Mad, Trying to "Be Nice"

Although there are many times when "being nice" helps a situation along, as an overall strategy for living it involves too much hiding and giving up, and not enough closeness. Both we and our children deserve more.

The first time I heard a parent admonishing a small child to "be nice" I was struck by the phrase. What, exactly does it mean? Talk in a pleasant voice, i.e., one without traces of whine, anger, petulance or sarcasm, and one that's not too loud. Don't push to have your way when it looks like somebody else won't like it. Notice how other people are feeling (even if it's not ""nice") and play a role that makes things go smoother.

Now, this is a very useful set of skills to have. There will be many times in the course of our lives when "being nice" is clearly the appropriate way to go. But as an admonishment to a small child on how to approach life, it's quite a mouthful.

It almost sounds to me like "hide." Hide what you want. Hide how you feel. Hide the intensity of your passions. For goodness sake, don't let anyone see what really goes on for you. Again, it can be useful to have the ability to hide. But is this what we want from our children? Is this the level of relationship we want to have?

I think the clincher for me is that, as an overall strategy for living, it doesn't work very well. I don't remember my parents telling me that I should "be nice", but that was certainly the behavior that was expected in my family, and I learned it well. My parents rarely raised their voices, hardly ever gave any outward indication of being mad, never fought. But I could tell. They tried their very best to hide it, but I knew they were mad. And the fact that it was never spoken, never referred to, but clearly there, made it even harder to deal with.

Let's face it. We all get mad. None of us feel "nice" all the time. It's there. The people around us see it. Even though we cover it over and try to be "nice", the mad leaks out. And the effort we put into trying to hide what's really going on only ends up putting a distance between us and other people.

What if we saved "being nice" for those particular situations where it would really make a big difference, but recognized its limitations and abandoned it as the ultimate personality trait? What could we offer up in its place, both for ourselves and for our children?

The thing that popped right into my mind was "being close." I think it's more universal. I can't think of any situation in which I wouldn't want to have a sense of connection with other human beings, whether I was choosing to make things go well, or choosing to show my anger, or anything else in between.

Our goal with our children, in that case, would be to encourage them to show what's really going on for them--the excitements, the wonders, the love, and the frustrations, disappointments and anger. The more they show us, the more we get of them, and the closer we get to be. And maybe what we learn with our children we can translate into our other relationships, and reap the rewards of even more human contact. It's not as simple as requiring our loud, angry (wonderful) children to "be nice", but it's got to be much more rewarding.