When my daughter, Clementine, was in kindergarten, we were discussing the best way to handle a playground bully. I was giving her what I thought was good advice—figure out their insecurity and then mercilessly attack them about it—when she stopped me with a sigh and said, “Mom, I’m not like you. I like people.” And then she went on to handle the bully in her own way. It must have been an efficient way, because she never mentioned the bully again, and it must have also been a nice way, because I never got a call from either the teacher or an irate parent.
While I was happy that she managed to solve her own problem, I was also a little bit sad, too, because this whole “liking people” thing meant that my child would never know the joy that comes from reducing your enemy to an emotional puddle in front of you, never know the thrill of walking away from an argument symbolically picking scraps of your opponent’s flesh out from between your teeth. Never know what it feels like to “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” *stares off dreamily* Oh yes, where was I? Anyway, I was upset because it seemed to me at the time that this meant that Clementine would never get to experience the particularly brutal joy of watching your words melt skin from bone. And then, over the next few years I realized that my first analysis of the situation hadn’t been strictly accurate, and that there was at least one person in this world who would always be able to feel the venom of her cruel words. One person who would get to experience having their insecurities held before them and mocked, one person who was deserving of the harshest attacks and the most unrelenting fury.
Joy. Imagine for a second that you have raised an attack dog from a puppy. Taught it to always go for the jugular, taught it never to forgive the smallest slight, taught it to guard itself vigilantly and brutally. Now imagine that this dog grows up to attack absolutely nobody but you, and you have a slight inkling of how I feel.
Look, I know it’s not really cool to compare a child to a Rottweiler, but the truth is that sometimes it’s a tough world out there, and knowing when and how to stand up for yourself is an invaluable skill. I’m not talking about taking on muggers in a dark alley here: I’m talking about getting out of a two year service contract with a crappy internet provider. Do you really, really not want to pay that late fee? Well, then, sometimes you have to show your teeth and growl a little bit.
There are definitely times when being nice is your best option; immediately after you get pulled over, for instance. Or when you’re standing in the customs line at an airport. (Basically, any time you’re dealing with someone who has the power to authorize a full cavity search, niceness is always your best—and sometimes your only—option.) But other times nice will only get you sent to the back of the line.
It’s telling that I don’t have this fear of niceness with Clementine’s brother—and not because he has the killer instinct she seems to lack. (Oddly enough, he has that whole “liking people” problem, too.) Maybe I’m just too aware of how the feminine tendency to “make nice” can be a handicap as often as it is helpful. And so, I suppose, I should be happy to find out that Clementine has the ability to turn hers off and on at will.
Just so long as she imagines that the person she is dealing with is me.