When my son Sean was twelve, he played on a Little League baseball team. One week before the season started, I got an idea. I bought twelve gift certificates that his coach could use to take Sean and his team for ice cream.

"Good," the coach said when I handed him the certificates. "I'll take them for sundaes after our first win."

"No, coach," I responded. "I want you to take them for sundaes after their first loss." The coach's perplexed expression told me I had better explain what I was saying.

"Coach, I don't know about you," I said, "but as I raise my kids, I don't want to acknowledge their success as much as their effort. And I don't want to acknowledge their effort as much as their being created in the image of God."

The point I wanted to communicate to the coach, and to my son, was that even if Sean never even played baseball, I would love him just the same. My son is created in the image of God, with infinite value, dignity, and worth, all of which have nothing to do with baseball.

A few games into the season, the boys had their first loss. Holding true to his word, the coach took the team to "celebrate" their first defeat. Sean must have thanked me five times for the sundaes, and several kids on the team told me how much they appreciated the special treat. But one boy, Jessie, said something that really stuck with me: "Thanks a lot for the ice cream, Mr. McDowell. Wow! It doesn't matter to you if we win or not - you love us anyway."

Without Condition
That's what acceptance is all about. We can know that, because that's how Christ accepts us - unconditionally, right where we are. I'm so thankful He didn't wait until I was living in the truth before inviting me into a relationship with Himself. Instead, He accepts us while we are still sinners, so that He can lead us into His truth.

Acceptance is the foundation of every meaningful relationship, whether between a husband and wife, a teacher and student, or a father and child. That's why as parents, teachers, and youth leaders, it is vitally important for us to heed the apostle Paul's exhortation: "Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you" (Romans 15:7).

Learning to accept a child as Christ accepted us is no small order. As long as our kids are following the rules and doing what is expected of them, we have no problem showing them our acceptance. The challenge comes when they break a rule or act unreasonably. At times like these, adults can begin to withdraw their acceptance - usually without even realizing it. We might subtly withhold our affection and come across as being cool and distant. Yet while we may not be aware of the change, I guarantee that our kids notice it right away. When young people receive this kind of response, they learn that acceptance comes under certain conditions, rather than unconditionally. Young people need to know they are accepted as unique individuals. This is not a new concept. In fact, this biblical guideline dates back to the book of Proverbs, where King Solomon wrote, "Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it" (22:6 NASB). Too often, however, parents and teachers misunderstand this verse as a guarantee that as long we have daily family devotions and make sure our kids attend Sunday school and youth group, they will never depart from the faith.

Hitting the Mark
Yet when King Solomon wrote "the way he should go," he wasn't referring to God's way, but the child's. In the book of Psalms, the same Hebrew word is translated as "bend" and refers to the bending of an archer's bow (Psalms 11:2; 64:3). In Solomon's day, every archer made his own bow and had to know the bow's unique characteristics in order to hit anything with it. In the same way, adults need to know the unique characteristics of the kids in their lives.

As parents and teachers, we can see that each of our children has a unique personality and way of interacting. Yet adults so often make the mistake of applying an "across-the-board" method of training and discipline. There is no standard way to treat all kids, because each kid responds differently to the way he or she is treated. Unless we learn to understand the "bend" in the "bows" God has entrusted to us, we will likely "miss the target."

The Sound of Acceptance
But what does acceptance sound like? Accepting words focus on a person's value, rather than their performance. Try using phrases like "You have such a caring heart" or "I'm so glad you're my son." By praising qualities such as dependability, patience, or generosity in your young people, you tell them they are loved for who they are, not just what they do.

Showing unconditional acceptance is a full-time job that requires effort, attention, and creativity. Each child has different needs. Some may respond better to appropriate physical affection than words. The important thing is to remember that each child needs to be accepted for who he or she is.

We put such importance on acceptance because it seems to be God's first building block in developing His children. Much like earthly fathers and caring adults, our Heavenly Father wants to see His children change and be successful. But before He endeavors to change us, He first meets us right where we are - with acceptance and grace.