With two boys age four and under, I find myself barking this order a lot. My oldest son wants his brother’s food: “Be nice!” The boys fight over a toy: “Be nice!” My four year-old demands a cup of milk: “Can you please ask me more nicely?” This is what I say, day in and day out, like a broken record. Be nice, all the day long.
At least, I used to.
We live in a culture that values niceness at a premium. Many of us are willing to overlook significant faults and moral failures in a person we deem to be “nice.” As a result of this high value, many of us feel pressure to be likeable all the time. We want to please everyone, and we feel insecure when we can’t. On the flip side, many of us like to be known as a “nice Christian,” which is why we embrace the label for ourselves, and then pass it on to our kids.
That’s what I was doing. I wanted my sons to be nice Christian kids, which doesn’t sound so bad. Until I realized something: the word “nice” is nowhere in the Bible. It’s not a virtue. It’s not a fruit of faith. It’s never even mentioned in passing. Words like “kind” and “kindness” occur nearly fifty times, and “kind” and “good” are fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). But “nice”? Nowhere to be found. And all of that got me wondering: what’s the difference between nice and kind?
In his book Love Kindness, Barry H. Corey draws this distinction in a helpful way:
“Whereas aggression has a firm center and hard edges, niceness has soft edges and a spongy center. Niceness may be pleasant, but it lacks conviction. It has no soul. Niceness trims its sails to prevailing cultural winds and wanders aimlessly, standing for nothing and thereby falling for everything.”
Kindness, on the other hand, has “a firm center with soft edges.” Kindness has conviction. It has courage. It has a solid backbone. And those are precisely the components necessary to endure in love, even when we are rejected and mistreated. Niceness, on the other hand, buckles in the face of conflict. It retreats from the prospect of adversity. Kindness doesn’t revel in those things, but it does have the fortitude to persevere in love, in spite of them.
Another key difference between niceness and kindness is focus. Very often, niceness is motivated by self. Niceness is the desire to be liked and thought well of, whereas kindness is motivated by Christ. True kindness honors people as an act of love for God, while niceness is fueled by reputation. That’s why niceness is more vulnerable to bitterness and disillusionment. In the face of mistreatment, niceness transforms into shock and indignation: “How could they treat me like that? I was so nice to them!” Kindness, on the hand, endures in love, because it was never about being liked in the first place. It was about honoring God.
When I imagine my sons growing up into men, I don’t necessarily want them to be nice, but I do want them to be kind. I want them to bear all the fruit of the Spirit, like goodness, gentleness, and patience. That’s why I no longer tell my boys to “be nice,” but I do challenge them to be kind. Yet even in that, I am learning to be careful with my words. The fruit of the Spirit is just that—a fruit of the Spirit. All the best parenting in the world cannot instill my boys with the Spirit of God. I can only pray for it, model it, and teach them what it means to follow Jesus.
We do tell our boys to “be kind.” We teach them to share, to put others before themselves, and to return mistreatment with grace. But more importantly, we pray together that Jesus will change their hearts. It’s hard for any human being to be kind and good—let alone a rowdy four year-old!—so we are teaching our boys to ask Jesus for help. As a parent, it’s nice to know we can always turn to God to do the heavy lifting of molding our kids. I can teach my kids to be kind, but it’s the Holy Spirit that produces it.
Want to learn more about the fruit of the Spirit with your kids? Sign up for the Minno 5 Minute Family Devotional to join our Fruit of the Spirit plan, starting in February! Sign up here.