But, in our hearts, we knew that we chanted it precisely because words can hurt us. We knew it back then and we know it now.

Words can even kill.

October is anti-bullying month

I’ve been a kid (believe it or not), I’ve been a teacher and I’ve been a parent. Since the dawn of time, there have always been bullies. When I was young, it was still known as ‘teasing’ and I don’t remember it being much more than rhymes that mocked our names:

“Jerry Apple, rotten to the core!”

And we dealt with it.

I don’t remember being scarred for life, except sometimes I can still hear the far-off voice of Bradley Taylor, the neighborhood’s resident “Mean Boy,’ chanting: “Spaur, Spaur, big fat candy bar!”

Then it got worse

Over the years, even before the lurkers and trolls in cyberspace, bullying became something more.

Something bigger.

One day when my daughter was in fifth grade, she came home and told me that the boys played a game at recess called, “Smear the Queer.” They may or may not have known what they were saying (I’m thinking they probably did) but, still, it was taking things up a notch.

By the time my daughter reached sixth grade, a clique of decidedly Mean Girls were calling certain other girls out with the chant, “Lezzie! Lezzie!” When I met with the teacher, he said, “Girls at this age need to have thick skins. It’s just a stage they go through.”

A stage?

That was unacceptable to me then and it’s unacceptable to me now.

Cipher in the Snow

In the mid-80s, the schools were becoming more sensitive to bullying. We actually talked to kids about it. As a team of gifted education teachers, we showed the film Cipher in the Snow to our classes each year.

If you don’t follow the link above (I encourage you to do so), it’s the story of Cliff Evans, a young teenager. It starts on a school bus, where Cliff walks to the front and says to the driver, “I’m sorry. Would you please let me off?”

The next thing we see is the boy collapsing in the snow on the roadside. All attempts at CPR fail. The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out what happened to him.

The coroner said, “I couldn’t find anything wrong. The heart just stopped beating.”

The principal asks Cliff’s math teacher from the previous year to round up a delegation of 10 students to represent  the school at the funeral, but the teacher can’t find that many kids who admit to knowing him. The film’s flashbacks show that when Cliff wasn’t being ignored, he was being bullied.

And words were the weapon of choice.

We are left to ponder at the end whether Cliff died because no one loved him. Each year that we showed the film, a lively classroom discussion followed.

Modern day bullies

I read just this week about Whitney Kropp, a shy, socially challenged 16-year-old girl from Michigan who got the surprise of her life when she was elected to her school’s homecoming court.

Until some of the kids told her that everyone had voted for her as a joke.

She said that when she found out, she considered committing suicide.

In this particular case, though, the community stepped forward and this courageous girl showed up at the game in a beautiful gown, jewelry, shoes, makeup and new hairstyle, all donated by local businesses.

I don’t think at age 16 that I would have had that much courage.

We can do something

The problem with words is that, used as swords, they can kill—if not the physical body (though some bullied kids have committed suicide), then the spirit. And in the internet age, those words stick around, visible forever.

Empathy is a skill in short supply these days. But as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we can help to foster it in our kids.

Just the simple question, “How do you think that made the other person feel?” can help kids put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

As adults, we learn how to handle the bullies of the world. Kids don’t have those coping skills yet. We may not know what is going on in their lives. Or how important that little smile might be to them when you are standing in front of them in the grocery store line.

But it is.

Because these are the same kids we’re going to be turning the world over to someday.

October is National Anti-bullying Month. Reach out with a smile and a kind word to a kid if you can.

What about you?

Did you experience or witness bullying when you were a child?

Do you think that cyber-bullying has changed the intensity and impact?

Make sure you don’t miss a post.


  1. Patricia Yager Delagrange October 4, 2012 at 7:26 am #

    What a lovely post. Thank you. I don’t recall bullying when I was in school though I certainly knew my “place”. I was a dork, not one of the “boss” kids. Then at one of my class reunions last year the president on our senior high school class told me he once had a crush on me. I was floored. I’d been a “dork” and he was “boss”. I didn’t believe him. Perception can be skewed at any age. And when you’re young the last thing you need is someone “putting you down” since self-esteem is precarious when you’re young, or it can be.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 4, 2012 at 11:19 am #

      Great story, Patricia. High school can be unforgiving because by then those cliques are set and they can be impossible to penetrate. And reunions tell you so much because everyone has let down their guard and there’s just tons of authenticity. It’s strange how sometimes we find out that the very same people we thought hated us actually admired us. I was called “Brain” as a nickname in high school and I was crushed at the time, but now it definitely feels like a compliment.

      And at my 20th reunion, I had the reverse happen. A man walked up to me (I barely knew him in high school) and said, “Wow! What happened? You used to be so mousey in high school.” Ha! Didn’t quite know how to take that.


  2. Kim October 4, 2012 at 8:14 am #

    Thank you for posting this! As someone who was bullied throughout most of elementary and middle school, bullying is a personal topic for me. And especially now that I have two step-kids who have both complained of being teased at school. Its such a fine line to go from good natured teasing to true bullying.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 4, 2012 at 11:24 am #


      because you have been there, you can help your step-kids immensely. Sometimes kids cannot see beyond the moment and they think their lives will always be miserable. I think it takes parents standing up for their kids (and teaching their kids how to stand up for someone being bullied) , teachers making it clear that bullying is not acceptable, and society in general affirming our kids.

      You are right. Teasing can quickly turn into bullying and, frankly, some of our most sensitive little ones can be devastated by teasing.


  3. Sherrey Meyer October 4, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    I think we can all look back and remember a time when we were teased mercilessly by our schoolmates or playmates. Children can be the cruelest of the cruel. Sometimes they know what they’re doing; often they are mimicking what they hear/see in their parents behavior. The worst cruelties of this nature inflicted on my siblings and me actually came from our mother. Yes, you could classify her as a bully — belittling, criticizing, demanding, manipulating — all with words and emotions. It isn’t a pleasant experience for anyone.

    Recent stories of suicide among our teens and young adults, however, has shown that the bullying has taken a nasty turn, likely because of the use of technology. I too read Whitney’s story, and I was so pleased that she stepped up with the help of her community to stand against her classmates.

    A news anchor in LaCrosse, WI is in the news now for her response to an email from a viewer who told her she was too fat and was harming the young girls in the community by presenting a poor image. The anchor delivered an empowering response. If you haven’t seen it, you should take a look. Just google “LaCross news channel 8.”

    Thanks so much for posting on this subject today. You’ve given much thought to it, and hopefully your words will cause others to think and take action.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 4, 2012 at 11:28 am #


      Good point. Bullying does not always come from your peers. Family members can be guilty, too.

      I did see that news commentator’s film clip. I admired her, too, for standing up to this man. We are so quick to judge others. This woman took this opportunity to highlight a growing problem in our country. And she did it in such a powerful way. I would have included a link, but my post was already too long.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.


  4. Bill Dorman October 4, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    Fortunately I didn’t have to deal with it too much; somehow I remained under the radar except for the occasional Door mat remark. But I certainly saw it and always felt bad for the people getting picked on.

    It’s never acceptable but taking it a step further; most of the time we don’t know what is going on in the life of the bully either and maybe they are just acting out because of it.

    Who wants cooties anyway?

    Teacher’s have a tough job; good thing they get paid a lot, huh?


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 4, 2012 at 11:37 am #

      Door Man? How clever. Reminds me of a joke of my dad’s. A man stands before a judge and says, “I want to change my name. Everyone makes fun of Charlie Stinks.” The judge says, ” I can see why. You must have been teased unmercifully. What do you want to change it to?” “Joe Stinks,” the man says.

      On how much teasing is too much—and when it crosses the line— I’ll just say that some kids can handle more than others. As a teacher, I saw kids break into tears and others just smile and shrug it off.

      You make a good point about the bullies. They obviously have issues of their own. And, as I said, I think they are lacking empathy. For some of them, it’s impossible for them to think about someone else’s feelings. I think that empathy can be taught but it can be difficult when it isn’t nurtured at home.


  5. Josh October 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    Hi Judy,

    We played Smear the Queer as a kid but I didn’t have a clue as to what it meant. The first time I remember playing was around ’74 or ’75 and it was just something we did for fun.

    Someone grabbed a football and tried not to be tackled by the rest of us. What I remember most was being 9 and being chased by a bunch of 12 year-old boys.

    It wasn’t until I was 17 and found out two of my uncles were gay that it really sunk in what we were saying.

    Anyhoo, I know that a couple of the fights I got into as a kid were because other kids were picking on me. I sometimes wonder if things were different then because back then we never wanted to tell our parents anything and if it meant fighting, well that is what we did to solve things.

    Not saying it was the best, smartest or right way. As a father I think about it all very differently than I did.

    I am glad that adults are paying more attention than they used to. It is important and I think it is going to help some kids avoid unnecessary harm and misery.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 4, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

      Hey Josh,

      Great to get the opposite sex’s view on “Smear the Queer.” I would suspect that 5th grade boys these days know the meaning of the word “queer.” So much has changed.

      I think the schools try to get kids to settle things without throwing punches and perhaps the cruel words have replaced the fist of the bully. I don’t know. It is so true. We see things much differently as parents than we did as kids. My daughter’s “Mean Girls” episode was what prompted me to pull her out of public middle school and place her in the nurturing environment of an excellent private school. Those two years of tuition was the best money I ever spent. Her grades improved, her self-concept soared and she was excited to go to school every day.


  6. Lisa Ahn October 6, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Powerful post and topic, Judy. I do think that bullying has gotten worse. It’s a rapidly growing problem in our local schools.

    I’m not sure how much technology is to blame, though. Cyber-bullying is another form of bullying, but I’m not sure how it leads to increased bullying in the schoolyard. Why is that getting so much worse, in intensity, frequency, and threat? To me, the problem seems more complex than this. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer, but I’m glad you’ve raised the questions.

    And, I ask my daughters often how they think others feel — in books, in life, in friendships, family. I agree that empathy is one of our most valuable skills and assets.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 7, 2012 at 7:57 am #


      Thanks for adding your thoughts here. Cyber-bullying, I think, is just the next stage and, yes, most of the time it’s adults. But those grownups used to be kids and I can bet that some of them were bullies in the schoolyard, too.

      I see a general lack of respect for others in our society today. Kids learn from watching: their parents, certainly, TV, and their pop culture heroes, among others.
      I agree that this problem is multifaceted and not easily solved. But I think that awareness is the first step and that’s starting to happen. I am glad to hear that you encourage your daughters to be empathetic. When I was young, I didn’t enjoy my mom not always taking my side when I had a disagreement with a friend. But now I can see that she was just trying to get me to understand someone else’s perspective. That has been an invaluable trait—in business and in life.


  7. Ralph October 7, 2012 at 4:06 am #

    Judy, well, we are back in action. At my desk (dining room table) at home. Man, it is good to be back. Bittersweet because I just loved the trip to France.

    Heavy subject. I watched the video and I love that this girl ran with it , got up the courage to make it work and is getting rounding support. I see her sister was instrumental in pushing her. Nothing like strong family support. It astounds me that this type of crap goes on in our world. We have to deal with being mislead by corporations and politicians (among a few) all the time and that is certainly not enough that this type of stuff has to go on.

    Bullying is an unbelievably heinous act and realistically should be punishable by law but as a whole in an educational environment? In a situation like this how is someone protected? They’re not but should be. Man. I suppose that the strength of Whitney and he courage to socialize this issue is one small step in the right direction.

    I wasn’t bullied when i was young but I know what it meant to be socially awkward. I was 6ft tall in Grade 5 owering over 99% of the other kids and because of my growth was unable to be elegant in any way. Certainly not one of the cool kids. I took a lot of crap from the kids around me but you know that experience has made me a stronger person. I have often wondered if that was a blessing in disguise.

    Anyway. Great post. Thanks for the awareness!


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 7, 2012 at 8:08 am #


      I am beyond envy. Would love to spend a week or two in France and just tool around by car. Hope you are rested and ready to go.

      I am sure if I had been Whitney, I would have wanted to hide my face forever. But she decided to not only go to the game and appear on the homecoming court, but to share her story with the media, helping hundreds if not thousands of other kids. A spunky young lady, to say the least.

      I can see why you were not bullied in 5th grade if you were 6 ft. tall. You say an important thing here. When you have rough spots in school, it does make you stronger. I read a study recently that showed that adults who went through stress and social challenges as kids were better able to handle the ups and downs of life. It certainly was true for me.


      • Ralph October 7, 2012 at 8:59 am #

        So true, so true. There is a big lesson there but alas try telling a teen anything. When I was one I certainly didn’t listen to anyone especially anyone in an authority position. Not a model teenager (read: extremely rebellious). Whitney is one of the rare one’s that actually makes a difference and i believe that to be true. Rare.


  8. emre October 7, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    i like your website design


  9. Patent attorney October 15, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    And may awareness be raised. That whole ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ saying is the least true thing I’ve ever heard.


    • Judy Lee Dunn October 20, 2012 at 9:33 am #

      Sorry. Looks like your comment got caught in my overambitious spam filter. I so agree with you. It was our defense as kids, to come back with something, but we knew it wasn’t true. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts here.


      • P. attorney November 1, 2012 at 5:38 am #

        No worries at all. Glad to see caring people like you are raising awareness so passionately.



  1. Link Feast For Writers, vol. 26 - October 18, 2012

    […] When Words Kill: October Is the Anti-Bullying Month by Judy Dunn Lee […]

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