Just be nice. Nope – this phrase doesn’t work for me anymore. I used to think to be nice, polite, kind, were the most important character traits to have. And they are important to have as part of our entire personality repertoires. But when we teach our kids to be ‘nice’ at any cost – especially our girls – we can accidentally create kids that don’t know how to speak up, assert themselves, or ask for what they need.
I remember running a therapy group for teen girls who, unfortunately, had developed pretty intense eating disorders. As the girls grew more comfortable with each other, one of them said: “Holy crap! We are a group of really, really, nice girls!!” And they were. Ok. Now I’m not saying there is a direct correlation between being nice and developing an eating disorder. BUT the girls that I saw in my private practice (where I did specialize with girls with eating disorders) did, sadly, demonstrate a set of similar traits: being exceptionally nice; appearing as ‘perfect’ and seemingly ‘put-together’; highly academic; nurturing towards others; conflict avoiders and… had a hard time voicing their needs – for fear of hurting someone. This is backwards in so many ways. We have to become competent and confident with our own emotions before we can take care of others (see my article “Uber Feelers” for more details on this).
Another very curious pattern that I began to notice working with teen girls, was the automatic, almost instinctive, need to apologize for everything. Huge red flags, in my eyes. I began to assign homework: note how many times you say sorry in any given day. All of my teen clients would come back amazed by how many times they had apologized during a 24hr span. Sometimes when others bumped into them or apologizing for just BEING sometimes. This also stems from those mixed messages very early on – be your own person, but make sure you are also being nice as you do it.
Anger, as an example, is a very authentic emotion that we have to express. We have to raise our voices at times, slam a door, be irrationally and unreasonable once in a while. Not all the time, or in an abusive way (that would be another issue!). But sometimes necessary, nonetheless. I feel as a society, we really don’t embrace the ‘anger’ part of our emotions. I love the movie “Inside Out” where they emphasized that we have to feel ALL emotions – not just the pleasant or happy ones. Life throws us curveballs and only being competent with ‘happy’ emotions does not provide us the resiliency, grit, and perseverance that other, less pleasant emotions can teach us. Shifting our beliefs on the importance of ALL emotions obviously requires an entire cultural change and of course, time. However, we do have access to our own kids and can begin to think about this – one child at a time.
If we can teach our kids to be caring, nurturing and nice as well as teaching them to know what they feel, what they want to do… taking themselves into considering in combination with others…then we have a beautiful balance. Expressing anger, frustrations, disappointments – cannot be ignored. So please, when you catch yourself saying to your child ‘just be nice’ try to pause, and see if this is for your comfort, your own need to avoid conflict or to not wanting to ruffle/upset someone… and see what is in the best interest of your child’s brain development, and future emotional expression needs. To really anchor my point: Picture your daughter with a real jerk of a boyfriend, or vice versa <insert imagination here>. Does that motivate you to unteach ‘just be nice’?