I’m Teaching My Daughter To Be Respectful But Not Nice

By Laura Mullin

PHOTO © NatalyaBodrova/Twenty20

Feb 23, 2022

I’m a nice person.

You can tell because I say nice things like “please” and “thank you.” Sometimes I even put smiley faces in emails or use exclamation points in texts to demonstrate just how darn friendly I am! :)

And I’m raising a nice daughter.

She is kind and — mostly — polite. She says and does many nice things that make this mother proud. It’s important to raise generous and thoughtful people who are considerate of others, especially in these divisive times.

But lately, I’ve grown concerned about raising a “nice girl.” Being nice doesn’t mean being a good person. Sometimes it's a way of not rocking the boat, a means of avoiding confrontation, a reluctance to stand up for your own needs.

Katharine Chan is giving her daughter the choice to pierce her ears, since she wasn't granted the same when she was a child.

Too Nice for Pizza

I notice it in big and small ways with my teen daughter and her friends. The way they speak quietly when ordering in restaurants. How they’re hesitant to talk to a teacher about a disputed mark. Or when they don’t speak up when they’re angry at each other.

Recently my daughter had some girls at our home for a sleepover. As always, I offered to order the staple of slumber parties: pizza. I waited for their usual hesitation. “I’ll have some if everyone else wants some,” is their standard reply.

"I couldn’t help being struck by how rare it is to hear a young woman articulate what she wants."

And I know what these girls are doing. They’re being nice. They don’t want to put me out or declare hunger or do anything to stand out from the crowd. But this time, there was a new girl in the mix. And to my surprise, she didn’t hold back. She spoke right away and said yes, she wants pizza. Then one by one, the other girls admitted they were hungry.

It was just a call for pizza, but I couldn’t help being struck by how rare it is to hear a young woman articulate what she wants. Especially to someone she doesn’t know. And it reminded me of being that age — when you’re old enough to realize that people expect girls to be polite and sweet and helpful. And not falling into line with those preconceived notions can get you labelled as difficult, a mean girl or something that rhymes with a witch.

As a grown woman I’m very aware of how I’m coming off in my interactions with other people. I go out of my way to signal that I’m easy going. I am not a threat. And while I truly believe being positive and friendly is the best way to interact with others, it can come at the price of not being heard.

Teaching girls to be nice can backfire.

Quentin Janes' daughter is an only child, so he sees it as his duty to be her best friend as well as her parent.

Moving Past Pleasant

The way I see it, when we train girls to be nice, what we’re really doing is asking them to please others. To make themselves likeable. To subvert their own needs and desires for someone else. I’m guilty of it myself, but it's not a legacy I wish to pass on. I’ve decided to change course by emphasizing being respectful and kind over being nice.

"I’m encouraging my daughter to be assertive."

Instead of focusing on being pleasant, I’m encouraging my daughter to be assertive. To feel she can speak up for what she wants, express her opinions and not be afraid to point out when someone is wrong. In the future, I want her to say no to a partner who doesn’t treat her with respect. I want her to feel comfortable expressing her opinions with colleagues in meetings. I want her to feel confident going after jobs she’s qualified for and not be afraid of being ambitious.

Because let’s face it, being nice doesn't get girls anywhere. It won’t help them develop their voice, stand up for their rights, keep them safe or assist them in achieving the life they desire.

There is nothing that is as nice as living the life you want to live. We should be nice for all the right reasons, as fulfilled human beings travelling a life path of our own choosing.

Because only when you are happy and fulfilled can you nurture that in others.

Laura Mullin

Read more from Laura here.

Laura Mullin is a published playwright and writer and the co-artistic director of the award-winning company, Expect Theatre. She is also the co-host and producer of PlayME, a podcast that transforms plays into audio dramas now on CBC. She has worked in theatre, film, and television and lives in Toronto with her writer/producer husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @expectlaura.

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