Someone called me “four eyes” for the first time in middle school.
It didn’t bother me enough to stop wearing my glasses, which I’d proudly worn since third grade — but those first bullying words stuck with me.
Middle school is a time when words start to matter a little bit more.
As teens try to shape their identities, insults can sting for a little longer. Peers’ opinions seem to matter more. Teens want to be cool and unique, but they also want to fit in and belong.
That’s why Amy Beth Gardner, a loving mom from Nashville, Tennessee, squeezed out a tube of toothpaste for her daughter.
Huh? Let me explain.
Last week, Amy shared a story on Facebook about an interaction she had with her 11-year-old daughter, Breonna. First, Amy gave Breonna a tube of toothpaste and squirted it all out onto a plate. Then she asked her to put it back into the tube.
Breonna was understandably confused and frustrated. But the toothpaste was her mother’s brilliant and beautiful metaphor for explaining that words matter. Once your words are out of your mouth, you can’t just put them back in your mouth … just like the toothpaste.
“My toothpaste was a mess and I went to clean it and started thinking about how, just like words once you have said them, you can’t put toothpaste back in a tube,” Amy said.
Here’s Amy’s original post:
Here’s the full text:
“My daughter starts middle school tomorrow. We’ve decorated her locker, bought new uniforms, even surprised her with a new backpack. But tonight just before bed, we did another pre-middle school task that is far more important than the others. I gave her a tube of toothpaste and asked her to squirt it out onto a plate. When she finished, I calmly asked her to put all the toothpaste back in the tube. She began exclaiming things like ‘But I can’t!’ and ‘It won’t be like it was before!’ I quietly waited for her to finish and then said the following:
‘You will remember this plate of toothpaste for the rest of your life. Your words have the power of life or death. As you go into middle school, you are about to see just how much weight your words carry. You are going to have the opportunity to use your words to hurt, demean, slander and wound others. You are also going to have the opportunity to use your words to heal, encourage, inspire and love others. You will occasionally make the wrong choice; I can think of three times this week I have used my own words carelessly and caused harm. Just like this toothpaste, once the words leave your mouth, you can’t take them back. Use your words carefully, Breonna. When others are misusing their words, guard your words. Make the choice every morning that life-giving words will come out of your mouth. Decide tonight that you are going to be a life-giver in middle school. Be known for your gentleness and compassion. Use your life to give life to a world that so desperately needs it. You will never, ever regret choosing kindness.'”
We all have a choice about whether to say something hurtful or hold it in — and that’s what’s important.
As Amy acknowledges in the post, everyone — including herself — can make the wrong choice sometimes and say something hurtful. We can either choose to use our words for good and make people feel better about themselves, or the other way around.
What Amy did is not only admirable, but also necessary.
Bullying is a major problem in schools, and it’s important to teach kids and teens that their words have power.
Can you imagine if more parents used this clever metaphor to teach their kids about the weight of their words? That’s a lot of wasted toothpaste, but a whole lot of spared feelings and goodness in the world too.