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March 04, 2024

Ask women what core value they recall their families emphasizing as they were growing up. A majority are likely to say: be nice. It’s a message especially conveyed to girls. What does it mean to be nice? Children easily understand it to mean, Don’t make others uncomfortable by asserting yourself — your needs, thoughts, and feelings; people might not like what they hear.  

Be nice shapes girls to be people-pleasers. 

Chronic people-pleasers tend to prioritize the needs of others while minimizing their own. They are often reluctant to express their thoughts and feelings, going through life with a mask of agreeableness while suppressing their authenticity. Setting healthy boundaries can be difficult for people-pleasers for fear of disappointing or angering others, or being seen as selfish. And chronic people-pleasers tend to find themselves in problematic relationships, in particular attracting narcissists who thrive on being the recipient of most of the attention.  

Better to teach our kids the skill of assertiveness: expressing needs, thoughts and feelings without steamrolling over others — and in a way that makes room for others to assert themselves. A considerable body of research links the lack of assertiveness in adolescence to problems like increased social anxiety and low self-esteem.i Other research has found higher levels of assertiveness to be associated with reduced tendencies toward depression.ii 

Instead of niceness, parents should encourage asserting with kindness. Kindness rarely requires sacrificing our own needs and wants, or our authentic voice. Kindness is about being respectful and sensitive, living by the golden rule (“Do unto others…”) Ways to help children learn to assert themselves with kindness include: 

• Encourage children to identify and respectfully express their feelings, thoughts, and preferences. (Watch this mother challenge her son’s aggressive style while encouraging his honest expression.) 

• Allow kids to make age-appropriate choices and decisions so they build a sense of autonomy and confidence. 

• Model assertiveness and boundary-setting at home. Set an example of how to respectfully and sensitively express your needs, feelings and opinions. Say “no” in a way that’s firm but not aggressive or frightening. (Watch this mother assert herself with kindness.) 

• Stay open when your child respectfully challenges you — and appreciate them for it. (Watch this father appreciate his daughter’s assertiveness.) 

References & Citations

i Bijstra,J.O., Bosma,H.A.,& Jackson,S. (1994).The relationship between social skills and psycho-social functioning in early adolescence. Personality and Individual Differences,16,767–776.  

ii Bouhuys, A. L., Geerts, E., & Gordijn, M. C. (1999). Gender-specific mechanisms associated with outcome of depression: Perception of emotions, coping and interpersonal functioning. Psychiatry Research,85, 247-261.