Choosing Between Self-Respect and Adult Approval

“How much easier her life would be if we did not continually oblige [a child] to choose between our adult approval and her self-respect.” John Holt

After reading this quote from John Holt in his book How Children Fail, I was struck by how as a child I often had to choose between adult approval and self-respect. And alternatively, how I have required the children in my life to choose between self-respect and my love and approval.

When we have self-respect, we have respect for ourselves and our value as a human being. We also respect the truth within ourselves. While growing up, many of us may have experienced times when we had to choose between our self-respect and the approval of parents and teachers.

I remember as a child how it felt as though whenever someone came to our house to visit and expressed interest in my piano playing, my mother would require me to play for them. I felt as though I could not say no, even though I came to hate performing for others.

My inner truth was that I wanted to play piano for myself when I wanted to, not when others required it of me.

We must perform in other ways as children for parents and teachers. It may be that we pretended to feel something we did not, in order to please those in authority over us. I have caught myself far too many times, expressing disapproval of the emotional expressions of the children in my life.

It may be a look, a sigh, or even direct commentary on how they are expressing themselves. I have required them to squelch their frustration, anger, or sadness in order to make me more comfortable. I have asked them to give up their self-respect for my approval.

We grow up and this pattern of choosing between self-respect or inner truth and the approval of those in authority over us continues. In our workplaces, we can’t necessarily set our own boundaries and speak our truths for fear of our bosses’ disapproval.

At home, however, we have the power. So it is here that we wield it to regain our self-respect and some control over our lives. As parents we set our boundaries. We tell the children in our lives that need to speak to us in certain ways. They need to respect us as their parents.

And yet, we don’t question whether or not the setting of our boundaries as adults, requires children to choose between their own self-respect and gaining our approval.

I do believe it is important to understand our own personal boundaries as adults and parents. However, far too often in my own experiences, the boundary I set is in reaction to my own feelings of disempowerment, rather than coming from a true sense of what my inner truth is.

We can get muddled in our reactions and set arbitrary boundaries and rules, rather than boundaries that allow us to express our grounded inner truth and create space for children to do the same.

I read often in parenting books and websites how we need to enhance a child’s self-esteem. How it is important as children get older that they have self-respect, so that they will not make bad decisions that hurt themselves or others. Somehow, writers advocate, this needs to be instilled in children because they don’t have it.

And yet, if we look closely at young children, those who have not been asked to choose between adult approval and self-respect, we can see that they have it all along.

We train it out of them through our parenting and our institutions and then we wonder why they don’t have it as they enter their teenage years. How much easier their lives would be if we did not continually require them to choose between adult approval and their self-respect.

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