“Acceptance is for everyone” • Jennifer Smith, marriage & family therapist
Recently my family went to a UGA game. As we were driving through campus we noticed that all the students were dressed in a similar fashion and looked alike. Girls were dressed in red or black dresses, cowboy boots, long straight hair. Guys had khaki shorts or red pants, white button down shirts and sometimes bowties. I asked my 17-year-old son why he thought everyone dressed alike. His immediate response was so that they could be accepted.
If we think about it, the wish for acceptance is universal. It is in all of us and it starts very early in life. As young children, we may not compare what we are wearing on preschool playground to other children around us, but I am certain our parents make comparisons. We are taught what is “acceptable” behavior and what it not, and this can even vary depending on where you are raised.
Most bullying happens in school because children are “different” by whatever crowd gets to make that judgement. Middle schoolers can be the worst. The need to be acceptable to the “popular” crowd grows during high school and the pressure to be like everyone else is intense, and can even include sexual acting out or substance abuse.
Colleges can perpetuate this idea by having exclusive clubs and some sororities or fraternities encourage exclusivism. I recently counseled a sorority girl at UGA who told me that her group had an unspoken weight requirement. To make that weight she was throwing up every day.
If we are still being driven by the need for group acceptance, this can show up way past college years. The need for a particular kind of car, house, manner of dress, or community social standing can become a primary motivation of our lives. If we live constantly comparing ourselves to others, or trying to “keep up with the Jones," we may be in the acceptance trap.
So what do we do? We develop a health sense of self, based more on what is inside and less on our surroundings and popular opinion. And it has to start with us before it can ever start with our children, because we are their models.
We begin this with our children early on by focusing on what builds character, and by teaching them how to think, not just what to think. We can encourage individuality instead of simply elevating conformity. We can change our focus for our children from wishing for them simply to be happy and instead wanting them to be good people.
For me, my own personal sense of acceptance comes from knowing I am a child of God, created in God’s image and believing that God loves and values me as God’s creation. I strive to live my life by the morals and values of my faith, instead of simply by the popular opinion that determines acceptance. God accepts me and God accepts you and living that acceptance provides meaning and purpose.
Do you have a question about building healthy relationships? Send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Printed in the October 18, 2012 edition