Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Should We Teach Our Girls Not To Be Nice?

A couple weeks ago I ran into this NY Times column on parenting which struck a very discordant note in my mental ear. The author announces that her daughter isn't "nice", and he's trying to make sure she stays that way.
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.

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.
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.)

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?


August said...

Anti-patriarchy silliness simply descends into lawlessness. Instead of being loved and protected by the father types- you know, the 'lame' ones- she'll be preyed upon be the dangerous types. And the 'preying' may well be mutual.

MrsDarwin said...

It seems to me that the strong likelihood is not so much that this young lady will have to worry about being "protected by the father types" vs "preyed on by the dangerous types", but that her rudeness and basic lack of social skills will pretty much alienate everyone. Giving your child a free pass to be surly because she's just a girl has nothing to do with instilling strength in your daughter, because surliness doesn't actually have anything to do with strength. This is surely one of the sillier deliberate parenting tactics I've run across.

Jenny said...

"Her son is apparently to be trusted to know when to be accommodating and when not to be. Why not her daughter? "

Well her son has the patriarchy going for him. Eyeroll.

I wonder how much thought has gone into this philosophy. I would expect that every parent worries about raising polite and gracious children who are not doormats. Maybe not.

I have a cousin who subscribes to this philosophy for herself. You have to earn her smile! She does not owe it to you! You will be shocked to learn she is still single in her mid-30s.

mandamum said...

It seems this might be an overextension of the idea expressed in "Protecting the Gift" by Gavin de Becker, to the effect that we shouldn't pressure our kids to "give Grandma a kiss!" even when they are clearly uncomfortable with the interaction. We can ask kids to be polite (and by the way, wouldn't polite in a "please help me with my rainboots" way extend to a polite wrapping on the "whatever" response to strangers?) without asking them to put up with unwelcome physical interaction. Maybe the problem is that she extends "unwelcome = rude or threatening" to "unwelcome = I didn't invite it" and extends "my space, in which I am entitled to be safe, and which I am entitled not to have invaded" to some sort of aural, visual "did you just talk to me? Do I know you??" sort of space?

I think the author may catch herself about to mouth an oversimplified "Be nice" instead of actually talking to her daughter about *how* to be polite in a "whatever" situation, and *how* to assertively but politely deal with rudeness, so she opts for the easy course: just don't say the oversimplified, but don't replace it with anything. And then pats herself on the back for doing the first half of the right thing? As though half of a well-built bridge will get you over a canyon....

mrsdarwin said...

Again, though, Mother here is making a false equivalence. Nice does not equal polite, nor does polite equal nice. I know plenty of nice people who are not really polite, and several polite people who are not really nice. I'd far rather be around the latter than the former. Politeness is simply the art of acceptable social behavior, the oil on the wheels of interaction.

Also, the young lady might find to her dismay one day that although she may not have the time for those who don't interest her, that one day someone she would like to know better may have witnessed her own self-absorption and may decline to be interested in her on that account.