Everybody knows this phrase: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We push this idea for children to say in order to not cede emotional control to a bully, but the simple truth is that words DO hurt. When I was an elementary school teacher and counselor, I did an exercise I call “toothpaste words” to demonstrate this principle. The origin escapes me, but I have used it many times. It goes something like this:

I had a funny-looking puppet and a paper heart representing the puppet’s emotions. I would have my students come up to the front of the classroom one by one to say mean things about the puppet’s glasses or dress and squeeze a little toothpaste from a tube onto the paper heart. Then, when everyone was finished, I would say, “okay, now we are going to fix those hurtful things by complimenting the puppet and we’ll put the toothpaste back in the tube!” Of course, it was impossible to put all the toothpaste back into the tube. Unkind words or actions leave a lasting mark in real life, too.

The primary application is to teach children empathy by helping them understand the ways in which their behavior affects other people. It’s an engaging visual presentation that you can refer to again and again; saying “those are toothpaste words” will elicit a stronger empathetic response than just saying “that’s naughty.” But your children may also call you out for your own toothpaste words and actions. If you are willing to set aside your own ego, you will learn from this experience as much as they do.

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