“Be Nice” is one of the most common phrases we say to our kids, especially our young ones. It comes out of our mouth without thought, like a reflexive reaction to our eternal fear that our kids will grow up to be unscrupulous and cruel.
Let’s stop to examine, what “be nice” really means.
For the most part, it means: be tolerant and accommodating.
If we are brutally honest with ourselves, it also implies:
“do whatever it takes to keep the peace,”
“don’t ruffle feathers,”
“don’t be so darn assertive, vociferous, opinionated and loud,”
and on a deeper level carries the dictate
“give up something about yourself or your belongings even though you don’t want to.”
Girls, especially, are given a heavy dose of its close cousin: “be sweet.” Now, what does this mean? It usually means this
“stuff your feelings, swallow them hard and just smile even though you want to scream.”
Our young girls receive this message in large doses, often applauded for their subservience and frowned at for their aggressive, bossy and assertive tendencies.
Let’s cull out the deeper meaning of these mandates we pass onto our children:
Deny, avoid and distract yourself from your true feelings
Avoid conflict and find a compromise at all costs
Don’t be assertive, but instead, find a way to get along with the other person
Do you know that each of these three underlying messages carry a heavy price for us as adults? And then we wonder how it is that we enter and entertain dysfunctional relationships with our partners, colleagues and friends. We marvel that a spouse can allow themselves to be battered and betrayed over and over again, or how an adult allows themselves to be humiliated by their friends or their children. Well, all of this bears root in the messages we receive around “being nice” as children.
Now, before you send me hate mail that I am advocating that you should NOT be nice, let me ask you to pause and reconsider your reaction. I am not in the slightest, even remotely, suggesting that we should NOT be nice. All I am saying is that we need to stop the robotization of the message to BE nice.
The core of this blog is that “niceness” can never come from a denial of our true feelings and sense of self. On the contrary, true niceness can only manifest when we are fully authentic to our feelings and sense of self.
What I see as the core problem with the message, “be nice” is this: a lack of appreciation for the sacred power of boundaries.
When we teach our children, especially our girls to be nice instead of self-aware – which means, self-directed, self-governed, self-boundaried – we teach them that it is more important to be in a relationship, no matter how dysfunctional, than it is to be true to oneself.
Let’s shift the focus away from niceties and superficialities of behavior and instead, teach our children this:
Engage with others from an authentic place
Know your boundaries and don’t allow anyone to cross over them
Respect the boundaries and freedoms of others
Not everyone is going to like you nor should they have to
You don’t need to be friends with everyone nor should you feel the need to
No one is defined by anyone or anything outside of oneself
Lying to one’s self for the sake of a relationship will ultimately end in dysfunction
Sometimes it is more important to be honest than “nice.”
If “nice” comes at the cost of authenticity, it is better to veer away from the relationship
Those who love you will allow you to be honest and authentic at all costs
So the next time your child comes home crying that her friend is mean to her which caused her to be mean back, don’t be quick to jump in and say, “be nice!” Instead, engage in a deeper discussion around what true friendship means, and more importantly, how this experience is a lesson about learning which friends are good for the soul and which damage the soul.
After all, those relationships that are good for the ego will always let us down in the end; but those that are good for our soul will stay eternal no matter how “not nice” we are…because they value the valor it takes to be honest more than any other virtue.
It is time to move away from robotic messages of convenience that we feed our children and instead, challenge ourselves to probe toward more inconvenient truths.
It takes a lot longer to teach our children how to honor boundaries and stay authentic than it does to parse out the phrase, “be nice.” However, at the end of the day, it is these teachings that will hold true to them in times of strife and change. It is here that they will remember their parents telling them to attune to their truth and follow it, knowing well that they can fly high and free from this inner foundation of authenticity, self-awareness and direction.