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Be nice. Nice girls don’t. That wasn’t nice. How nice of you. You’re too nice.

All things that have been said to me. Also said by me: I was just trying to be nice. 

What was my objective by trying to be nice? I was trying to elevate my image. I wanted to improve others’ opinion of me. A selfish motivation to be sure. While this is not everyone’s motivation, I have found over the years that niceness is largely about image. Nice is about what I need, not necessarily what is best for you. Now kindness — that’s another story. That’s the story I want to tell.

For me, kindness is all about benefiting someone else. At it’s core, kindness does not boast about itself. Kindness has boundaries. It simply is what it is — Kind. Here is what I’ve discovered:

Nice is nice. Kind is satisfying.

Kindness brings a deep down inside kind of quiet joy. I have had the distinct privilege of being invited into someone’s story from time to time. This kind of invitation is indeed an honor. I am humbled. I am aware of the sacred task set before me. This task may involve being a mentor. It may be friendship. It may mean simply listening and encouraging. I take this kind of invitation very seriously and I confirm my role.

Do you need my advice? Do you need my support? Do you need me to defend and protect you? Do you need me to simply listen and just be by your side? Is this a long haul kind of scenario, or is this a momentary encounter? All good questions that require clear answers or I find myself overstepping.

Boundaries matter. Boundaries are extremely important for effective kindness. For example:

Our daughters have hearts of compassion. This sometimes resulted in them bringing home strays. Stray kids, not pets. Although there was the time our eldest came home with a kitten in her backpack. George is a member of the family now.

Back to the stray kids. “Can they stay for thanksgiving weekend? The shelters are full.” ‘Of course they can stay for the weekend’ turned into a few months. I helped them job search. I helped them get an apartment. I helped them with basic necessities to get them started. It didn’t end well. I did not have good boundaries. If I had, maybe things would have turned out differently, or maybe not.

This scenario played out a number of times. I was warned by many that I was too nice. This was hard on my own family. I was being taken advantage of. This wasn’t helping the kids I was trying to help. I was just reinforcing their using behaviours. But my heart was held hostage by the thought of them living on the street during the harsh Canadian winter. I wanted to be nice to them. And there I discovered my motivation. Fear. I was afraid of them starving and freezing to death and it would be my fault because I didn’t let them stay. All my choices were driven my fear of being at fault for the outcome of their choices.

I learned about co-dependence. I learned about boundaries. I learned that boundaries are not a punishment. They are not defined as Nice or Not Nice. Boundaries are not an impenetrable wall to keep everyone out. Boundaries are not an armed security system to keep all my resources safe from plunder.

Boundaries simply delineate the line where assistance meets responsibility.

Along came… I will call him Sam. Sam had deep need. Sam had been abandoned by his family. Our family decided together to help Sam. He moved in for an agreed time frame. He agreed to our expectations and objectives. Those expectations and objectives were ignored in favor of the couch and video games.

Time to get up and get busy. The list was made. You need replace your ID. You need a bank account. You need a job. These requirements must be accomplished by said date. Sam had no idea where to begin.

I took Sam to the Registry. I took him to the bank. I took him job hunting. He was resistant. My boundaries created clarity for both of us. My assistance was met by his irresponsibility.

The conversation happened in the food court of the mall where my daughter worked, so she could join us on her break. Sam’s resistance to get off our couch and get a job was a deal breaker. There was one last option available. He refused. I had to drive away without him in the middle of winter and leave him in God’s hands. I had done all I could within my boundaries. To proceed beyond them would bring damage to me, to my family, and to him. I cried all the way home, even though I knew I had acted out of pure motives and kindness. The outcome wasn’t mine to determine. Sam’s outcome was firmly in Sam’s control. But it still hurt my heart.

I learned from this that I needed a defined operating system for my life, as well as for my family. This operating system works very well when everyone is in agreement and no one pushes down the boundaries. And yet… teenagers.

Our family operating system went through a number of upgrades until we settled on the five non-negotiables. These were five things that we all agreed on as hard boundaries. These five boundaries were immovable — everything else is up for discussion and negotiation.

Except they weren’t unmovable. They were kicked down. The conversation happened in our living room. No big emotions. No yelling. No crying. Just calm conversation.

These are the boundaries we all agreed on. You kicked them over. If you are unwilling or unable to work within our family operating system, we need to work together to make an alternative plan for you. Let’s give it 48 hours and we will all come back with a plan. Her plan was different from our plan. Her plan was harder for us, but in the end it was the kindest thing to do. She needed that experience to move her closer to her own operating system which now serves her very well in adulthood.

I needed that experience to remind me that I wasn’t in control. It wasn’t about control. It was about protecting the environment in which we were still raising a family. It was about letting her go and letting God do what He needed to do in all of us. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. I did not sleep well at night knowing my daughter was who knows where with who knows who doing who knows what. I did know we had raised her well and I trusted her to draw upon that raising when needed. The time came when her need overcame her plan. She was ready. We rescued. Our family is stronger and better for it.

It is important to note that we did not always run to the rescue when called. There were boundaries around that as well. If they found themselves in a situation not of their own making, where they truly needed an out, we answered that call every time. If they found themselves in a situation where they had been careless and chosen to not keep track of time, and transit had ceased to run for the remainder of the night, they had a long walk home (weather permitting). Or they stayed put until transit started again. And they alone were responsible for the outcome of that carelessness. This was definitely not nice, but it was very kind. The outcome is two compassionate, strong, independent women who know their boundaries, and know how to hold themselves and others accountable for crossing them.

The nice/kind paradigm is not an either/or.

I want to be both. I want to be nice because manners and politeness matter to me. But there are times when nice just isn’t enough. I need to dig deeper. I may be required to put some skin in the game. I need to check my boundaries and consider the best outcome for others, not just myself.

I need to be kind.

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