Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Should we stop telling girls to be nice?

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Should we stop telling girls to 'be nice'? Photo / Thinkstock
Should we stop telling girls to 'be nice'? Photo / Thinkstock

There's been some fuss recently about a New York Times piece called "I do not want my daughter to be nice".

Catherine Newman, who writes a parenting blog, agonises over the fact she is a "radical, card-carrying feminist", yet still feels a deep-seated need for people to like her. Any people:

"...not only friends and family but also my son's orthodontist, the barista who rolls his eyes while I fumble apologetically through my wallet, and the ex-boyfriend who cheated on me."

Newman's daughter, inversely, is "decisive and no-nonsense". 10-year-old Birdy is kind and generous, but doesn't "smile or encourage" strangers, least of all the sleazy man in the hardware store who tells her she's pretty. There's no inherent need in Birdy to charm, or to convey sweetness:

"She is a beautiful kid," Newman writes, "but she is also sure and determined in a way that is not exactly pretty. Which is fine, because God help me if that girl ends up smiling through her entire life as if she is waitressing or pole-dancing or apologizing for some vague but enormous infraction, like the very fact of her own existence."

I like Newman. I like that she's opted out of the idea that little girls should be demure and well-behaved, while "boys will be boys" as they truck around messily having the time of their lives. "I bite my tongue so that I won't hiss at her to be nice," she writes.

When and if I have a daughter, I also want her to know she owes no one anything. Not a thing. Not the man who comments unsolicited on her appearance when she's little, like Birdy, nor the entitled guy on the street ten years later who doesn't get she's not public property.

Most of all, I want her to know she can and should stand her ground without being less of a "girl", because the two aren't mutually exclusive. Women who assert themselves - at work, in personal relationships - raise eyebrows, elicit mutters of "Bitch", or "Ball breaker".

Well, so be it. Rather that, than the disease to please: a largely female affliction whereby personal needs are suppressed for external approval. It's just not worth it. As men already know, because no one taught them otherwise as boys.

"I want my daughter to be tough," Newman says, "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."

She's right: it's energy wasted. Let's teach little girls that forced smiles and fruitless foraging for validation get you precisely nowhere. And that "Well-behaved women seldom make history", as someone once said. I hope that someone had a daughter.

Do you think we should stop teaching girls to be "nice"? What approach have you taken with your own daughter/s?

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