This goes against everything I’ve ever been taught.
Do not teach your kids to be nice.
Before you begin sending me hate email, assuming that I’m somehow advocating that you should teach your kids to be narcissistic jerks, let me ask you something:
- Do you want your kids to have healthy relationships? (on their end at least)
- Do you want your kids to have relationships that aren’t one-sided, one’s where they don’t get taken advantage of?
- Do you want you kids to get out of life what they want because they practice the art of good communication?
- Do you want your kids to be a doormat to the schoolyard bully?
- Do you want your kids, especially daughters, to have a strong, independent backbone, not having to rely on someone else to dictate their future for them?
I don’t want my daughters to get taken advantage of, and I want them to learn to communicate what they want in life, instead of being afraid to speak up because of social conditioning that taught them to “be nice.”
I want them to be classy and lady-like, similar to their great-grandmother, but I also want them to be tough and know how to change a car tire, if need be.
Lord knows most young men (the Starbucks-drinking-bearded-hipster-types) don’t know how to do these things.
There’s something to be said for nice kids, but there’s also plenty to be said for not raising kids who become doormats to people who knowingly hurt them.
The question I ask myself is this: Am I raising my daughters to give away their cookies, their lunch, their homework to the schoolyard tyrant? Or, am I raising my daughters to be ninja-like in their pursuit of openness, vulnerability, and even radical candor, as Kim Scott calls it.
Lets first define what being nice is and the detriments to it.
What does it mean to be nice?
First, “be nice” is one of the most common phrases we say to our kids, especially little ones.
It comes out of our mouth without thinking, like a gut reaction to our fear that little Tommy or Tammy will grow up to be unscrupulous and cruel.
If we are brutally honest with ourselves, when we teach our kids to “be nice” it implies: “do whatever it takes to keep the peace,” or “don’t ruffle feathers,” or “don’t be so darn assertive, vociferous, opinionated and loud.”
On a deeper level it carries the mandate to “give up something about yourself or your belongings even though you don’t want to.”
Girls, especially, are given a heavy dosage of “be sweet” because being sweet and nice is lady-like.
But what does this really mean?
It usually means “stuff your feelings down inside, swallow them hard, and just smile even though you want to scream.”
Let’s talk about the deeper meaning of these mandates we pass onto our children. Being nice means:
- Deny, avoid and distract yourself from your true feelings.
- Avoid conflict and find a compromise at all costs.
- Don’t be assertive, instead find a way to get along with the other person even though that person is a narcissistic fool who wants to use and abuse you.
In my experience, especially in business, what I’ve found is this: the core problem with the message of “be nice” is a lack of appreciation for the sacred power of boundaries and vulnerability, even though by being open and vulnerable it will hurt someone’s feelings.
When I do this as a dad, teaching my daughters to be nice instead of emotionally self-aware, I teach them that it’s more important to be in a one-sided and dysfunctional relationship, personal or professional, no matter the damage it does to them.
That’s what it means to “be nice.”
What’s it mean to be kind? (the difference between being nice and kind)
Being “kind” isn’t the same as being “nice.”
Don’t confuse the two. You can still be kind, while tackling conflict and being direct with people.
Kindness is rooted in empathy and acceptance.
When I was younger, I thought kindness meant being nice to other people and making them happy.
What life has taught me is that kindness starts with yourself and kindness starts at home. It means treating yourself as you would anyone else you care about. We usually talk about and hear about kindness in relation to other people, but kindness towards yourself is just as important.
You might have heard the sentiment you can’t love other people until you can love yourself. While I don’t believe this is 100% true, I think how you treat and talk to yourself becomes the foundation from which you approach other relationships. Kindness isn’t only about how you treat other people, it’s about extending the same intentions to our yourself too.
Being kind does not always look like being ‘nice.’ Having a ‘pleasant disposition’ does not mean always making other people happy. Some of the happiest looking people I know are completely and utterly miserable on the inside. Sometimes kindness means disappointing other people because you have to say “no” and disappoint them.
Kindness is based on your own values and worldviews, while niceness is how how other people see you.
Kindness is difficult. Sometimes being kind means saying “no.” One of the most common situations in which this is the case involves the line between kindness and enabling.
For example, if someone keeps asking for money but spends it on drugs, alcohol, or by racking up unnecessary debt, it’s kinder to refuse to lend them more money and instead look for other ways to support them rather than to keep enabling them. It might be nicer (and feel more comfortable) in the short-term to lend or give them more money, but that’s not helping them in the long-term (and it’s probably not helping you either).
If someone is struggling with unhealthy behaviors or patterns, sometimes it is kinder to let them face the consequences of their actions than to keep enabling them to continue.
The same principle applies to your relationship with yourself. There’s a subtle but important difference between self-care and self-indulgence. Self-care rarely looks pretty or feels comfortable in the moment. Sometimes kindness means telling yourself to get out of bed and go to the gym, even though it’s cold, raining and you’d much rather stay in bed and veg out in front of Netflix.
True kindness can be tough, and it might leave you feeling less than kind. But even when you say no to yourself or others, you can do so from a place of love and compassion.
That’s because kindness is rooted in empathy and acceptance.
Teach this instead of being nice.
The focus needs to change from creating a false sense of harmony by “being nice”, as Patrick Lencioni calls it, and instead teach our kids 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. (family included)
- You are not defined by others, your actions, or your mistakes.
- Lying to yourself for the sake of a relationship will ultimately end in dysfunction.
- Sometimes it is more important to be honest than “nice” even if it means someone will end up crying because their feelings got hurt.
- 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.
The next time little Tommy or Tammy comes home bemoaning the fact that their bestie was mean to them, which caused her to be mean back, don’t be quick to jump in and say, “be nice!”
Instead, engage in a deeper conversation 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.
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 vulnerable over any other virtue.
It is time to move away from robotic messages of convenience that we feed our kids 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. It is here that they will remember their parents telling them to attune to the truth and follow it, all based on a foundation of authenticity, self-awareness and direction.
So, the next time little Tommy or Tammy comes home (whether your kids are little or teens like mine) bemoaning the fact that their bff was mean to them, avoid saying “be nice.”
Instead, engage in a deeper conversation around what healthy relationships are, and more importantly, how their experience is a lesson about learning which friends are good for them and which are not.