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Old adage aside, words can -- and do -- hurt

My preschooler learned a new word this week. After witnessing one of his favorite television characters call someone a ''loser,'' he laughed and decided this would be a great word to use around others.

It seemed harmless enough. When Sam called his older brother a loser for missing the net during a backyard game of basketball, Ben just continued playing with his friends. And when Sam called his teenage sister a loser as she walked into the room, Emily just laughed and continued walking out the door.

Of course, Sam is too young to understand the meaning of the word loser. And his older siblings knew his intentions were less about hurting feelings than getting a laugh and some much-needed attention from his very busy brother and sister.

But as he grows, Sam needs to learn that words can hurt feelings and people should be treated with kindness and respect. This is the lesson we're working on with Sam these days.

It's a lesson that matters.

Once children enter school, name-calling can lead to more significant consequences. In a 2005 survey of more than 3,400 students titled From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, a Survey of Students and Teachers, researchers found that 65 percent of students have experienced some sort of bullying or harassment in school.

Often, these behaviors began with verbal taunts.

''It's a serious problem,'' said Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in a telephone interview from his office in New York. "When kids are afraid, they can't learn.''

Of course, the negative consequences of name-calling and other forms of bullying extend far beyond school performance.

''It can leave significant emotional scars,'' Jennings said. "And if we tolerate hateful language, eventually we have hateful behaviors.''

Dale Conrad, a ninth-grade counselor at Timber Creek High School in eastern Orange County, Fla., has seen the impact firsthand. ''Unfortunately, it's very prevalent and often contributes to verbal and physical confrontations,'' she said.

In an effort to curb these behaviors, Conrad sponsors a school club called Teens Educating Students for Tolerance. Students participated in National Mix It Up Day where students were encouraged to cross social boundaries and sit with a new crowd in the lunchroom. And they host monthly educational events focusing on issues like gay rights, racism and social inequities. ''We promote acceptance and nonviolence,'' she said.

There is no quick fix to eliminate name-calling and other hurtful behaviors, but Conrad believes the lessons need to start at home.

''Parents are a key factor in how children learn to treat others,'' she said. "Children learn by example, so being a positive role model is number one.''

Conrad encourages parents to intervene when they hear their children calling others names. ''It's never too early to start teaching respect for others,'' she said.

Jennings also emphasized the important role of parents. ''Have an honest dialogue with your child,'' he said. "Ask your child if he's observed any type of bullying or name-calling at school.''

Experts recommend keeping the door open for ongoing conversations. ''Very often, children who've been bullied may be unlikely to talk about it,'' Jennings said.

Pay attention to your child's mood, school performance and other cues that he may be fearful or uncomfortable about going to school.

He also advises parents to offer their children concrete advice about how to stay safe, like walking with a friend, walking away from a threatening situation, and asking for help from a teacher, parent or other trusted adult.

Jennings hopes parents will advocate on behalf of children. ''Ask your child's principal, teacher or school board member if your school has comprehensive anti-bullying policies,'' he said.

''Let them know you want this to be part of your child's curriculum,'' he said. "Let them know it's important to you.''

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsForParents.org, an online newsletter for parents. She can be reached at debbie@NewsForParents.org.

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