Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On Being "Nice"

I've been talking with my students about gender and social expectations, and what the differences are in advice that parents give girls rather than boys.  (This was prompted by the assigned reading of the brief but fascinating "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid.)

One of the things that came up in our discussion of the text (besides why girls are "sluts" and boys are "players") was the idea that girls/women are expected to be "nice" in a way that men are not.  That is, men who are not nice may be called aggressive, assertive, angry, authoritative, or commanding.  A woman who is not nice is called...  a bitch.  (My students came up with "bitch" with no hesitation and couldn't come up with any other terms for "not nice" women except "Maybe... bossy?")

So, feminist readings of literature aside, these discussions have got me thinking about the things I say to my daughter because one of the things I've caught myself saying lately as I redirect her behavior is "Don't do x, y, or z.  That's not nice."

Now it's true that kicking me while I'm changing her diaper, or smacking Cooper too roughly on the head, or attempting to BITE me when I drag her away from the bottle of stain spray she managed to reach on a shelf that I thought was too high for her in the laundry room--these are NOT NICE behaviors.  But I have to wonder... Would I use the same language if she were a boy?  And, even if I would tell my son that his behavior wasn't nice--does it matter?  Are we really supposed to be "nice" all the time?

The thing is, she absolutely should not be doing those things.  I do not want her to kick, hit, or bite me when I prevent her from playing with potentially dangerous items.  But I also don't want her to think that being "nice" is the standard of behavior.  "Nice" is just too emotionally loaded.  It implies feeling a certain way as well as behaving a certain way.  It's not just about being kind (although I certainly want to emphasize to Zuzu that it's important to be kind).  Being "nice" means something a little different.

Nice means behaving in a socially acceptable way, but I think also implies that your behavior is a direct correlation with the kind of person you are.  For adults, this may be true.  For toddlers, it's not true.  She's not being "mean" even when she tries to bite me.  She's maybe testing boundaries or expressing frustration, but her intention is not actually to cause me physical pain.

So I want to move beyond the issue of "nice" and all of the loaded connotations behind the word.  I notice in my own career that to be a "nice" professor is to be "easy"--to give good grades for minimal effort.  (In case you're wondering, I do NOT fit that definition of "nice").  More generally, to be "nice" is to always be friendly and pleasant, to never get angry, to never raise your voice, to always be polite.  These are not negative qualities.

But how far is that from never standing up for yourself or never disagreeing even if someone else is wrong or not holding students accountable for their failure to adequately prepare for an exam?  I just think it can be a slippery slope.  And I think the messages about niceness that I sent Zuzu are important.

In summary:  I want Zuzu to know that doesn't have to be "nice" all the time (It's okay to be really angry when Mommy takes away your awesome Oxyclean spray bottle!), but she DOES have to be non-violent and not inflict harm on living things.

So my new attempt at a solution is one that I borrowed from Bringing Up Bebe (a book I read shortly after she was born).  Instead of telling her to "be nice," I say, "You don't have the right to do x, y, or z."

It's not "nice" to kick a chair or bite a pillow or hit a stuffed animal, but I'd say she has the right to do those things if that's how she chooses to express her frustration.  It's only when her actions infringe on someone else's rights (ie. bodily harm for me or Cooper) that her behavior needs to be modified.  And that has nothing to do with being nice.

I suspect my students think I'm over thinking this, but as someone who (1) spends a lot of professional time thinking about the social messages that shape gender expectations and (2) believes that how you say something matters as much as what you say, I'm working really hard to change "That's not nice" to "You don't have the right."

Other parenting statements that I'm planning to purloin from the French for future use?

It's me who decides. (Instead of "Because I say so.)

I don't agree with your behavior. (Instead of "Stop that.")

Be wise and be gentle. (Instead of "Be good.")

Go into your room and do what you want.  (Instead of "Go to bed.")

Any gems you might add to that list of go-to parenting phrases that may not come intuitively?  Any potentially-sexist phrases you want to eliminate from your own vocabulary?


  1. One thing my dad taught me when dealing with young children was to use language in which directs them to acting appropriately and not using language that suggests what you rather them not do...

    So not, "don't touch the gate" "don't go into that room" "don't run ahead of me" "leave your sister alone". But rather, "hands off the gate" "stay in the living room" "walk with me and hold my hand" "find another person to play with". Etc. I'm sure these are no brainers and obvious word choices... But that's all I've got

  2. We seem to use the word "choice" a lot. "Are you making your best choice?" "Do you think that's the right choice for this moment?"

    I'm not sure that there's really anything right about that, I just notice that we do it. Sometimes she does something that she knows is wrong and then she gets even more wound up and belligerent because of it and it spirals out of control. When I notice it, I've found that voicing what she can't voice herself seems to help - it gives her a ladder down from the high branch she's stuck on. I'll say to her "Are you regretting that choice?" or "Do you wish you had made a better choice?" and she looks at me with such relief and relaxes. (Might be a little advanced for a 1.5 year old, but works well for 4.)

    I like "Be wise and be gentle." Maybe that's a little bit of what I'm trying to say to them as they learn to make their own choices and decisions along the way.

  3. I'm with you on selecting proper language to use with the children.

    With Benjamin, I TRY to use language that explains. Instead of telling him not to hit because it's "not nice" (which teaches him only ambiguity), I tell him that hitting hurts people. He needs to know why I chose to remove him from the situation or tell him NO.

    I try to keep things short bc I have flashbacks to many looooooongwinded lectures as a kid. Keep it short, sweet, and explanatory. Like you said, they are learning how the world works and how to test boundaries to most appeal to their cause(s).

    I don't want my son to be "nice" either and I'm not sure gender would or has made a difference in the parenting language I choose.

    It's scary how loaded our language is as parents, you know?

  4. I struggle with this daily. I find myself saying things I'd never thought I'd say, but there you go.
    I'm going to try the "it's me who decides" - that's a big issue with George right now, he wants to control everything (don't know where he got that from...).

  5. With my two year old, I have a much more "How can it hurt?" "Will it matter in ten years?" approach than I did with her two older siblings. I really wish I'd thought this way with my older daughter. I think she would've been more comfortable in her own skin and choices much earlier.

    This has led me to saying a lot of, "I understand that you're angry, but hitting hurts, and you are not allowed to hit. You are allowed to be angry. You are allowed to be sad. You are not allowed to hurt the kitten."

    I want her to know her emotions are legitimate reactions to situations - the kitty runs away from her because she hits and that makes her sad - but that channeling that into causing someone, like the kitten, pain, is not an acceptable reaction. And then I do take the time to explain - "You hurt the kitten when you hit her, and now she's scared of you. Try to pet her gently like this..."

    I am trying really hard to institute a more "Pet the kitten gently" "Hold the kitten like this" vs. "Don't hit" and "Stop holding the kitten".

    Frankly, I'm regretting my choice to get a kitten! Definitely not the best choice for us at that time. I would like to use that though- the choice approach. I think it would emphasize to her that she's making choices to act a certain way, and getting reactions based on her choices. These things aren't just happening to her.

  6. I say nice when talking to the boys. "We don't hit. That's not nice." But I never tell them it;s not nice to cry or be grumpy or all those other things. Just with the violence. I'm with you on the stuff from Bebe. I also try to stress the way their actions make others feel. "If you take your brother's toy, he'll feel sad," etc.

    But I actually DO want them to be nice because for me and my experience with preschoolers and now grade schoolers, they encounter not nice a lot-- saing mean things, shoving in line, leaving other kids out. I don;t want nay of my kids to act like that, and we talk a lot about being nice to friends and how we all feel when we're nice to each other.

  7. nursing while typing-- sorry for the terrible typos.

  8. One of the words E's daycare used to use was 'friendly.' They would emphasize friendly behaviour and how to be a friend. It's the same idea as a lot of the 'nice' business, but somehow doesn't carry the same baggage that 'nice' does, especially for girls; and I agree completely that 'nice' carries baggage - I remember very clearly having to be a 'nice' girl and not feeling 'nice' at all, feeling like 'nice' shoved me in a corner.

    I like the be wise and be gentle. That's good. I also like the question 'is that a good choice?'

    We've tried to make sure E knows that all her feelings are legitimate but some ways of expressing them aren't. We made a thing called the Mad Bag full of stuff she could do when she was really mad (instead of bite, hit or scratch me!). She really needed this for a while. It got to where I could just say 'should we get out the Mad Bag?' and the worst of the situation would immediately diffuse.

  9. I'm s long-time reader and rare commenter. I really like this post. Something that I make sure to do with my 19 month old daughter is aim teach her to be assertive but not aggressive. For example, if someone is doing something that she doesn't want right then, (ie: picking her up) I teach her to say "no thank you" instead of allowing it if she is not comfortable with it. I have always felt that little girls are taught to be WAY more affectionate than little boys (no one would think twice if a little boy refused all hugs and kisses). And while its very nice when my daughter runs up with a hug, I want it to be her choice and not because she feels pressure hug and kiss all of her relatives.

    I also try to assert that "No." can be a complete sentence sometimes. As she gets older I hope she can use it and not feel like she needs to justify every feeling and decision she makes. She is too young for that one right now, but those are some of my sexism battling ideas for my daughter. :)

  10. Love and Logic taught us to give lots of choices instead of saying "Stop _____," etc. And regarding the "be nice" thing, I always tell my boys to be KIND. I don't know if it seems different to you but it does to me.

  11. Also, I'm with Gina on the Love & Logic train. With kids, even the smallest choices give them the power they need ans us the power we need when the choices simply can't be made by them.

  12. I look hearing your take on this language question, and also all the responses and different ideas about how to talk to kids!

    We also talk about choices -- sometimes instead of "no," I'll say "that's not a choice right now" and follow with the things that are available choices. I also try to validate their feelings as much as possible. So when my 2 year old is tantrumming about something, I'll say "I can tell you feel ____ right now." Not sure it really gets through all the time, but I feel like I'm more in control when I have strategies to use.

    Also have to agree with Veronica that describing good/appropriate behavior is much better than just saying no. I hate feeling like my interactions with the kids are always negative, so love to avoid more no than absolutely necessary.

    I also don't want our assertive two year old to grow up hearing that she's bossy or all those other negative words, so we really try not to use them ourselves. She's assertive, she knows what she wants, she's decisive, she's a future leader... but she's not bossy or demanding.

  13. interesting. i do tend to say that a certain behavior is not "nice." but i was doing that instead of telling her that she was being "good" or "bad" because i didn't want her to get a complex.

    i do hate those social gender roles that a lot of people fall into. i dressed rainbow in her brother's clothes. i buy toys for her that are gender neutral or sometimes even "boy toys" because i want her to be ok playing with whatever she wants to play with.

    but, yes, the differences between how men and women are portrayed in society are glaring.

  14. I do say 'that's not nice' to my little guy A LOT. Especially now that we have the kitten and he seems to think it's hilarious to sit on him, drag him around by his tail, or hit him. I will definitely be taking some ideas from this post, because even as I say 'that's not nice' to him it grates on me like total load of ambiguity it is. Thank you for your suggestions! ~M