Why I never tell my children to be nice

Spend a little time on a playground, in a classroom or anywhere there are small children and you’ll hear one phrase repeated over and over again by the adults charged with their care.

Two preschoolers engaged in a tug-of-war over a coveted toy? “Be nice,” their teacher tells them as she pries those little sausage-fingers away from their object of mutual desire.

Little brother grabs a handful of big sister’s hair in a fit of rage? “No, sir! Be nice to your sister,” his mother tells him.

Kids screaming in the backseat of the car because somebody did something to somebody else? Parents yell, “Stop it and be nice to each other, for crying out loud!”

Some version of these scenarios take place at least a dozen times a day in our house, but you’ll never hear me tell my kids to be nice. It’s not because I’m not engaged in the pursuit of shaping their little minds and hearts. In fact, it’s precisely for that reason that I never tell them to be nice.

Instead you’ll hear me say this: “Be kind.”

You might find the difference between being nice and being kind just a game of semantics, but I don’t. There’s a very real difference, an important one that has a profound impact on the way I parent and the way I behave, too.

Here’s the definition (from my handy computer dictionary) of nice:

nice |nīs|

adjective

1 pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory

Pleasant, agreeable and satisfactory: all good things, if you ask me. But the definition of nice and the real-world connotation that goes along with it is this- just make it look good on the outside. Nice doesn’t get to the heart of the matter; it’s only concerned with the outward appearance of things. When I see a mom in the grocery store pull her kid aside with a firm grip on the child’s arm and whisper in his ear, “Be nice” through clenched teeth, what I really hear her saying is, “Don’t you dare embarrass me in public.”

Being kind is different than being nice.

 kind 2 |kīnd|

adjective

having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature;

affectionate; loving.

Kindness requires more than an outward act, a publicly acceptable way of being; it is the outward-facing result of a heart centered on love. Kindness isn’t dependent on what people think of you; it’s dependent on the state of your heart. Being nice requires that you bend and mold yourself to whatever the people you are with believe is nice, whatever is acceptable to them. Nice is the public mask we put on to be whoever people want us to be.

Here’s a couple of real life examples that distinguishes the subtle difference between the two.

I was out with a friend recently, and she noticed a group of women who were dressed and behaving in a certain way that prompted my friend to make assumptions about the sexual orientation of these women. She muttered a disparaging remark about them, but she said it only loud enough for me to hear.

If one of these ladies had approached us and began talking with us, would my friend have been nice to her? Absolutely, because she was taught a certain way of behaving in public. Was she kind to these women? Most certainly not.

A few weeks ago, Avery came home from school and told me that there was a new girl in her class. Her teacher told me later that Avery had been so sweet to this little girl- showing her where to put her backpack, introducing her to friends on the playground. I told Avery that I was so proud of the way she treated this little girl with kindness. Being nice would have been simply not offending this new girl, not excluding her from playing with her friends, not taking the toy that she wanted to play with. Kindness, however, necessitated that Avery think about what she might feel like if she had been the new girl and show her the love that she hoped someone else might extend if the situation had been reversed.

I’m not teaching my children to be pleasant, agreeable and satisfactory. In fact, I think kindness often looks very different than what is agreeable and pleasant. When there is a bully on the playground and one child is harming another, “being nice” is what keeps everyone standing on the sidelines doing nothing. If our kids were taught that the goal of their behavior is to be acceptable to others, then what happens when they’re in a difficult position and it’s impossible to please everyone? They do nothing. They aren’t equipped to handle it.

The compass pointing us toward right behavior can’t be other people’s expectations; it must be the love for others that we have in our hearts. I don’t desire for my children to acquiesce to right behavior simply because they recognize that I am more powerful than they are. I desire for them to choose the right things because their hearts are bent towards love and compassion for others. The only way their hearts bend toward those things are if mine are bent toward those things and I model it for them every single day.

So, here are the things I tell my kids (and myself) over and over again.

Be kind

Be gentle

Be honest

Personally, I don’t struggle with that last one. Honesty flows through me like a river that I can’t control most of the time. But, honesty outside of love is almost useless. I’ve learned that the hard way; that’s why kindness and gentleness come first on our list.

My children see me in a real struggle to meet these expectations, and I am transparent about this. A few weeks ago, I was driving behind someone as we went through a roundabout. It is my personal conviction that people need some schooling in the rules of roundabouts, but we’ll leave that for another day. I complained loudly and said something about the dummy in front of us who doesn’t know how to drive.

Avery immediately said to me, “Mommy that is not kind for you to say that.”

I pushed back, “Well some people do act like dummies, and if you’re going to be on the road you need to learn how to drive.”

“Well, maybe it is their first day driving and they aren’t good at it yet. You still shouldn’t say that, Mom.”

I was pretty sure this was no student driver, but I knew that she was right nonetheless. I told her that she was right and that what I had said was not kind. I know a lot of people would never allow their child to correct them. Their child should be nice, exhibit a behavior that is acceptable to them as parents, yet the rules for their own behavior are dramatically different.

In our house, we are all struggling towards the same ideals. We fail and we try again. We help each other to be better. We remind each other:

 

Photo courtesy of Sydney Marie Photography

Photo courtesy of Sydney Marie Photography

 

I often feel that I’m the one in this family that has the farthest to go in attaining these ideals. I just keep trying anyway.

Comments

  1. Paula R. says

    Hello, this post was shared with me by a friend at work. It is such a profound piece, and I can’t help but share it on Facebook. This explanation is the best one, yet, that I have seen explaining the subtle differences between being kind and being nice. As I read your post, I kept thinking about myself and how I think I am a nice person…it is truly a mask when you really reflect on it. I used that word to differentiate between being a mean person, which I don’t think I am. Thank you again for sharing. I will keep the differences in mind, especially when I try to correct my students as well as in my interactions with others.

  2. Heather says

    Love it, Courtney! The explanation of what the difference between nice and kind really hit home – this is something I want to incorporate in my own parenting after reading it. And your last line about you being the one who has the farthest to go, just remember the idea of radical acceptance – you accept how you are today, as you are, but know that you can always improve to be better. I love reading your posts and your insights on parenting and life in general. Keep it up!

  3. says

    So good! I am totally going to steal your three phrases. Another friend told me that they adopted the word, “Honor” into their vocabulary for the same reason. They are not just trying to be nice. They are honoring people, not just appeasing them. They esteem them because God cares about them, not just to avoid an argument.

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