Three years ago, Amy Gardner posted a huge life lesson on Facebook for her middle school daughter. She couldn’t have known that it would become an annual reminder to parents and kids everywhere on the devastating effects of bullying. The post features an image of toothpaste piled up and smeared on a dinner plate and that might seem super confusing until you read her words.
While Gardner was trying to explain the importance of words, she came up with a brilliant idea. She gave her daughter a tube of toothpaste and asked her to empty it out onto a plate. Probably thinking it was a fun game, her daughter obliged and when she was all done, her mother asked her to put it back in. Her daughter obviously could not get the toothpaste back into the tube and that’s when the brilliance of Garner’s post began to stick.
“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,” Garner wrote on Facebook. “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.”
Gardner continued her brilliant lesson on bullying by pointing out that just like the toothpaste on the plate, once those words are out in the world, you can’t take them back.
“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.”
The post has been shared more than two million times and for good reason, it deftly explains the complex reality of how bullying truly affects people. Kids as young as middle school age are able to grasp that their words may sound cool and snarky when they are telling someone off or gossiping as a way to bond and be seen as cool but those words have serious consequences. But even more to the point, those who guard their words and who use them for life, as Gardner puts it, build integrity and character and that will get noticed. That’s how you build respect.
As a mother of a newly minted tween, I’ve shared this post with my child and explained that I hope he uses his words for life, for building people up instead of tearing them down, for expressing empathy and understanding. And while he may grunt a quick “Ok, mom, sure.” I’ll be reminding him of this in various ways and over and over until it becomes a life lesson that he fully absorbs.
Middle school is hard enough but with genius lessons like this, we can raise better kids who know that bullying just isn’t worth the time or the consequences.