The Danger of Saying “Good Job”

I did not realize just how horrible these words were until my first day of high school.

For nine years at my Catholic school, I was told I was an “exceptional” student who always received VG’s (Very Good, equivalent to an A in letter grades), a student who was very bright and a good example. I was considered — and convinced — I was one of the best of my class of 30-some kids. I got the second highest scholarship to my high school, and in high school, I am still considered very smart among my circle.

Why am I stating all that? Because I’ve come to learn I was lied to. I am not the smartest and I never was. I grew up cocky about how “smart” I was because even my parents convinced me I was the best in my class. I never knew failure and it was all because with every success, I was told “good job.”

In freshman year I had no Honors classes and my lowest grade was in math, which was expected as I never did well in math. It was not that I did not understand, it was just for some reason during tests, my brain didn’t pull up the formulas and work on the spot. I could do it when prompted, but not on my own in my head, sadly. Suddenly I was no longer the smart kid in a sea of almost 1,000 kids, an upgrade from a 200-kid elementary school. During sophomore year I was upgraded to two Honors classes, but compared to some of my peers, I was mediocre and no longer the “best”, borderline smart, as I knew things but apparently not enough to qualify among that group.

The phrase “good job” gave me some false hope, leading me to believe I was invincible to some degree. I loathe the phrase whenever I see it on my papers, especially when written in red pen. I’ve even told some teachers to not write it on mine. Those two words are useless, in my opinion, to maintain confidence. In fact, now that I’m older, they have created fissures in my confidence, they have become the fault lines in my belief system that can lead me to breakdowns.

In geometry, I did well in the class overall and I thought I would pass my first semester final (or mid-term in other places). I got an F with the curve. I checked my grades, I saw the letter among my A’s and one B, and I laughed, breathing heavily, my eyes starting to hurt, and I slowly, silently shut my laptop. I had a small improvement the next semester though: from an F to a D+. I have felt more ashamed in my life, but in the moment of the F, I realized I had failed and I knew why and I accepted it with regret that the letter even existed.

Overreacting, maybe, but I can’t handle failure well because I was never used to it; I was never challenged enough to be able to feel it and be proud of it. I don’t handle it as well as the Robinson family in Meet the Robinsons, where they cheer and are proud to have even failed at all. We don’t teach our children to celebrate a failure as progress. We teach them to swallow and learn from it and to never do it again. (A bit condescending, really.) In fact, I have never felt more ashamed than when watching the film Whiplash.

I, myself, am a band student, a third-year trombonist who struggles to hit high notes, knows nothing of scales and correct tone and pitch, yet again, I am still told I play well as first chair. My sister was a trombonist for five years and everyone in band knows who she is, the girl-wonder who went from a first-year class to a third-year class plus morning zero period jazz ensemble as a sophomore.

Whiplash was a wake up call as I saw myself in optimistic first-year Andrew Neiman, happy and energetic, excited to attend this new school and literally jazzed (pun intended) to be accepted into something of higher importance to some. But no, I was broken upon first failure, just as Andrew was broken up struggling with rushing or dragging, if he was doing either of those at all. Confused. That’s what we had in common. Confused as to why we no longer were recognized, as to why we suddenly did not match up, as to why suddenly we had to work and compete when we thought we had already done enough.

To my point, and I’m warning those new parents, please do not tell your child “good job” all the time, be proud but don’t blow up their confidence to unreachable proportions. They need to fail to know where they lie and if you allow them to think they will never fall, then when they do fall, they will be unrecognizable from the impact.

They will think of their peers as competition when they should never think that; all they will think about are score numbers even if they are bad at math; they will never leave their room to finish their homework and they will skip dinner to “finish one more problem”, which is what they said three hours ago; they will become conditioned to understanding that the C that stands for average actually means “Cannot Comprehend”; the B they received for AP Bio actually means “Bubblehead”; and the A they lost sleep and skipped meals for means “Achieved Parental Acceptance.”

And that is only speaking from personal experience. I have no knowledge of the extremes others undergo for a letter or number that means more than their physical and mental health. But one thing I did take away from failing so badly: Failure has taught me to recognize my faults. Do not allow your children — your peers even — to become stone cold people who either do not take of themselves in favor for a piece of paper, or who work only for themselves to prove others wrong. That is not what it means to learn, and learning should not aim for those things as a goal.

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