Stop Telling Kids To Be Nice
Now I know you are thinking, um, aren’t you the chick who tells us all that kindness will make our brains and bodies smarter and healthier and you don’t want us to tell our kids to be nice?
Yes and I’ll tell you why…
What does nice mean? We tell kids to be nice all the time. Hitting your brother? Be nice. Not sharing toys? Be nice. Won’t clean up? Be nice and helpful. It sounds good, but to be honest, that is usually about how deep it goes. Surface.
Nice is asking someone to conform to society’s norms. It’s when you kid keeps taking the other kid’s toy in the sandbox and YOU feel embarrassed and horrified by your kid not sharing and all you want your kiddo to do is share because that is what we should do, share and be NICE and keep the other moms around the sandbox from judging you and your kid as hogger of all sandbox toys.
Nice is asking your kid to act the way society wants us to act which is tricky cause those rules are constantly changing or depend on situation and what you think is nice might not be nice to someone else. Nice asks your child to think of themselves first and how their behavior reflects upon how they look to the world, not thinking about how their behavior affects others.
Nice stems from fear. Fear of embarrassment, fear of not being accepted, fear of losing out or not getting along or not being included. Nothing positive will ever come out of doing something out of fear.
Don’t believe me? How many stories have you heard when a girl found herself in some kind of trouble or was taken advantage of because she thought she should go along with what someone else said to do because she was “the nice girl” or someone doesn’t live their truth because they thought they should “be nice” and then because they have carried the weight of not being who they truly are for so long and having to keep up a farce, they crumble into some kind of breakdown.
Think about when you have been “nice” to someone because it was easier than being honest or avoid a confrontation which helped you out because you didn’t have to deal with it, but did it help the other person? Or you speak your truth?
Nice can be manipulative. Nice is Eddie Haskell. Remember him? If not, that’s ok I am dating myself. He was a character on an old show called, Leave It To Beaver. He was the next door neighbor kid who always said the right thing to win favor over the Beaver’s mom so he could get his way. He was always nice and complementary, but it had an ulterior motive. Nice is getting what you want in the moment by changing your behavior. Nice is fake and fleeting. Nice is saying or doing something to gain favor over someone else. Nice is sugar coating something to get passed it or not have to deal with it. A temporary solution to an issue.
How many times have you told your kiddos to “be nice” only to have them turn around and do it again? Nice is a band-aid. It looks pretty and cleans things up in the moment, it may temporarily stop the bleeding, but the wound is still there. It doesn’t heal anything or teach anyone not to do the wound causing action again.
How do you stop wound causing behavior? How do you teach your child to think of other’s first instead of being manipulative or not standing in their truth? Teach your kids to be KIND instead of NICE. Now, I know what you may be thinking. That’s just semantics.
It’s really not when you think about it. Kindness is caring about someone else and how they feel and then making a choice about what to do about the situation to help the other person. Nice is caring about what we get out the situation (out of trouble, out of mom’s yell path, out of a sticky situation, out of conflict) without much thought to the other person.
I think what we mean often when we say “be nice” is actually choose kindness. In niceness, you are upholding societal views which is why someone can say something nice to you but it feels hollow. It is only words. Kindness is an action. It is taking a concerted effort to choose to do something for somebody else.
Kindness also allows you to stay in your own truth and focuses on a place of love instead of fear. Kindness allows you to disagree or tell someone something they may not want to hear, but in a way that tries to connect the humanness that you understand where they are coming from, but that it doesn’t align with who you are and that is ok. Being nice is simply saying what someone else wants to hear or what you think you should say to conform to a norm but may not be the truth.
Kindness comes from within and is not determined by what is happening on the outside. Kindness is striving to connect and make a situation better for someone else first instead of ourselves.
Kindness is also what strengthens neural connections in our brains.
So how do you teach kindness over just being nice?
First, slow down.
When you feel the urge to say “be nice” be mindful of that moment. That is the moment you need to slow down and have a discussion with your kiddo. Take the time to explain how their behavior is affecting those around you.
Take your sandbox kiddo. When he/she isn’t sharing and you have the urge to say “be nice”, that may be the moment to have your child look at the other child and notice that kid’s emotional state by saying something like, “When you took that toy away from Suzy, how do you think that made her feel? Look at her face, can you tell how she may be feeling?” Taking a moment to have a discussion about how your child’s behavior affected someone else and then having them take a beat in their behavior to acknowledge how it is affecting others is truly what we want our kids to do independently. But before they altruistically just start thinking of other’s first, we have to practice.
Also, allowing them to come up with solutions is imperative. If you simply said “be nice”, “give it back” you have taken away the opportunity for the child to choose a path to kind and to problem solve. Asking the child how they could be kind and what that looks like to them gives them the practice they need in righting wrongs, thinking of others and raising the awareness of social and emotional connections.
Second, proactive practice is key
If you only address kindness in the moment when your child is being unkind, you will be forever chasing the dream of raising kind kids. Kindness needs to be a muscle that is strengthened everyday so that when your child is in a situation that requires a choice of kindness, they automatically reach for it since that is the neural pathway that has been wired to fire most often. Setting up daily acts of kindness that you actively discuss and model is key. While we as parents often do a myriad of kind things for others all day long, we sometimes forget to point out the kindness in our acts either because it is so second nature or we don’t want to seem braggy and boasting. Pointing out your own acts of kindness and noticing the kind acts of others isn’t bragging or boastful however it is teaching your child to look for kind in others and themselves and that they should be proud of the kindnesses they enact.
If you know your child has an area of kindness that needs to be strengthened, discuss it with them in a quiet moment before they may encounter that situation again to help them proactively choose kind over the non-desired behavior the next time a situation arises.
Think of our sandbox kiddo. On the way to the park/playdate the next time, have a discussion and role play the whole scenario out. Ask the kiddo what a kind response would be if he/she wants Suzy’s toy but she is still playing with it. It also may be a good idea to role play at home and when your child is playing with something take it away and then when they have a reaction of “hey that’s mine or hey I was playing with that” model a kind way to return it or problem solve how you both could play with it. Also be sure to ask your child how they are feeling in that moment of role reversal and point out that is how other’s feel when you take things away from them.
Third, acknowledge kindness in your kid.
We expect our kids to be kind all the time. When they aren’t, we are often sure to point it out, but are equal in our acknowledgment of when they are? I am not saying that kids need to be praised for every kind act they perform. In fact, I am saying we need to go deeper than praise...to acknowledgment and recognition. Praising is surface like nice. It’s empty and fleeting. It is the what you did, not why you did it. It is the process, not the product. Acknowledgment is letting the other person know you recognized their efforts AND how their efforts made a postive impact on you. Acknlowedgement opens the door between two people to allow for an emotional connection and understanding. It supports and promotes comapassion and empathy. It strengthens the acts and thoughts of kindness.
Showing your child gratitude in kindness will in turn help your child to be more grateful and aware of kindness extended to them. And isn’t having grateful and kind kids the goal?
Kindness is like a boomerang. When you slow down, practice, strengthen and acknowledge the kindness and throw it out into the world it will come back to you in the kindness you want to see in your kids that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Truly kind, not just nice kids, makes for a truly better world.