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How I’m Teaching My Kids to Not Be Approval-Seekers

I have a nasty habit of seeking approval from everyone and everything. Here's how I plan on making sure my kids don't.

I’m not a car guy. Sure, some of them look fancy and appealing. I turn my head when a sleek roadster rumbles down the street. But I don’t wish I was driving it. I own a regular car, and it’s fine. Really. Just fine. I haven’t named it. I do not love it.

I did love one, once.

It was a hybrid. We owned it for a decade. Mostly, it too was just fine. But it had one feature that captured my heart. On the dashboard, dead center in front of the steering wheel, was a little pixelated black-and-white monitor that tracked driving efficiency. Leadfoot around town, and you’d get no response when you parked. But, if you eased the accelerator over hills and coasted through valleys, the car would issue an evaluation on that screen: Excellent. Every time I drove it, I strived for an “Excellent!” It could be a gloomy day, filled with whining children and stubbed toes, but if the car commended my driving, I felt warmth in my chest. It loved me, and I loved it back. I needed its approval.

I’ve always been motivated by approval. In school, my scantron bubbles were filled in perfectly. If a teacher returned a test marked with an “A,” that was good, but a smiley face next to the letter grade gave me a smiley face as well. I was last picked for kickball, last man standing at spelling bees. Although I tried very hard to be a good citizen, I never did win a citizenship award, accompanied by a leather-bound thesaurus. I’m not bitter about it though, and I certainly don’t remember the names of the teachers, Mr. Klein and Mrs. Schrock, who withheld their approval of me 29 years ago.

I’ve always been motivated by approval. 

Approval seeking has been good to me. My trips to the dentist are never painful because when I consider skipping a day of flossing, all I see is the long, mournful face of my orthodontist, sighing heavily, looking disappointed at the ways my poor oral hygiene was destroying the magnificent steel sculpture he was building in my mouth. The steel is long gone, and I’m sure he is too. But his spirit floats in my mind, waiting to see if I will squander or reward his hard work. So, I floss and imagine him bestowing a quick, tight smile on my efforts. “Excellent,” he says.

But it’s also been bad for me. I get trapped in conversations at the front door with Greenpeace canvassers as they peer-pressure me into saving the orcas with an easy recurring donation of $20 a month. Once, a guy came by the house selling bottles of cleaning fluid. We stood together for 15 minutes while he sprayed various parts of my filthy front porch, wiping away the dirt. He seemed like a nice guy. I wanted him to like me. And he was doing a bang-up job on the curb appeal. Eventually, I came to my senses and sent him away.

When I lay in bed at night, waiting for sleep and thinking about all the embarrassing moments of my life, I see his disgusted face as he wordlessly packed up his cleaning supplies and stalked off to the neighbors. I wish I knew how to get in touch with him. We had a good rapport. And I could use a good cleaning spray.

The guy on my porch was exploiting the human weakness that is the foundational building block of sales. Other people who bought waterproof backpacks also liked $300 umbrellas? Tell me more, Amazon! You know the secret reason the government put soy milk in my chicken nuggets? Tell me more, Alex Jones! You’d like to offer me a Target credit card, a chance to win a dream vacation, a box of Girl Scout cookies? Please, tell me more. I can’t bear to let you down.

If people didn’t care about approval, social media wouldn’t be a thing. It weaponizes approval-seeking behavior.

I’m old enough now to recognize the dangers of accepting approval. Given the choice between spending money and feeling the disdain of a person who wants me to spend money, I will almost always open my wallet. So, like a sober man whistling past the liquor store, I must avoid all temptation. I steer my shopping cart away from sample-sellers in the grocery store. I hide in the basement when the replacement window guy rings the doorbell. I accept flyers on the street, without breaking stride, and toss them in the nearest bin once I round the corner. If the flyer guy saw me crumple up the mattress coupon he handed me, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

Some people claim to be immune from approval seeking. They call themselves “straight shooters.” They say what they mean, and they don’t care what anybody thinks of it. Usually this is an elaborate way of saying, “I am an asshole.” And after they’ve pissed off all their neighbors with their straight-shooting comments, they log into Facebook and brag about their exploits, wringing their hands in anxiety, waiting for their brethren to post approving messages.

If people didn’t care about approval, social media wouldn’t be a thing. It weaponizes approval-seeking behavior. The last presidential election proved this beyond a doubt. Russian agents used Facebook to create events, but regular approval-hungry Americans did most of the work of spreading propaganda.

This is where my kids come in. I want them to be different than I am. After all, I’m still worried about my disappointed orthodontist. How hard will it be for my kids to look past groups of classmates that judge them unworthy in posts that go viral? Parents and researchers have noticed a spike in anxiety for kids who are active on social media. It seems to me that the answer lies in killing the quest for approval, at least situationally.

How hard will it be for my kids to look past groups of classmates that judge them unworthy in posts that go viral? 

I know this goes against my own self-interest. The “I’m very disappointed in you” face helps spur my daughter into cleaning her room. But — hear me out, parents — I should stop using that face, except in situations that warrant it. If she tapes a firecracker to a bullfrog? “I’m very disappointed in you.” If she pours half an uneaten bowl of cereal into the compost bin? Instead of the peer pressure approach to parenting, maybe a quick chat about only taking as much as she can eat.

The aim here is to break the habit of adjusting their behavior to meet the expectations of an authority figure. Again, this makes my job as an authority figure harder. But no one ever said parenting is easy, and the ultimate goal is to raise kids who can stand on their own, without any help from me. So, I want them to push back, to question, to prod. I want them to express their own desires and interests, even when those desires are in opposition to mine. I want them to see me scoff at the music they like and think to themselves, Whatevs, old man. I don’t care if you don’t like what I like.

I have my limits. If, for instance, my son starts rooting for the Ravens, he needs to find another place to live. But in general, I want my kids to use me for practice, knowing that they can’t ever tarnish the love I feel for them. I want them to experience what it feels like, not feeling a person’s approval, so that when they have that same sensation while talking to frenemies or salesmen or craven elected officials, they’ll be braver than I am, they’ll be better than I am. They’ll be excellent.