Mandatory niceness

Barry Rubin’s 10-year-old son, an anthropologist studying fourth-grade American classrooms, reports on the friendship worksheet.

The guidance counselor said: “The point of this is when you are sad then you look at the page and you feel better because this person thinks those nice things about you.”

My son, bless him, replied, “Of course the person is going to say nice things because it’s a project.”

The teacher paired off students and assigned them to praise each other.  The worksheet supplied 28 adjectives “ranging from kind and dependable through funny and nice.” Under predicates, students could choose from 14 items including “is nice,” “cares about others,” “has good ideas,” and “is a good sport.”

There is a choice at the end to write in something but the direction is foreclosed because one alternative begins with “is good at ___” and the other “is great at ____.”

. . . Finally, comes a “friendship sentence” to be written using the words chosen above. In my son’s case, he received the following: “You are a good and nice friend who is kind and learns quickly.”

This took thirty minutes of class time.

Niceness also prevails on the playing fields of affluent communities, Rubin adds. Boys don’t play hard, yet they’re showered with praise. 

The coach and parents keep telling the kids how well they are doing, how every play they are making is terrific. My son mimics this with an exaggerated: “Isn’t that great!”

In Israel, where the Rubins lived before moving to Maryland, coaches yell and kids play to win.

About Joanne


  1. Don Bemont says:

    I remember the self esteem movement from early in my teaching career, maybe 1980 or so, and the proponents were always wonderful people who just didn’t really get it.

    Everyone gets an award. No one gets a bad grade. First prize goes to everyone.

    It never occurs to such people that, if everyone gets an award, no one gets a meaningful award.

    It also never occurs to such people that kids are not stupid, and it doesn’t take them long to figure out that the praise, the gold star, the whatever has become absolutely meaningless… or even perhaps a subtle message that you are pathetic and need phony praise.

    However, I have also come to realize that this misguided philosophy rises out of a very real problem.

    A huge percentage of our population is floundering emotionally, and many such people present as feeling worthless. Since objectively speaking they are not at all worthless, it makes intuitive sense to find ways to have them told they have worth. And I would suggest that the self esteem methods are, at least a notch preferable to the “diagnose as bi-polar and medicate” school of thought.

    Societal change keeps taking us further from the sorts of things that traditionally led to well adjusted kids. There may be a good adaptation in the current mix of technology and economy, but, if so, it is well hidden from most American families, and so, at least around here, hurting parents are raising seriously hurting kids.

    I’d like to say that the solution to a lack of self esteem is to insist that the kids accomplish something, so then they will feel good about themselves… But then, when you personally know individuals facing serious doubts about self worth, you know how extremely difficult that can be, even for an adult.

  2. Yeah, Your son’s comment was so honest and I think very true.

    What student wants to turn an easy A into an F by writing “Charlie is good at being a Jack_ _ _.”

    I agree that these types of activities are important, but I think they are limited in their effectiveness. The consistent examples children see and the reinforcement they get on a day to day basis are more realistic in making lasting changes.

  3. I’m refraining from commenting on the artfulness of the techniques described 🙂 But I do remember reading a book by a modern moral philosopher suggesting that people can learn ethical behavior by faking it at first. Sorry, I don’t remember his name but I believe he had a french name.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    “You’ll learn that in Somerset (school) that the class is your family and you respect each other.”

    Funny little statement, that. When I was a kid, I always thought my, you know, family was my family.

  5. When my kids insult each other (You’re so stupid! Jerk! Shut up!), I make them issue a compliment to the offended party (Your shirt is a nice color.). I tell them it doesn’t matter if they were “just joking” — it never feels good to be called stupid, and it doesn’t matter if the compliment is fake, we all smiled, and cheap smiles are still smiles.

    Does a couple things: cuts down on the insults and changes the environment of the room a bit. They think it is ridiculous, but it works for my purposes.

    There’s research that says that even if your facial expression is fake, your brain picks up the faked emotion. Forcing yourself to smile can actually make you happy for a few minutes.

  6. Yes I agree, behaviorist theory would back this up. There is some research on how much it takes to undo a negative comment. The ratio is 3 positives for every negative. That is how powerful a negative comment can be. Great idea Lightly Seasoned!

  7. Ha! I remember a somewhat similar project from back when I was in second grade. (I’m now 36, so this was some time ago.) We had to write down a nice statement about every person in our class, and then the teacher compiled them and handed them out to each kid. (There were only 13 kids in my grade, so this wasn’t too much of a burden.)

    This is one of my few vivid memories of grade school, because almost all of mine were: “She’s tall.”

    Good times!

  8. Barry Rubin says:

    Thank you for publishing and discussing my article. Please note that I am only on sabbatical in Maryland.

  9. Well the class sounds like an improvement over letting school kids bully each other and dismiss everyone who is different as worthless.
    And I think that the ability to find something good in other people is always worthwhile. I favour being able to judge and to recognise faults, but there is always the risk that you can get carried away with recognising the faults, and never the virtues. And the people who do that not only hurt others, but it always strikes me that they’re miserable themselves.

  10. Margo/Mom says:

    I guess I am with those who 1) don’t see the harm; and 2) recognized that learning to do something involves some clunky and staged events in order to get it right and integrate it into behavior. Self-esteem is a tricky thing–simply because there have been so many over-simplifications and parodies that just got it wrong. The hand out a star for every effort interpretation is one such. Certainly we all need some unconditional acceptance in our lives (some estimate as many as six adults). My archetype is the grandmother–that person who can honestly believe that you are the best child that God has ever set on this green earth, and to believe that same thing about as many individual grandchildren as there are.

    I recall that when I spent years as a camp counselor–in very close contact with a group of kids over a period of one-two weeks (seemingly and endless lifetime at times), it was not unusual to have ONE kid who just got under my skin and annoyed the life out of me. I recall the advice of someone more seasoned that a basic survival skill was to identify at least one thing about that child that I needed or appreciated. It’s a very valuable skill, and it does in fact improve the atmosphere of being able (as Katherine Hepburn put it) to put up with one another.

  11. But what if the kid being called a jerk IS a jerk? Having a colorful shirt doesn’t make up for acting badly.

  12. No offense, Kate, but sometime YOU are a jerk. We all are. That doesn’t make it constructive to sit around calling each other jerks. Better to interrupt the cycle, even, again, if it is fakey-fakey, then to devolve into namecalling (and if you’re a jerk sometimes, you can imagine how often it happens in a room full of ED 15-year-old boys). But, believe it or not, it shuts down the behavior fairly effectively.

  13. I’ll take a wild guess, that no one in the Rubins’ current community have been beaten to death recently by other students on the way to school.

    The class exercises sound silly, and a waste of class time. Once would be fine, but an entire curriculum built around such activities wouldn’t hold much interest. Rubin’s objecting to the emphasis on niceness, though, which is rather a different objection.

  14. >>coaches yell and kids play to win.<<

    My favorite line in the whole story. As it should be.

  15. >>coaches yell and kids play to win.<<

    My favorite line in the whole story. As it should be.

    Kids playing to win, sure; coaches yelling at kids, nope, unless they know that’s how to motivate those specific kids they’re yelling at. If they don’t, then those coaches are abusive idiots who have no business being around kids.

  16. In a noisy environment, which is common in sports, you have to yell to be heard.

  17. At my 13 year old’s open house at the start of the school year I asked the history teacher what she was looking for from the kids this year. She very enthusiastically said that she is looking to emphasize respect, kindness and compassion, going into a fair amount of detail about it. I want to say, “soooooo, you’ll teach him how to be a decent person and I’ll make sure he knows when the civil war happened?”

  18. KateC – how many people ony have one facet to their personalities as to only be a jerk?
    Perhaps the guidance counsellor was trying to get the students to think in a slightly more complex way about people than the worldview of Saturday morning cartoons. I think it’s a good thing to be able to identify jerkiness when it happens, but it’s only a start at analysing another person’s character, if that’s all a kid can do, what’s so bad about pushing them to look for a positive aspect in someone else? Just like while I think that being able to count is very important, schools should also move past counting and into such higher-order skills as addition and multiplation.

    Rebeccat, the history teacher in question does sound like she was putting too much weight on respect, kindness and compassion relative to history. On the other hand, if teachers ignore how students treat each other in class, well, there are many students will treat each other horribly, perhaps because their parents failed to teach them how to behave well, perhaps for some other reason. School staff who take on some of the responsibilities that a number of parents abdicate, or are not capable of enforcing at school, have my admiration. Plus, well my mother, who is an ex-teacher, always says that you can’t protect children from bullying one-on-one, but by a coordinated effort amongst school staff (not just teachers) you can change the school culture and thus reduce and almost elminate bullying. And that’s something for the sake of the bullied kids.

  19. rebeccat,

    Just going by the wording you used, you might have gotten more of what you wanted if you asked what the teacher was going to teach.


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