Sticks and Stones, Deltas and Bullies

I was recently interviewed by an anti-bullying activist for Psychology Today. It was chosen as an essential topic – which is nice.

We discussed many topics, more than are in the interview. One of the questions he asked had to do with – the phrase sticks and stones as an approach to stop bullying.

Here is how he phrased the question:

What do you think of the original version of the slogan, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me”?

My Answer:

Short answer – it’s silly. Longer answer – of course words hurt. Words express ideas and emotions and sometimes, those hurt. And honestly, the idea that I should be so stoic as to not feel emotions is crazy to me. I’m a full human being. I’m not afraid of my emotions. If I get upset or sad, it’s ok. I’m allowed to be upset or sad. So, the phrase just seems like – telling kids to not feel emotions.

That being said, I think the point of the phrase is to try and explain how to respond to a bully. So, it’s just another way to get at – don’t reward the bully. Just like ignore them and they will go away is short hand for – don’t reward them and after a period of escalation, if you are consistent they will eventually go away. I think sticks and stones is expressing a similar sentiment. But it’s more than that. It’s also what animal trainers would call a delta.

When I was young, if someone was being mean, we would sing song “sticks and stones.” It was basically a way of calling out the mean kid to remind them that a) I’m not bothered by what you are saying and b) you are behaving badly. And for that use, it’s great and works. But as advice, I’m not sure it works.

One of the things I teach is that if a kid is experiencing verbal bullying, then having a verbal response ready to go and practiced that will let the bully know you aren’t bothered is a good thing to have ready and to have practiced. “sticks and stones” is a useful phrase in that regard. It’s silly but can be said without emotion and makes the point. There are other phrases of course, that can be used as a delta. But the goal of a delta is to signal, without emotion, that what just happened wasn’t right. And to reset things.

A delta is a training tool. And using sticks and stones as a delta is MUCH better than – ignore them advice. Because ignoring them may signal submission or fear. If you tried to say – ignore them and they will go away to a bully, it wouldn’t work. Saying something – like sticks and stones, signals defiance and push back. So – I like sticks and stones better than ignore them. But only if it’s used as a delta. As advice, it’s crap.

So what is a Delta?

A Delta is a signal that a reward is not coming. Simply not rewarding a behavior can be confusing. It is better to signal – this is good- reward coming, or this is not right – no reward coming. With bullying, if you ignore a bully, you are not signaling anything. What you want to do is signal – it’s not right. And I will not be rewarding you.

This sounds negative, but it really isn’t. It’s just a signal, like any other. You could just say stop if you like. It doesn’t matter what the signal is – as long as it’s clear to the bully, they will not get a reward from you. Whether you say/sing “sticks and stones” or just say stop. It doesn’t matter. It’s more important that you be consistent about the response.

Hope this helps.