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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

A group of us at the radio station were gathered in the kitchen for our mid-morning refills of tea and coffee, making small talk. Somebody referenced a trashy television reality star, at which point there were groans and more than a few snide remarks.

Moments later one of my co-workers said, “Well, I know I shouldn’t judge.” She was taken aback by my response: “Yes, you should.”

Look, it’s practically beaten into our heads – and our students’ heads – that we shouldn’t judge anyone, and I understand and support the basic intent. Making a blanket assessment of another person based on a first glance, or on the person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., is what our nation has worked hard to overcome.

Along the way, though, the good intention of that goal has mutated into a condemnation of all judging, to the point where young people are being asked to shut off a basic defense against poor choices. “Don’t judge” has become a mantra that goes beyond protecting against racial or gender discrimination; kids are afraid to speak out against anything for fear of being labeled a “hater.”

My co-worker was even worried about simply expressing high standards.

But there’s an element much more important than pop culture. Imagine Kerrie, a student who works hard in class, with a good attitude toward school and her teachers. If another student sits in the back of the class, mocking the entire process and blowing off his education, I want Kerrie to judge that behavior as misguided and wrong. If someone asks her to skip class to get high, I want Kerrie to judge that harshly, and to make a decision that protects her future.

One of our greatest Americans, Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who dedicated his life to the cause of human rights, understood the importance of this. We like to quote his most famous speech, but we mistakenly think it’s only about race. Look again at the entire sentence:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

King longed for a nation where his children would indeed be judged, but in a way that would be to everyone’s advantage. His goal was to influence the country to see people in ways that mattered, and to make important decisions about people based on their character.

Through the years we’ve automatically attached a negative association with the word ‘discrimination,’ forgetting that it’s not just about mistreating a person because of their race or orientation; having ‘discriminating taste’ is a good thing, particularly when it helps us to avoid making decisions that could haunt for years.

Yes, we should judge. Our students, especially those in middle school and high school, are at critical crossroads, where their judgments – or lack thereof – could have far-reaching ramifications that ripple throughout the rest of their lives.

The choices and the actions of young people are important. I want them to decide what’s right and what’s wrong without fear of reprisal, and to confidently identify what will serve them or will hurt them.

I want them to judge.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty-three years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people embrace the idea that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

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