Learning to be nice is a life lesson

“But, mommy, we always have to be NICE!” This from my 12-year-old, who has one of the most pleasant, easy-to-get-along-with personalities I know. Why the complaint?

We are talking about the merits and drawbacks of going to a small school. Yes, she concedes, it is great to know everyone in the school. Students even know most of the parents (who, naturally, are more inclined to hang around the schoolyard because they know a few people, and then get to know even more). The students spend their days with a few dozen children for as many as 10 years (in a K-8 school). They get to know all the teachers and staff, and vice versa.

All sounds good to me. If everyone knows everyone else in a community-be it a small town, a sports team, or a small school-people tend to behave more responsibly. They are modivated to be accountable for their actions and behaviour, and possibly to think of the community’s collective concerns instead of just their own.

But then there is the complaint from my daughter about the mandatory niceness requirement. Apparently she’s not permitted to just have a grumpy day. She’s got to swallow hard and be cheerful even when she’s feeling cranky. I suppose that is a drawback.

I encourage her to think about the benefits. Doesn’t she benefit by attending a cheerful, upbeat school? Isn’t it good that other students will be hauled up on the mat if they make snide remarks or behave selfishly? Without the relative anonymity of a large school, students can’t get away with leaving others out or being mean. Students, therefore, learn to behave – and everyone benefits.

Most schools, large and small, encourage all students to be respectful and inclusive in their interactions. I’ve often heard teachers use the phrase, “You don’t have to be friends, as long as you’re friendly.”

A child who can actually learn to embrace that message will be better placed to flourish in today’s workplace, where a reputation for being a team player and getting along with others goes a long way. Part of growing up is learning to be polite, even to people you might not know well or people you don’t actually like all that much but have to work with.
I contend that children can learn that lesson better in a small school because someone is sure to take them to task if they don’t.

Going a step farther, however, students in a small school might more easily learn to be not just polite, but actually accepting of others’ faults. I advise my daughter to remember the lesson of Jerry Seinfeld. Yes, folks, in a faraway era I wasted many brain cells watching the Jerry Seinfeld comedy show. I used to shake my head that Jerry would put up with his friend George.

Remember George? He was forever embarrassing his friends with his inanities. Why, I wondered, did they put up with him?

On reflection, many years later, I realized that the Seinfeld show was like real life, at least in the following sense: Friends are rarely perfect, and we would do well in life not to reject friends when we discover their imperfections (which we all have, of course).

I try to encourage my daughter to accept, enjoy, and appreciate her friends and classmates, even when they drive her a little crazy once in a while.

And that is the lesson that Jerry Seinfeld taught.


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