Why we need to stop teaching girls to be nice

I’m trying to teach my daughters the difference between being nice and being good, but how do I teach them to stand up for themselves and not be jerks?
Two sisters taking a walk holding hands, one is wearing a bumblebee wings

Photo: Courtesy of Kerry Clare

My children have enormous heads. Once, when my eldest daughter was a baby, I brought her into a walk-in clinic and the doctor pulled out a tape measure and wanted to schedule an MRI. I would have been concerned, but our cranial family tree indicates a precedent for heads that are, as someone once said, “like Sputnik.” So we buy our kids hats in adult sizes—it’s no big deal. We wouldn’t think anything of it, if not for random weirdos making comments on the street.

By now, I can see it coming. She is usually a woman, shuffling down the sidewalk, and she stops to look at my beautiful girls. “Your daughters are very smart,” she says. The first few times I was flattered because my girls are smart—maybe she had overheard their precocious conversations, extensive vocabularies and excellent sense of humour. But then…

“Big brains,” the woman continues. “Such big brains in such big heads.” She is smiling, and I’m smiling back at her because this is what nice people do. It’s the very definition of civility, but it’s also profoundly wrong. I’m smiling while this woman insults two people whose dignity—and heads—I’m responsible for. And falling into the trap of politeness is a terrible example to set for my daughters.

Not that I am particularly polite. Or nice, obviously (reread the first line of this piece). But while “goodness” is an ongoing project, I feel it’s super important that my children know how goodness is distinct from niceness. This isn’t a virtue they’re required to perform, especially to strangers who make personal comments on the street.

Nice is synonymous with likeable: Nice behaviour is pleasant and meets with others’ approval. It’s possible to seem nice and be demonstrably cruel at the same time. Likeability is also a fickle measure to gauge one’s worth.

I want to cut out the chapter from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, where she powerfully argues that we need to stop teaching our daughters to be likeable, and stick it up on my fridge. Instead of being likeable or nice, Adichie writes, we should teach our daughters to be honest and kind: “Tell her that she, too, deserves the kindness of others. Teach her to stand up for what is hers. Tell her that if anything ever makes her uncomfortable, to speak up, to say it, to shout.”

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s a good lesson for any child, though less pressing for sons, who often seem to possess an admirable knowledge of their entitlement to take up space in the world—or perhaps it’s simply that boys are less urged toward niceness. But I want my daughters to have that knowledge, too, which brings the freedom to be difficult, to complicate things and to not worry about smiling politely, dressing appropriately or staying within that narrow tone of voice that is permissible for a woman speaking in public.

“You are not here to please other people,” I tell my daughters. “I put you on this earth to be yourselves.”

But here is the trick: How do we teach our children to eschew likeability yet still be decent human beings? To stand up for themselves but to look out for other people, too? While we aren’t here to please other people, we should take care of one another. It’s the second part of Adichie’s suggestion: “Teach them to be kind.”

But I worry that this leaves me where I started, teaching my daughters—as so many daughters have been taught—that they are responsible for other people’s comfort. It seems that the difference between kindness and niceness is a detail I’m still working out for myself.

It helped to read R.J. Palacio’s bestselling middle-grade novel, Wonder, whose underlying message is the power of kindness. But what was most salient to me was the strength and courage of the main character’s parents. Sending a child into the world is an act of faith for anyone, but for Auggie’s mother and father, that faith is monumental. Auggie was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by severe facial deformities. When the novel begins, he is about to enter school for the first time. Later in the story, Auggie’s mother explains to him the ideas underlining her faith. “There are always going to be jerks in the world,” she says. “But I really believe, and Daddy really believes, that there are more good people on this earth than bad people, and the good people watch out for each other and take care of each other.”

It’s the sort of thing everyone hopes for when they send their children off to school: the kid who sits down beside your child in the lunchroom, the one who dares to intervene in incidents of bullying, the child who watches out at recess for anyone who looks lonely and possesses the emotional intelligence and moral courage to invite that other child to join in.

Fortunately, parents can do more than cross their fingers to ensure that good people exist; they can raise them. In her 2016 book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Michele Borba writes that the moral strength that enables a young person to stand up for a bullied peer indicates increased chances of success and happiness. Parents play a vital role in instilling these qualities by modelling, expecting, guiding, explaining and reinforcing kindness and moral responsibility and celebrating their children’s strengths and accomplishments in these areas.

“A moral identity shapes our children’s character and the people they become,” explains Borba, “and is a significant piece of raising empathetic children and helping them thrive.” Moral identity is also character—that old-fashioned quality once defined by Joan Didion as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.” It’s here where I realize that teaching my children to take care of other people and to stand up for themselves are not incompatible. Accepting responsibility for one’s own life means following Adichie’s dictum “to speak up, to say it, to shout” if something is wrong or uncomfortable, which is how you become one of the good people taking care of others instead of one of the jerks. Accepting responsibility means knowing this is a choice, but it’s also how you learn to look out for yourself. Part of character is learning to treat yourself with the kindness you wish to see in the world.

Parenthood has forced me to figure out things I might otherwise still be grappling with. Children raise the stakes. There are two small girls standing beside me now, being insulted by a stranger on the street who is making comments about big brains—girls for whom I am their main example of how to be a grown-up woman—so I have no choice but to know the difference between nice and good.

Two girls playing on a see-saw, teaching girls to be nice

Photo: Courtesy of Kerry Clare

I have to act like I know what to do in this kind of situation. I take my daughters’ hands and lead them away from the stranger, delivering full-on side-eye and not caring remotely if we seem rude. We hold our big heads high. We shrug. We laugh. “Remember,” I tell them, “you don’t have to be nice to everyone.”

One day, I’ll even be quick enough to call back over my shoulder and say “I’m trying to teach my children kindness, and you’re really not helping the cause.” But maybe that is exactly what that woman is doing, in spite of herself, after all.

Read more:
How to talk to girls: 8 ways to improve your daughter’s self-esteem
How to raise a feminist
Kids and kindness: Can you teach compassion?

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