by Marisa Ragonese

Oh, niceness. The basis of so many religions. The fundamental lesson of kindergartens across the US. The peace and good will towards man thing that’s especially popular this time of year. It’s a big hit across the ages and across the board.

It could be because I’m a little bit of a grinchy/hater and/or an activist at heart—it’s celestial (I’m an Aquarius! Scorpio rising)—but the focus on being good has always rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve always thought it’s not enough. This vague “niceness” as the bottom line, the whole idea that teaching kindness more, and more effectively to children, will fix the big problems in society, I’m sorry/not sorry: it is totally unrealistic. The way I see it, of course it’s good to teach children to be kind, but lots of our laws and morals and especially our media have been teaching us for hundreds of years that whole categories of people (women, people of color, indigenous people, non-Christians, etc.) don’t matter much; it’s a little late for gender/race/identity-neutral niceness. It’s just not going to cut it. However, pushing back works wonders. So it’s high time to move beyond the realm of being nice, and finally tackle oppression in the classroom, don’t you think?

I’m not the only one who’s wondered about how effective it is to preach and teach niceness as a strategy for social change. Researchers Erin Pahlke, Rebecca S. Bigler and Carol Lynn Martin[1] wanted to know if teaching children to recognize and speak up about gender stereotypes and sexism that they encounter in the big forums (through media) and the small ones (peer relationships) would help them to see and respond to stereotypes and unfairness more than children who are only taught to be nice. Could they figure out and push back against meanness towards girls as a group when it assumed the form of (for instance) one boy teasing one girl about how disgusting it is when she goes to the bathroom? (Ahem…)

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But the reason they wanted to do this study is because preventing bullying is a big thing in schools these days, and it’s much more common for schools to do that using lessons that address interpersonal bias (between two people, like little Donald and little Hilary) rather than intergroup bias, (between groups, like men and women). So it’s more common to teach (individual) kids to be nice to each other rather than to teach them about all of the not-niceness perpetrated against women, or people of color, or immigrants.

And so the authors of the study divided elementary school kids from ages 4-10 into two groups—one got five sessions of the regular gender-neutral training that focused on seeing and speaking out against unfair behaviors from peers (for instance, teasing)—and the other got those trainings plus they were taught about sexism (for instance, gender-based exclusion, gender stereotypes, and unequal relationships between boys and girls). Then they tested kids in both groups to see if they would recognize sexism in children’s media, and if they would challenge a peer’s sexist comment.

And you know what? They found that after the training—even 6 months after the training—the kids who were taught to identify gender stereotypes and sexism did a better job of identifying it and calling it out. It stands to reason, then, that focusing on manner and tolerance is no substitute for teaching about equity and helping children challenge injustice.

And so, Happy New Year to me, I have been vindicated by evidence. (As an Aquarius, this thrills me, obviously.) Teaching kids to be nice is, well, it’s nice, but if we want to see more egalitarian relationships, including equality between boys and girls, the better bet and the biggest payoff is in training kids—including little kids as young as 4—to be media literate, critically thinking feminists and up-standers—that is, to be feminist activists.

So yes, dear feminists, in 2016 and forever after, be the change you want to see. Try to treat everyone (at least everyone who deserves it) with kindness and respect. Good will and peace to humankind, and all that jazz. But let’s remember to teach the future generation the skills they need to identify inequality between men and women, to watch the world closely, and especially to speak up when they recognize injustice. Let’s teach kids to do good, (rather than just “be” good). For goodness sake.

[1] Pahlke, E., Bigler, R. S., & Martin, C. L. (2014). Can fostering children’s ability to challenge sexism improve critical analysis, internalization, and enactment of inclusive, egalitarian peer relationships?. Journal of Social Issues, 70(1), 115-133.