goat kitchenDec 14, 2022–With Christmas a’coming, the good boys and girls are sorting themselves out from the bad boys and girls.

The other day, I heard a child ask if he could have a treat because he had been “a good boy.”

It hurt my ears.

Because throughout my life as a parent and elementary teacher, I studiously avoided labeling any child “good” or “bad.”

My philosophy is to separate a child’s intrinsic goodness from their bad behavior. You may stumble, mess up, and make bad decisions, but you are still a good person.

This is so ingrained it grates when I overhear anyone scold a child for being “a bad boy.”

This is more than semantics. Kids are always internalizing what the world is saying about them. We all remember a scathing comment of a friend or family member or classmate from our childhoods. It may have been made in jest (“you’re a minnow muncher”) but our immature emotional selves couldn’t make the distinction between a joke and an insult.

And yet… and yet…

I am amazed that we all–children and adults alike–viscerally feel the need to be judged.

My data comes from the classroom. I was fortunate to teach Gifted and Talented in the 1980s, which was like the wild west of educational philosophy. We had no formal curriculum, no grading structure, and no classroom materials. Yet we were asked to challenge and educate the brightest, most creative students in the district.

I actually reveled in the freedom of creating my own curriculum (I let the students do it, mostly), and not being yoked to final testing or assigning letter grades, both activities I find pointless. After each student selected an independent study, they did the research, then created a “product” which we displayed to parents. Our grading consisted of a mutual evaluation.

Here is the amazing thing: In every class, in every school, in every year, the students wanted to know what their grade would have been had they been graded. This stumped me.

As a college student, I took advantage of the fad of “pass/fail”–taking classes that I was curious about without fear of affecting my all-important GPA. That’s how I became conversant with music theory, art history, ballet, badminton, and bowling.

Yet these 10 to 14-year-old students had already been programmed to expect a letter grade on all their assignments?

From my current perch in life, with more observation, I now realize it is an intrinsic human trait to continually compare ourselves to others.

Examples abound on social media, which has become a dystopian competition for proving you have a more exciting life than your ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend.

The point is, as individuals we yearn to be judged, graded, compared. Throughout history, we have devised endless ways of measuring up to an objective standard.

It started with the most famous standards of all–the 10 Commandments. Then came:

Robert’s Rules of Order

Boy and Girl Scout codes

Uniform Code of Military Justice

All the way down to any Home Owners Association, Dollar Store loyalty card, or Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes Entry Form.

We’re not all slackers.

Teenagers are still going into the Corps of Cadets.

Amish and Mennonite member rolls are rising.

Students now compete to enroll in military academies.

What drives this mindset? Is it “good” or “bad?”

Back when I was facing a classroom filled with students begging to be graded, I stumbled on a response.

Instead of comparing yourself to others, I preached, compare yourself to the only person that matters: the “you” of yesterday.

That turns out to be the toughest competition of all.

Be good.