The great pierced-ear debate with my 15-year-old lasted a month. "You're lucky," you may sneer. "My daughter begged to get her ears pierced when she was 5." Well, I don't have a daughter; I have a 6-foot son.

"Why," I kept asking him, "do you want to wear an earring?" His answered never changed: "Because I want to." I insisted that wasn't a good enough reason, and I barraged him with questions. "What if you hate it? What if your ear gets infected? What will your coaches say? Do you see any other quarterbacks with earrings?"

As the battle wore on, I switched tactics. "No other boys in your grade have a pierced ear." Then, in a last-ditch effort, I secured an ally -- his girlfriend.

I ended the war with this concession, "I won't give you permission, but I won't say you can't." Two hours later my handsome, muscular son strode into my office with a small gold ball decorating one ear. Two weeks later, the earring decorated the top of his dresser.

Why did I object for so long? Why do I object when my younger son wants to go to church in Nikes and jeans instead of following my dress code?

I try to convince myself that my responses are based on my children's welfare, but I've had to accept the truth: Sometimes I object to their appearance or behavior because of the reflection it will have on me -- or my parenting.

Still, I find myself hiding behind cop-outs: "I know what's best for you." I've even resorted to, "Because I say so."

While I'm voicing those messages to my sons, there is an inner voice that badgers me, "What will other people think if I let my child look or act like that?"

And I've discovered that I'm not the only parent dancing to the tune of that inner voice.

How many times do we witness a child screaming in a store, "I want that toy!" Often the frustrated parent looks around to see if anyone is watching before deciding what to do, then grabs the child and whispers, "That lady thinks you're naughty." The parent's inner voice is asking, "What does she think of me as a parent?" And the action taken is based on how to get out of the situation without drawing more negative attention instead of being based on what is best for the child.

Unfortunately, this inner voice has similarities to a record -- there is a flip side: "People will think I'm a great parent if my child does certain things."

When I volunteer my sons to work at church or community functions, for example, I smile and accept the compliments: "What thoughtful and helpful sons you have." My mind transfers the compliments into: "Only children of a great parent would be doing those things."

The decision not to push our children in order to make us look good must be a conscious one. Although this sounds simple, the "pushing" can take on many disguises.

I remember a young girl whose mother forced her to be in a school play. For weeks the daughter suffered nausea. After the play she retreated to the bathroom while her mother accepted congratulations about what a wonderful actress she'd produced.

I wonder, too, about the parents' motives each time I watch or read about a young athlete practicing eight hours a day for years to get a chance to "Go for the Gold."

We need to realize that our children are not extensions of ourselves. Parents' self-esteem must be strong; our children are not responsible for its maintenance.

We can ensure that our decisions and actions are based on our children's best interest by conducting a two-part quiz: Am I being influenced by what others will think of me? Will I look like a good parent if I make my child do this?

If the answer is "yes" to either question, we flunked.

Linda Essig lives and writes in Spring Valley, Minn.