109. Being Nice

I used to be chronically nice. If that phrase sounds comical to you, I think it’s because niceness is considered a positive quality, and “chronically” usually precedes something negative – pathological. But throughout my life – even during the time of the popular “me” focus (Is that entirely over yet?) – I’ve found it difficult to remember that I have needs, wants, and priorities. Sometimes I would do something “nice” – donate some important item, time, or energy – and later wonder where it was, and why I didn’t have it. And that kind of “niceness,” in my opinion, goes well with the word “chronically.”
Over the years, I’ve met many children with this problem. They volunteered to help clean up messes that weren’t theirs, gave away things that were special to them, let secretly coveted privileges be given away to other children. They did get lots of appreciation, and maybe the good feeling that comes with knowing you’ve helped, but I always wondered whether they were going to wake up one morning feeling cheated.
We all have a sometimes unfortunate tendency to attribute our issues to children. Each time I made a tentative diagnosis of chronic niceness in a child, I worked to make sure I wasn’t projecting my own problem on to the child. For some children, niceness is a top priority item, more important than possessions, time, or fun. For some reason, they want to be nice. And really, how long can you argue with that?
But sometimes there is an unwritten, unspoken, and unconscious contract: If I am nice to people, then at some point, people will be nice to me. It’s often true. There’s a human tendency to be grateful, and reciprocate. But if that tendency is the motivation for unselfishness, there may be trouble ahead.
Sometimes, a child is unselfish because of low self-esteem: Let me help you, because that’s the only way I can even be close to worthwhile. When I’ve worked to help a child with this mindset to become more assertive, the child may have been thinking, now I can’t even do the only thing I do reliably well – give.
You probably know some children who are kind, thoughtful – nice. It’s not really bad to be that way, but I think it helps to check things out. When things in general are difficult, it’s easy to forget about the needs of the people who seem to be saying, “It’s all right. My needs aren’t important.” But they shouldn’t always finish last.

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