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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
202 pages
Jun 2006
InterVarsity Press

The Danger of Raising Nice Kids

by Timothy Smith

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



More Than Nice

We don’t need another parenting book that promises nice kids. There are too many out there already—I wrote a few of them myself. Being nice just doesn’t cut it anymore, not in the new millennium. In case you didn’t notice, things have changed. You might point to fanatical terrorism, the new millennium, the rise of the hip-hop culture or retro fashions. Whatever you want to point to as the cause, things are different. And a parenting philosophy that focuses only on external behavior is destined to fail.

What do I mean by nice? A pleasant, friendly, well-mannered, carefully groomed, preferably conservatively dressed person. Isn’t that what we want our kids to be?

My trusty Webster’s dictionary says that at one point nice meant “strange, lazy, foolish,” coming from a Latin root for “ignorant,” literally “not knowing.” I don’t want my child to be a nice ignorant fool, too lazy to accomplish anything! So in these pages, I will be challenging the practice of parenting from the outside, focusing on a child’s looks, behavior and performance. How do we nurture kids who aren’t ignorant? who aren’t foolish? who aren’t naive?


“Dude, I hear it was crankin’ at Zeroes. Wanna go there?” asked Brian on our way to go surfing.

“Sure,” I said, “You’re not gonna wimp out if it’s double overhead?”

“Me? I’m not a wuss. Bring it on!” He thumped his hand on the passenger door of my SUV to the beat of U2 on the CD player. At fifteen, he was a hot surfer with the looks of a teen fashion model and a bevy of beauties as his entourage.

Once a week I went surfing with some of the high school students from our church youth group. On this day southern California was in the midst of a warm August, and a huge south swell was rolling in from Mexico.

“Is it really going to be ten foot?” asked Tom, a novice surfer, also fifteen.

“That’s what the website said. Six to eight at Zuma, so you know it will be bigger at Zeroes. It catches everything!”

“I might just watch from the beach,” Tom confessed.

“Wuss!” Brian punched his arm.

“Oww—hey Brian, aren’t you grounded?”

I turned and looked at Brian, raising an eyebrow.

“Don’t give me that look, dude. It’s cool with my folks. They let me go today, but I have to stay home tonight.”

“Why? What happened, Brian?”

He shot a mean look at Tom. “Well, I got busted. I was at a party last weekend, and we ran out of beer.”

Brian was Tom’s friend and was new to the youth group. He was courteous and respectful to adults, got decent grades, was very popular and wore the hippest clothes. He did better at choosing fashion than at choosing friends. Except for Tom, most of his friends were partiers.

“So what did you do?”

He flashed his perfect, ultra-white smile. “I set ’em up.”

“How can you do that? You’re fifteen and don’t drive.”

Brian laughed. “It wasn’t dark yet, so I got on my bike and rode to 7-11. When Sahib wasn’t watching, I snagged a twelve-pack.”

“You ripped off a twelve-pack of beer? On your bike?”

“Yeah.” He looked down at the carpet. “But the dude saw me and called the cops—who happened to be next door at the donut shop!”

“You’re kidding!”

“Nah, it’s true. So I tried to outrun him. He turned on his lights and siren. I was screaming through the neighborhood; but he was gaining on me, so I tossed the beer in the ditch. I rode faster without the weight, but the cop was getting ticked. He yelled through the microphone, ‘Pull over! You are under arrest!’ But I ignored him and kept pedaling. He swerved his cruiser onto the sidewalk in front of me and knocked me off the bike. I tried to run, but he caught me, handcuffed me and threw me in the back of his car. He recovered the beer as evidence and hauled me to jail.”

“Did you have to stay long?” I asked.

“Nah, it was actually a holding cell for juveniles. I was the only one there. My parents signed me out two hours later.”

“So now you are grounded?”

“Yup, this is my first outing all week. It’s cuz I told my pops that Timmy and Tommy are good influences on me that he went for it.”

Brian looked like he had it all together—engaging personality, popularity, girls, looks, clothes, money, brains, skill in sports, comfort with adults. You would say that Brian was a nice teenager. But on the inside Brian was void of any real substance or selfconfidence. His biggest fear was that his friends would reject him, that he would be labeled “uncool.” His worst nightmare became a reality when the cruiser lights came on.

If you had run into Brian on his way into 7-11, he would have held the door for you and you would have thought, What a courteous and handsome young man. And you would have been right. He was polite, good-looking and suave with adults. In a word, he was nice. Being nice is not enough.


One danger of raising nice kids is that they will end up too delicate. Kids who can’t make it in the real world. Kids who may look good on the outside but lack internal strength and courage. Kids who give in to peer and cultural pressure.

A lot of what passes as advice to parents, including advice to Christian parents, will help us raise nice kids. Nice wimpy kids. Kids without backbone, passion or courage. In this era, kids like that will be destroyed.

I’m not saying I want kids not to be nice. Our kids need to be more than nice.

We live in a culture that is not child friendly. It is increasingly becoming antifamily. It is already antimarriage. We need to prepare bold combatants to challenge such hostile surroundings. Why?

Because children are important to us. Family is important to us. Marriage is important to us.

So this isn’t just another parenting book. This is a guide to take you to the next level of parenting, where you actually disciple your child. It will show you how to go far beyond influencing your children’s behavior to influence their heart, mind and skills for life.

You will discover how to grow a child with passion. You will learn how to capture your child’s heart and ignite her God-given passion.

You will find out how to develop and strengthen your child’s convictions.

You will learn to parent with purpose, to grow integrity within yourself and your child.

You will discern how to develop nine critical qualities that most parents fail to develop in their children. Qualities that will help them survive and prevail in the challenging times in which they are coming of age. Qualities that will help them become warriors, not wusses. Here are the nine forgotten qualities that most parents don’t teach:

  • vision
  • authenticity
  • listening
  • empathy
  • compassion
  • discernment
  • boundaries
  • contentment
  • passionate love

Why don’t parents teach these? Because they don’t know how. Because their parents didn’t teach them. Because they don’t have time. Because they are in survival mode, dealing with behavior issues, with no time to think through purposeful parenting. Because they have focused on the externals and not given much thought to preparing the heart of their child. Because they don’t know how to model values and teach skills.

Don’t worry, this discusion doesn’t have to get weird. It doesn’t have to be that hard either. In fact, I’ll try to make it fun along the way. And I promise to keep it practical.

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote of a time he was working with some other monks on a new church building, side by side with the construction crew. The construction workers were used to swearing, and they kept at it even though men of the cloth were around. After several days of their cursing and taking the Lord’s name in vain, Henri exploded. “Don’t you know you are not supposed to curse!” Tension filled the site. Everyone became angry. Understanding disappeared in the wind. The next day back on the job the swearing picked up again. A few raucous outbursts of taking Jesus’ name in vain came from one particular bricklayer.

A monk named Anthony quietly approached and put his arm around him.

“Hey, you know—this is a monastery—and we love that man here.”

The man looked up from his work, smiled, “To tell ya the truth—so do I.”

They both laughed. And after that simple exchange, everything changed.1

That is my aim with The Danger of Raising Nice Kids. Let’s change things. We don’t have to force them. It doesn’t have to be political. We don’t have to be stressed over the culture wars. Sometimes the best way to influence people is with a hug and a laugh.

I’m surprised I survived my reckless childhood. I walked a mile to school in the snow (unsupervised), wandered away for hours at a time, rode my bike miles away from home, chatted with strangers at the bus depot, spent several nights in a tree house in a vacant lot, and figured out how to make bombs out of firecrackers—all of this before I turned ten!

If you had asked my mom what I was up to or where I was, she would have responded, “He’s out playing somewhere. I’m sure he’ll be home before it gets dark.” Then she would have returned to the tasks of raising four children. By today’s standards my mother would be negligent, and the neighbors would call Children’s Protective Services.

But my mother was not negligent. She was representative of the moms of that time and place. Even though she didn’t cart us kids in a minivan to a plethora of activities—soccer, art lessons, tutoring, karate, scouts, music lessons, Bible club—I rarely remember being bored, and we didn’t even have PlayStation!

I don’t think my mom ever heard the saying “Every moment is a teachable moment.” I don’t think she was too concerned with our “enrichment.” I assume she was more concerned with survival. In some ways growing up then was more natural: kids were what they were. What you see is what you get. This was before the high priests of psychology and child development admonished us to “nurture” children and give them every advantage for enrichment in an increasingly competitive world. This was before prenatal brain-stimulus classes in response to parents’ desire to raise their baby’s IQ.

“This is the most protected generation ever,” said a church’s children’s director, a former elementary school teacher. I had traveled to her church in rural Indiana to present a parenting seminar. The town had fewer than eight thousand people. Most homes were built on two-acre or larger plots. The horizon was dotted with silos and barns. It looked pretty safe to me.

“Parents don’t let their kids play in the yard unless they watch them. Most of the time they don’t let them. They just pack them in the van and take them to organized lessons and sports, then they watch them.”

The most protected generation ever. The phrase continued to ring in my head. What could be dangerous out here—a couple of cows charging your yard? Coming from Los Angeles, I couldn’t relate. But if parents don’t feel that their kids are safe in rural Indiana, they probably don’t feel that they are safe anywhere.

I think many parents in our culture are driven by fear. Fear that something bad will happen to their kids. Fear that they will not give their kids the right blend of enrichment experiences. Fear that they will raise kids with weak self-esteem.

I hear about these fears when I meet parents at my seminars, and I deal with them in my family coaching practice, where I work with parents and with teens like Chelsea.


Seventeen-year-old Chelsea, one of my clients, told me, “My mom is paranoid about not being the perfect mom. She always pumps me up like she’s my cheerleader. She always says, ‘great job’ even though I know I choked. I know it’s fake. I know she means well, but it’s empty.”

“There’s a difference between empty praise and genuine words of affirmation,” I said.

“Exactly. She wants me to feel so good about myself that it isn’t realistic. I don’t always do well, but she pretends that I do.”

“Yeah, the whole self-esteem campaign pushes praise, even if it’s exaggerated, so that you will be happy, feel good about yourself and not use drugs.”

Chelsea smiled, “I know, I’m a DARE graduate. But feeling good about yourself doesn’t come from the outside; it’s more from the inside, and it needs to be based on reality.”

“Right. You want to feel worthwhile, competent and capable, but it needs to be based on real stuff, not just the old ‘super job!’ line.”

“Yeah, my mom is like Ben Stiller’s parents in Meet the Fockers. When Bernie Focker proudly displays his grown son’s awards to the in-laws, Robert DeNiro’s character responds, ‘I didn’t know they made ninth-place ribbons.’ And Bernie says, ‘They have them up to tenth place,’ then gestures toward all of the awards prominently showcased on the Gaylord Focker wall of fame. ‘There’s a bunch on the “A for Effort” shelf there.’”

We laughed.

“False praise creates fragile people. We want people to feel good about themselves for the right reasons, Chelsea. We don’t want them to feel they’ve accomplished something when they really haven’t. As a result of this esteem obsession, we have a generation who thinks they are entitled to things without working for them.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen that with my sister’s friends. They think they will graduate from college, get a high-paying job and get promoted six months later. They think they are going to start at the lifestyle level where their parents are and move up from there. They are devastated when they have to move back home and work in retail.”

“Not the right time to say ‘Great job,’ is it?”


Our culture is obsessed with perfection: perfect babies, intelligent preschoolers, kindergartners who speak French, third-graders who know algebra, fifth-graders who make the all-star club team in soccer, eighth-graders who spend their Saturday’s in SAT prep courses.

Moms have been told, “You can have it all; you can handle work and the demands of a family. You just need balance.” Newsweek magazine reports that this obsession is having an impact:

    The idea that that’s enough is a tough sell in our current culture. We live in a perfection society now, in which it is possible to make our bodies last longer, to manipulate our faces so the lines of laughter and distress are wiped out. We believe in the illusion of control, and nowhere has that become more powerful—and more pernicious—than in the phenomenon of manic motherhood. 2

The Perfect Mommy is one expression of manic motherhood: the drive to be the postfeminist woman who is highly educated and competitive at work and the nurturing, responsive mother who has her kids in all the “right” activities and still maintains her figure. Sometimes the challenge can become overwhelming. Sixty-five percent of women with school-age children feel stressed and don’t feel like they have enough time.3

Judith Warner articulates the pressures in her article “Mommy Madness”:

    LIFE HAPPENED. WE BECAME MOTHERS. And found, when we set out to “balance” our lives—and in particular to balance some semblance of the girls and women we had been against the mothers we’d become—that there was no way to make this most basic of “balancing acts” work. Life was hard. It was stressful. It was expensive. Jobs—and children—were demanding. And the ambitious form of motherhood most of us wanted to practice was utterly incompatible with any kind of outside work, or friendship, or life, generally.4

For many moms, and dads too, life is much harder than they anticipated. They really did believe that with the right education they’d get the right job, and with the right job they’d reach a level of income and status that would bring fulfillment. In some cases these expectations did come true, but a majority of parents struggle hard to fit it all in, and most wonder if they are really able to pull it off. They set the alarm clock a half-hour earlier, make lists and buy a bigger calendar to squeeze in all of the family activities, thinking, Someday I’ll be able to slow down and take care of myself.


“We were concerned about the public schools, and we wanted to give our children the best education. So we home-schooled our oldest, Jen, and she responded very well to the individualized attention,” explained a woman who had attended my parenting seminar. “I wish I had heard your presentation five years ago.”

“Why, what happened?” I asked.

“We liked the idea of going through the curriculum at your own pace, and Jen’s was fast. She liked to get her work done by noon so she’d have the rest of the day free. We let her get a job when she was fourteen; she graduated at fifteen and started working full time and going to community college at night. We didn’t realize that we had raised a pathological liar. It turns out she used her intelligence to manipulate and deceive us. She had this whole other life . . .” The mother’s voice trailed off. I could tell she was on the verge of tears.

“She excelled at academics but failed at life?”

“Exactly.” She dabbed her eyes and looked up. “We thought she was a good Christian girl, and wow, could she talk the talk, but her heart wasn’t in it. She was living a lie, and we were too naive to catch it.

“I liked what you said today about perfectionist parents. We were focused on her grades, how she looked, her attitude and how her performance made us look good, like she’s some kind of prodigy, this product of our home. It turns out she met a married man at work, had an affair with him for two years and got pregnant. He divorced his wife and left his two kids for Jen. Last Saturday they got married. I tried to get the pastor of his church to see the damage, but he performed the ceremony anyway. She’s eight months pregnant, married to an older man, and she’s only nineteen years old!”

She grew up too fast, I thought. Jen’s freedom and responsibility didn’t match her moral development. She had an adult life without the structure of adult character.

Hurrying children through childhood usually produces disastrous results. Jen’s situation reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from David Elkind:

    People under stress tend to see other people in the shorthand of symbols. Because they are under stress, not only are they selfcentered, they also lack energy for dealing with issues apart from themselves. Symbols, oversimplifications really, are energyconserving. Parents under stress see their children as symbols because it is the least demanding way to deal with them. A student, a skater, a tennis player, a confidant are clear-cut symbols, easy guides for what to think, to see, and how to behave. Symbols thus free the parent from the energy-consuming task of knowing the child as a totality, a whole person.5

Jen’s mom had settled for a symbol instead of knowing and raising her real daughter. Jen was a status symbol to her parents: the Bright Home-Schooled Progeny. It made them all feel good, but it didn’t prepare Jen for life.

When we are hurried or under stress, we tend to hurry our children through childhood. Hurried children, like Jen, work more than they play, and they too become stressed.

We need to resist our culture and allow our children to grow up slowly. We need to protect their innocence and allow them to develop wholly—physically, emotionally, mentally, morally and spiritually. When we hurry children, natural development is not possible in all these areas. And, as in Jen’s case, the results can be disastrous.

Don’t be afraid of your child. Don’t be afraid to draw the line. Children need a solid moral center— an anchor that provides stability while they choose friends, discern the right decisions and perceive others with empathy. Be willing to challenge the parenting trends that have produced hurried, disconnected families and uncommunicative kids with an insatiable sense of entitlement and a disregard for rules. Consider medical doctor Robert Shaw’s words:

    This epidemic seeps like a fog into all of our culture. Parents find themselves enslaved by a materialistic, overarching society that leads them to spend so many hours at work and so much money that they can’t make the time to do the things necessary to bond with their children. They are worried that they might crush their children, stifle their self-esteem, or kill their creativity, to the extent that they lose all sense of proportion about the role of a young child in a family. They rarely put limits on their children or permit them to experience frustration, and they overlook their children’s moral and spiritual development.6

I’m not calling for a return to the 1950s postwar idealism—because behind this nostalgia lays discrimination, prejudice, hysteria, and a lack of rights and opportunities, especially for women and ethnic minorities. No, I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward.

We need to come to terms with how we see ourselves. Growing up with a “can-do” orientation fostered by pop psychology, we saw ourselves as winners. We were bred for competition. We wanted to beat the Russians to the moon. We wanted to beat the Japanese in the world economy. We wanted to beat everyone at the Olympics. We believed that we could ascend to our highest aspirations and that we would mature into the capable, successful, hip adults we always dreamed we could be.

We pass on our competitive nature to our kids. We strive to give our children every advantage. We want our daughters to excel at science and math and show the boys they can. We want our sons to “reach their full potential” in all areas and still be in touch with their feminine side. We see ourselves as winners. In a way, it’s a redux of social Darwinism—only the strong survive. In order to be fit and survive, we need to have advantages over the weak.

What would happen if, instead of seeing ourselves as winners, we began to look at ourselves as trainers? What if, instead of focusing on the competitive edge of parenting, we focused on questions like these: How can I train my child? How can I prepare her for life? How can I develop his character? How do I grow and train a child from the inside out?

Raising kids in this millennium requires more than giving them self-esteem or a competitive edge. We need to train them to take criticism without falling apart. We need to permit scenarios in which they fail but learn that failure is never final, unless you blame someone else. Some of the greatest life lessons can be learned from our failures, if we are willing. We need to help our children develop accurate views of themselves, with a clear-cut analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, instead of a hyped-up self-esteem based on shallow slogans.

We want them to feel good about themselves without thinking god of themselves.


We make sure our children have perfect teeth. We scrape to save for the orthodontist or refinance the house to pay for braces. It’s expensive and requires dozens of visits over a period of years, but the result is the perfect smile.

I submit that the perfect smile is the icon for today’s child. I’m not against orthodontists or good dental care, just proposing perfect teeth as a symbol of all our efforts as parents. He’s not born with it, but through effort, expense and sacrifice, he’s gonna have the perfect smile. It’s costly, demands time, is repetitive and uncomfortable, and our kids complain about it, but the end result is a gleaming, symmetrical smile, worthy of a magazine cover.

We are raising a generation with perfect teeth and twisted hearts. Because of our investment, they have nice teeth, but their hearts are warped. They haven’t learned compassion, empathy and initiative. They haven’t developed personal convictions and moral standards. They feel okay about themselves because they have been told that they are “good,” but deep down inside they wonder, Am I really good? Do I have what it takes to make it? Does life require more of me than being nice?

In a culture that opposes many biblical commitments, being nice will not equip our children to be effective. Being nice will not help them advance the kingdom of God with their convictions, behavior and influence. Being nice won’t help them stand apart.

Instead of socializing our children into the predominant norms of our society, we need to strategically train them to engage and challenge these norms and views. We need to model for them the values that we hold dear, and we need to teach them qualities and skills that will make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others. In a word, we need to disciple our children.