Break Bones? No, but Name-Calling Can Injure Self-Esteem

crying infantWalking to work the other day, I passed a young couple on the sidewalk and something happened that made me think about how low self-esteem seems to run in families.

The man was wearing a baby on his chest.

You know those harnesses you can plop a baby into so you can carry them hands-free?

That’s what he had on, and this one contained a very cute baby, maybe six months old.

As we drew closer, I could hear the baby making little gurgling noises—just trying out the vocal cords, or so it seemed to me.

The woman, presumably the child’s mom, said to the baby as I passed: “Oh, you little whiner.”

Her tone wasn’t unkind. There was nothing in her manner to suggest that she was irritated with the baby.

It was her words. They troubled me.

“Oh, you little whiner.”

Call me hypersensitive, but if I were to make a list of things adults might say to infants who are gurgling, this would come in close to the bottom.

Why didn’t she choose to say, “Oh, you little crooner”? Or even, “Oh, you little chatterbox”?

I know that mothers are attuned to fussiness in their children that a casual observer could miss. Maybe the child was really “whining” and I interpreted the sounds as happy, or at least neutral.

But if the baby was unhappy about something, why respond by calling him/her a “whiner”?

At such an early age, vocal tone is probably far more important than words. And the mother’s tone, as I said, was not unkind. But it still troubled me that it even occurred to her to respond to the baby’s vocalizations with name-calling.

What happens when the baby becomes a toddler and starts really kicking up a fuss? What about when he or she is a teenager? How many times will that child be called a whiner, and what other names might get thrown into the mix over the years?

Having spoken to hundreds of people with injured self-esteem, my guess is that, “Oh, you little whiner” is part of this mom’s self-talk. If she’s tired and doesn’t want to go to work. If she feels hurt by rejection or abandonment. If she’s too hot, too cold, hungry, or thirsty, does she say to herself, “Oh, you little whiner”?

It’s hard to imagine someone who’s never called herself names doing it to a child. Why is name-calling even on the table unless it’s solidly entrenched in the psyche?

This is why cultivating healthy self-esteem isn’t self-indulgent. It’s pro-social behavior.

We need to learn to love ourselves, so the next generation can grow up without the same burden of unearned shame that we carry.

Calling someone—anyone—names is the opposite of holding them in high esteem. And when kids are called names by the people they most need to feel cherished by, they may start to question their worth. They believe they don’t deserve to be esteemed, and so they decide not to esteem themselves.

Low self-esteem is learned.

It’s not genetic, not a function of temperament, not a personality trait. Kids learn low self-esteem by being treated in ways that don’t communicate esteem for them.

I feel for that young mother, whose own self-worth may be so injured that she doesn’t know a different way to relate to others with mutual esteem. Not even to a precious, innocent baby.

On the bright side, I like to think it’s never too late to repair injured self-esteem. Refusing to engage in name-calling, especially during self-talk, is a great start.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, Self-Esteem Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lillian

    September 2nd, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    It is my opinion that bruising and damaging one’s self esteem is far worse than throwing a punch and injuring their body. I mean, a bone can heal, slowly, but it will heal over time with very little effort. It takes a whole lot of effort to heal one’s self confidence after they have been broken down for so long. Even if they know deep down inside that they are better than what they thin or feel, there is still that nagging voice in there telling them that no they are not and oftenitb ecomes hard to ignore that voice. So choose your words to others kindly, because we have no real idea how damaged and broken they may already be and you do not wish to add to that.

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    September 2nd, 2014 at 5:01 AM

    You’re making a great point. That old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is the opposite of the truth, in my opinion and in my 25 years of experience as a psychotherapist and ten years as a neurofeedback trainer. Labels like “whiner” get into the psyche and into the wiring. It’s great that we can help with this, but better if it never happens.

  • arianna

    September 2nd, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    Why do I honestly care or should I care what others say about me?
    If I know that it isn’t true then what reall difference does it make or should it make to me?

  • Margie

    September 3rd, 2014 at 4:03 AM

    Don’t you think that with the baby situation that this is taking it a bit too far? There was no harm intended and if the tome of voice was still sweet then the baby had no idea what she was saying anyway

  • Anna D.

    September 7th, 2014 at 5:11 AM

    I remember my mom always making little remarks here and there about my weight, and those are words that have always haunted me, even still today. I know that she probably thought nothing of it but those things hurt and for her she just chalked it up to saying the first things that she thought of but for me they were words that cut me deep and hurt badly. I think that people who do this will defend their actions and say that they are just being real, but I have some advice. Be real to yourself and don’t say things that will never allow for snother to do the same.

  • Sara

    September 11th, 2014 at 8:42 PM

    Really? That baby has no idea what the mother is saying. if her tone was kind and loving, then who cares?

    People are way too sensitive these days.

    I just started listening to your audio book today, but I might just stop. A lot of it is about the body anyway, and that’s not what my poor self esteem is about. I couldn’t care less about my body. It’s only temporary anyway. I care about how I am seen by others, and I’ve been a jerk. JUST LIKE I AM NOW. Because I call BS when I see it… and this is BS.

  • Grace

    November 17th, 2014 at 6:11 AM

    I’ve been called “pretty but not witty”, (and many things alike) straight to my face about three years ago. I kept my distance with other people since then. Yet, I’m still injured.

  • Geraldine

    January 11th, 2019 at 4:22 AM

    So very true tins, the baby takes it in
    for sure, even though months old. I’ve took in a childhood if little /big slights , do low self worth. Love ur insightful articles.

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