My 10-year-old daughter, Birdy, is not nice, not exactly. She is deeply kind, profoundly compassionate and, probably, the most ethical person I know — but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you’re telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punch line.As with so many problems, part of Ms. Newman's problem appears to have to do with faulty categorization. She seems to think that if you are polite and friendly in your interactions with people, that you won't be able to turn it off when people treat you badly. Thus, she seems to think that she needs to decide between encouraging her daughter to treat everyone with an unspoken "whatever" and encouraging her to eagerly accept bad treatment. However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding about what friendliness and manners consist of. Being friendly and polite does not mean being a doormat for bad behavior. It means being pleasant during normal and acceptable social interactions. When people behave badly to you, a whole other set of rules applies, with the correct response depending on whether the affront is a matter or rudeness (in which case one may make clear that the behavior is unacceptable, but one should try to do so within the bounds of politeness) or of actual threat (in which case the gloves are off.)
This makes her different from me. Sure, I spent the first half of the ’90s wearing a thrifted suede jacket that I had accessorized with a neon-green sticker across the back, expressing a somewhat negative attitude regarding the patriarchy (let’s just say it’s unprintable here). But even then, I smiled at everyone. Because I wanted everyone to like me. Everyone!
My mostly pleasant way might get me more freelance work. And friendliness tends to put people at ease — loved ones, neighbors, waitresses — which is a good thing. Plus, smiling probably makes me feel happier, according to all those studies about self-fulfilling emotional prophesies. I know that our sweet-hearted son, who is 13, has always had the experience of niceness being its own reward. What can I do to help? he asks. Please, take mine, he insists, and smiles, and everyone says, “Oh, aren’t you nice!” and “What a lovely young man!” ... But, if I can speak frankly here, you really don’t worry about boys being too nice, do you? He still has the power and privilege of masculinity on his side, so, as far as I’m concerned, the nicer the better.
Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.
I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice. I tell you this confessionally. Because do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.
That is, after all, why the traditional advice is "speak softly and carry a big stick", because if someone assaults you, you cease speaking softly and pound him with the big stick. To my knowledge, "surliness is the best defense" is not a similarly hallowed piece of advice.
However, rather than making this rather basic distinction, Ms. Newman instead decides that a defensive sullenness is the best approach to life. And yet, within her own piece she acknowledges that friendliness has been a tactic which has been both fulfilling and useful for both herself and her son.
The problem is, Ms. Newman is replacing one tactic dangerously simplistic social tactic (be accommodating towards everyone whether good or bad) with another (be sullen and standoffish towards everyone.) Neither of these will serve one well, and I'm not clear why girls in particular should be relegated to one or the other. Her son is apparently to be trusted to know when to be accommodating and when not to be. Why not her daughter?