Being nice should be just that – nice. Growing up, we’re taught that if you’re nice, good things and people will come to you and you will ultimately be rewarded. But throughout my life, there have been several instances where being the “nice” one kept me from getting what I wanted and being perceived the way I wanted. It’s gotten to the point where I consciously make an effort to leave this descriptor out when asked how I define myself. Giving “nice” a negative connotation is problematic, and it’s an issue that I believe stems from how we treat young girls.
It started back in elementary school. Even then, I wanted to be liked by the adults in my life, and craved their respect more than anything else. I relished being the mature, “wise beyond her years” child amongst my peers. But being “nice” led to me being paired with the same student with special needs for square dancing 3 out of the 5 years, and being cast as Uranus in our 4th grade show about the planets (something that I still joke about to this day). Any time something like this occurred, my teachers followed it up by pulling me aside and saying, “I knew you could handle this.” So I swallowed my embarrassment and frustration, and ultimately was left walking away with a less enjoyable experience than my friends.
Now as an adult who works with children, I understand that there’s always going to be situations where a child has to be shortchanged. And yes, it is immensely easier to choose the kind, mature, and well-behaved child to take on that role. But what message is that sending to them? The one that came across to me was that being nice and responsible is something that seems to get you punished.
The curse of being nice came back again in college during my training as an actor. It became a constant note from casting directors and teachers that I was just “nice” – I wasn’t bold, or wild, or interesting. But as I watched fellow classmates be praised for being, what appeared to me, somewhat disrespectful and obnoxious, I realized: what’s wrong with being nice? I love being nice. I want people to regard me as a kind, reliable, sensitive, and considerate friend, employee, or otherwise. And I think the majority of parents would agree, these are the characteristics they hope their children will grow up to have. These – among other qualities, of course – are what we need to embody to have stronger, healthier relationships and a more successful, peaceful society.
But we cannot expect the future generation to lead with these values if we are constantly inadvertently punishing them for it and taking advantage of such kindness. During my time as an ABA therapist working with children with autism, I experienced several opportunities to implement this approach, and I can say with confidence – it’s easier said than done. It is surely simpler to rely on these good-hearted, mature children to befriend the classmate that is “different,” or take on the assignment that no other child wants. It’s difficult for children (and even some adults) to embrace the unusual and uncomfortable. But we as educators, parents, and role models must start with small steps to ensure that we’re not sending the wrong messages about what will and won’t be rewarded.
I want to add that this is not a problem exclusive to girls; surely, we need to employ this attitude with young boys as well. However, I feel it is a more prevalent issue with girls as it is traditionally expected that they be more well-behaved, quiet, and sweet. I also think it’s crucial to acknowledge that this outlook comes from a place of privilege, as children with disabilities, and/or from different ethnic, racial, or class backgrounds may encounter even greater isolation and “punishment” for things entirely out of their control.
Our first step to solving this dilemma is actually recognizing that this can be a habit amongst those who work with children, and that it’s one we need to consciously attempt to break. Rather than rewarding the nice girl by simply letting her know “she can handle it,” reward her through action next time it comes to choosing who gets the short end of the stick.