"Nice girls" are always calm, controlled, quiet . . . they never cause a ruckus, are never noisy, bossy, or aggressive, are not anxious and do not cause trouble.
—"A Cultural Model of Perfection
for Adolescent Girls"1#
Niceness is the opposite of spirituality. Niceness is, in fact, the opposite of what is required to build any genuine relationship—with God or with others. While niceness can smooth superficial human interactions, it is devastating to true intimacy.
Niceness requires putting away genuine feelings, avoiding conflict, swallowing hurts, denying pain, and being untruthful. Niceness requires self-denial and often self-forgetting. The nice person eventually forgets to notice how she really feels, even in extreme circumstances. The truly nice person doesn't even know when she's angry, and wouldn't admit to being angry if questioned. The nice person would never fight on her own behalf. Most often, nice people are not able to feel strong positive emotions either. Nice people are "calm, controlled, quiet."
Niceness is the opposite of what adults should be teaching adolescents. Yet it is a prime virtue taught to adolescent girls by mothers, teachers, and other adults who have internalized dominant cultural messages about "good" women: that they are self-sacrificing, nurturing, and never angry—that they are ultimately responsible for maintaining and protecting relationships. Girls, in fact, are taught to understand themselves in terms of the relationships of which they are a part. They learn that conflict (not-niceness) is a threat to relationships and selves, rather than that anger and other so-called negative feelings are natural human emotions that can be symptoms of relational problems.
Just at the time in their lives when girls are coming to know themselves as adults, just at the time when their awareness of what it means to be women is formed, they are often taught to be "nice" instead of to understand and deal with the complexity of adult emotional life. This usually means putting away their most important and real feelings, in favor of the kind of smiles and congeniality that will more likely win adult (and peer) approval.
True spirituality is about intimacy with God and others. This book is based in the testimony of over one hundred girls about their developing spiritualities within the context of a culture of niceness. Most of the girls in this study were very nice to me, the interviewer, but many also were courageous enough to break through niceness and to speak from their hearts about God, their families, their churches, their friends, and their relationships.
It is encouraging that most of these girls seem to see how expectations of niceness can be dangerous for them and for the development of real intimate relationships. But they also talk about the struggle to act in ways that are congruent with their true feelings when those feelings are negative or even just intense. More importantly for the adults in their lives, they talk about their need for models—especially for women—who will embody a spirituality and style of relating to others that reveals integrity between true emotions and actions. They talk about wanting and needing families and church communities that will expect them to live honestly instead of nicely. They talk about needing to be able to ask questions that are hard and challenging, and to be heard and answered. They talk about the hard areas of their own lives, their experiences (first- or second-hand) of violence and their developing sexualities. They talk about their experiences of financial and material need, and their expectations for the future.
I began this study with the idea that working with girls in a spiritual context would mean, first of all, helping girls to see the value in spirituality. I was surprised to find that most of the girls to whom I listened are already vitally interested in having a real relationship with God. And they are interested in worship, doctrine, and especially the ethical teaching of the church. But they wonder why adults do not address their issues of vital concern such as violence, financial problems, and sexuality. They wonder why, even when they risk asking the questions, they are ignored or given answers that are too easy. This book can be read as a plea from the girls to the adults in their lives and to the church to drop the niceness code—to listen to their sometimes difficult voices—and to move toward real relationships with them. It can also be read as an offering of gratitude for the times they have been heard and appreciated even when they weren't being nice. I am deeply indebted to these girls for their courage and willingness to talk with me. Their thoughtfulness and honesty are an inspiration to me, and I hope they will be so for others as well.
I am also indebted to many others who made this study possible: to Dean Robin Lovin and Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, for providing fellowships and time to travel and write; to Dr. Robert Armstrong and the Sam Taylor Fellowship Fund for the initial grant for the project; to Dr. James Lewis and the Louisville Institute for a summer stipend to conduct interviews about girls and worship; and to the Association of Theological Schools, Henry Luce III Fellows in Theology program for the fellowship which allowed completion of the final research and writing of the manuscript.
Thanks to others who have helped in many ways, including introducing me to the girls and allowing me to interview them in their churches and schools: Daniel Kincaid introduced me to girls at the Groton School; Headmaster William Clarkson allowed me to interview girls at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia; Christie Shdeed arranged for me to interview students at the Parish Day School in Dallas, Texas; Professor Millie Feske introduced me to girls at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Larry Cox and Kathleen Baskin introduced me to girls in Dallas, Texas; Tom and Terri Davis helped in Athens, Georgia; Susan and Jacqueline Petro helped in Atlanta, Georgia; Barbara Davis helped in Colorado. Professor Jeff introduced me to girls at Christ for the Nations College in Dallas, Texas; Bill and Peg Davis helped in Indianapolis, Indiana (and thanks, Mom, for reading an early manuscript); Sarah Megan Howery introduced me to some wonderful women's music, the lyrics of which serve as epigraphs for chapter 4; Elizabeth Gretz and Carol Adams were great encouragers and coaches; and Donna Yari helped with research on spirituality. Thanks to Michael West at Fortress for being such an astute (and humorous) guide through the publishing process.
I have much gratitude to the following churches for introducing me to girls and their parents: Westview Presbyterian and First United Methodist Churches of Longmont, Colorado; Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado; Church of the Crossing, Indianapolis, Indiana; Nuevo Esperanza and Greenland Hills United Methodist Churches in Dallas, Texas; First Presbyterian Church in Richardson, Texas; and Crest-Moore King United Methodist Church in Oak Cliff, Texas.
Finally, many thanks to my husband, Steve Howery, and my son, Tom—who lived with me through all the travels, tapes, transcripts, folders, writing, deadlines, etc. Your love, patience, and encouragement got me through my part of this effort!
- "A Cultural Model of Perfection for Adolescent Girls," from Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girl's Development (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), 61.