Why is “nice” the preferred morality term for all toddlers everywhere? I keep thinking that if some Martians walked onto any playground in America, they would gather that our greatest cultural value is niceness. Why else would we speak of it as our gold standard of behavior? Is nice really all we want our kids to be?
I’m becoming more and more aware of how often I use the word with August. He throws his food on the floor. “August, that’s not nice.” He’s freaks out and screams. “What’s the nice thing to do when you’re frustrated, buddy?” Why am I using such a vague word when I could be teaching him how compassion always trumps meanness, how sacrifice is more powerful than selfishness? Do I really want my son to be a person who does nice things or do I want him to be kind, to show love, to surrender his own comfort for the sake of another person? I would rather he grow up to be thoughtful and considerate, if perhaps a bit of a dissenter, than simply a man of agreement who is able to perform polite actions.
When I beg him to be nice I’m demonstrating in my disciplinary techniques the overarching false sweetness of our culture. Be pleasant! I’m saying. Don’t upset anyone! How often am I buying into likability and instructing August inadvertently in the false value of gaining approval at all costs?
This past weekend I had the joy of spending four hours on Saturday with a new friend and ten or so of her girlfriends for a birthday celebration. I had a wonderful time and it was so good to be in a situation where I was forced into conversations with really great women, most of whom are members of my new church.
As I sat around the table with these women, eating brunch following our amazingly awesome hip hop dance class, I had a revelation about most of my new San Francisco acquaintances: They are business women. This is significant. Throughout the past decade of my post-college adulthood, most of my friends have been academics: professors, researchers, thinkers, teachers, even artists. Or they were women in ministry. I have very few women of business in my life. This realization arrived as I stabbed my French toast, listening to conversations about profits and struggles with the personalities of colleagues and the general terminology of the financial world. Though we’d all been having hilarious conversations revolving around our lack of rhythm and failure to roll our hips according to the rules of hip hop, as soon as the conversation rotated into the world of industry, I thought, I don’t belong here.
I gave my answer. You, dear stay-at-home mother, know what it was. To which she responded, as if on cue: “Oh, that’s so nice that you can do that.”
Nice. I don’t blame her. I like this woman. I believe she was sincere. I believe she really does think it’s nice that I can stay home with August every day. And, honestly, wonderfully, it is nice. But why can’t it be so much more? Why does “that’s nice” need to be our culture’s go-to assessment of what we stay-at-home moms do all day?
I don’t have an answer. I just felt like complaining, which is exactly what I shouldn’t be doing on this fine Thankful Tuesday. So instead I’ll say this: I’m thankful today that my life with August is deeper and richer and more joyful than any easy explanation. So, next time you’re around me and hear me reproaching my son with the nice-word, remind me that if niceness is all there is, I’d better get a real job…