Challenged to be nice

Once upon a time, students learned good manners from their parents. Now there are school programs to teach niceness in the hopes of preventing stereotyping, bullying and violence. The Washington Post reports on Challenge Day, a voluntary program at a Virginia high school:

Curriculums devoted to teaching children to be nice to each other are gaining popularity across the Washington area, under headings such as “ethics days,” “honor days” and “character education days.” In Virginia, schools are required to include a component aimed at producing “civic-minded students of high character,” and students in Maryland must perform 75 hours of community service to graduate. Dozens of District schools are rolling out programs on how to be a good person.

Although eye-rolling students tend to dismiss such efforts as “cheesy” or “touchy-feely,” the lessons imparted at Marshall yesterday seemed to resonate loudly and immediately. During an afternoon session, facilitators with wireless microphones tried to keep up with the teenagers coming forward to confess thoughts of suicide, abusive relationships, eating disorders, gang activity and family problems. One student revealed he was gay. Another warned her friends to stop drinking and driving because they were frightening and hurting her.

I’m puzzled by the lead example: A boy apologizes to his girlfriend’s friend for disliking her because of her high, whiny voice. But before Challenge Day, they always exchanged “fake smiles” in the hallway. Surely, faking niceness is good enough. Why should he have to like her?

About Joanne


  1. Teens have been apologizing like that for years:

    “I’m so sorry that the sound of your voice is grating to me.”

    Who knows how many of those “confessions” were real.

    Teen – “Today’s session really helped me. If it weren’t for today, I would just kill myself. (Walk off, laughing with friends.)”

    Facilitator – “We’ve helped someone today”.

    Teen (to friends) – “God, this is so whack! Let’s go ‘be nice’ to the math geeks.”
    “Yeah, ‘be nice’. Right.”

  2. It sounds far more rude to “apologize” for disliking someone’s voice than to repress it.
    “I’m sorry I don’t like you because you’re fat.” I don’t want to live in that world.

  3. David Pendracki says:

    To me, this is just another way in which we delude ourselves that government can take the place of parenting and culture in our children’s development as good persons.

    Growing up has always been tough. We have centuries or more experience in ways that we can make the passage from unformed child to a ‘good’ adult. What is so much better about legislating niceness rather than going with what has worked in the past?

  4. D. Cooper says:

    I’d question the effectiveness of these programs, and I’d place the blame/credit on the parents. Most nice kids have nice parents, and most nasty kids well .. you know. The schools obviously need to foster civility, but if it isn’t reinforced at home it becomes too often a lost cause.

    I like the idea of community service and many high school groups, clubs and athletic teams have become involved. That it become a graduation requirement I don’t know, but it can’t be too bad.

  5. if the parents don’t teach their children to be civil, it’s probably too late for the schools to to a decent job of it. (what D. Cooper said). And what happens when Janey goes home for the summer, after a school year of niceness-indoctrination, and lives with her three loud pushy brothers, and her mom who cusses, and her dad who yells at the television, and her aunt who is a rude driver? I’m guessing that the niceness doesn’t stick, because the meek usually don’t inherit the Earth in situations like that.

    And the simple fact is, you can’t make a law against being a jerk. Even in schools. The kids who want to be jerks will find a way around it, and it’s almost worse in an atmosphere where the “good” kids maybe feel prevented from standing up for themselves, or matching an insult with another insult (which, sometimes, you just have to do on the schoolyard).

    however, I also think there’s some value in not forcing people to be ‘fake nice’. Kids can learn pretty fast who’s a jerk and who’s a potential friend, and the jerks get shunned. Or at least in my fantasy world, that’s what would happen.

  6. In ricki’s example above, Janey has at least been exposed to a better way, and has a fighting chance at becoming a civil person. Some kids don’t ever have a good example set for them.

  7. High school is too late to teach “niceness”. The seeds of niceness have to be planted before age 5, IMO, for them to effectively take root.

  8. “And then he apologized.

    They hugged in the middle of Marshall’s auxiliary gym as about 100 students and 20 adults applauded and reached for tissues.”

    Am I to cynical to suggest that I woulda made something up about a bunch of girls just so we could get to the hugging part, were I still in school?

  9. Morals instruction has always been a part of the public school curriculum. We just call it something different now. I do quite a bit of basic manners instruction in my classroom, yes, with high school students. I don’t for a second believe they suddenly start using “please” and “thank you” with their friends, but at least they have a few good manners to draw on should they ever recognize the need.

  10. Oil is the lubricant that prevents two gears from rubbing together and damaging each other.

    Manners are the lubricants that prevent people from rubbing together and hurting each other.

    Manners don’t require honesty and truthfulness; merely a concern for others. Unnecessary, brutal, absolute honesty destroys relationships and individuals. Maturity means having learned when to be honest and when to use the white lie of social manners; this is a lesson that many boomers seem to have never mastered, and so obviously they’ve never been able to teach their children, either.

    How many Southern ladies are there out there who find it almost impossible to be rude to a stranger, no matter how rude or ill-mannered the behavior? Manners tend to be ingrained into us from the time we’re young, and they stick with you for life. “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” are such habits, I still use them to my elders, and I’m pushing 50. “Please” and “thank you” can open doors that loud, rude demands get slammed in your face.

    As grandma used to say, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

    ‘Course, I’ve always wondered what to do with the flies after I’ve caught them…….

  11. JimInNOVA says:

    Claire – I don’t know about flies, but I’ve always caught more southern ladies with honey. And y’all know there’s no lady like a southern lady. =D

  12. Sorry, Jim honey, but this lady’s already ‘caught’. Thanks most kindly, sir, for the almost-offer…