One of my kids recently played a role in a musical theater production that involved an onstage romantic relationship. That’s part of life as an actor, it was bound to happen sooner or later. And really, since she had already played a young pregnant woman at age 13, getting engaged at age 14 wasn’t nearly as challenging, well in theory.
The challenge was that she really didn’t like the young man cast as her love interest. Pictures of from the show give no hint of this. She was determined to act the part well, to be completely in love on stage, but off stage was a very different story.
As her mother, I was tempted more than once to encourage her to be nice to this boy. She mentioned having made it very clear to him that he was not to touch her in a romantic way when they were not on stage. She talked of letting him know that she Did Not like him at all. And I worried that she was hurting the boy’s feelings, that she was perhaps being a little too harsh.
Then I thought about the message being sent if she was told to “be nice.”
If she felt it necessary to draw very clear boundaries with this boy, which she did, that’s what she should do. If she had the confidence to stand up for herself and say, “No, you may not touch me!” that was a valuable life skill. If I said,”You should be nice. Be sure you aren’t hurting his feelings,” it could undermine her development of interpersonal skills that could keep her out of potentially dangerous situations or relationships in the future.
Even though this boy seemed very nice on stage, I had no way of knowing what he was like in real life. If my daughter said he was kind of a jerk then that was probably closer to the truth than what he seemed to be while playing a fictional character. This same thing can be true off stage as well. People can put on a character, seem very nice in public, and particularly put on their “nice face” when parents are around, and then turn around and be disrespectful, cruel, or even abusive, in private.
My daughter is generally a kind and empathetic person. She’s not mean for the fun of it, she is friends with a wide variety of people. That’s all the more reason I should support her in doing what she needs to do to feel comfortable in a situation where she’s being called on to act like she’s in love with someone she does not like.
Learning to set boundaries, saying no to people who are older and stronger, and being clear about what is or isn’t o.k. in any particular relationship are all life skills that I have struggled with. Because of some of my own experiences, I can see the harm that could come from being raised to “be nice,” avoid rocking the boat, keep feelings hidden with an ever present smile, avoid creating conflict, and to remember that the man in a relationship has the final say.
Sometimes when we need to say “This is not o.k. with me” it can come out sounding not very nice, but being nice is never more important than being safe. Setting boundaries, trusting our instincts, and being honest about how we are feeling are healthy things to do. We need to support our kids as they navigate relationships. Hopefully if our relationship with them is built on respect and honesty, as well as compassion, it will be easier for our kids to go out into the world and have relationships with other people based on this same foundation.
Unfortunately, many (most?) kids still grow up in families where might makes right, the adults use control and manipulation to get what they want from their children, and punishment follows any unwillingness to comply or conform to the adults’ expectations. Because of this our kids may find themselves negotiating relationships with other kids who feel the need for power or control, to make up for the lack of power and control they’ve felt growing up. Our kids will end up interacting with kids who have never had respectful relationships based on honesty and trust modeled for them. This means they may need say “No” a little more firmly, state their boundaries a little more clearly, or be what on the outside looks like “not very nice” in order to feel comfortable or safe.