The first time I learned about the validation that comes with giving someone permission to experience their reality came when I was 10 years old. I was regularly invited to sleep over at my friend Joel’s house. I suffered horribly from being homesick when I was younger. It was often a source of ridicule from peers and a source of shame from within.
On this particular evening Joel had invited me to come stay the night. I considered not even going to avoid the shame of Joel’s parents calling my mom at eleven o’clock at night to come pick me up. But the virtual Disneyland playground in Joel’s backyard beckoned me to come and I had brought my laser weapon, for my role was always that of Han Solo. Joel was Luke Skywalker and we would fight the clone army to save our beloved Princess Leia. I had to go, so I mustered up the courage to try again.
I walked up to the door with my mom in tow on a Friday evening after school, and waited for what always happened. I waited for my friend’s mom to tell me how much fun I was going to have that evening, and for the pressure of her promise to me that I’d never get homesick at their house. I was sure I would disappoint.
But Joel’s mom did something different this time. She brought me into the house, turned to my mother, and calmly said, “Goodbye for now, I’ll probably be seeing you later tonight.” I stared up at this brilliant woman who had become the first person ever to give me permission to be homesick. And because I walked around all evening thinking to myself that I could get homesick any time I wanted, and that it would be okay and even expected, I never once felt it come on. I stayed at Joel’s for the first time and mom got to stay at home.
Permitting someone ownership of the his or her beliefs, impulses, defenses, and their consequences in your presence, without applying any pressure on the person to change, is a powerful phenomenon for encouraging the very change never asked for. It’s a concept that Carl Roger’s coined unconditional regard. It is an active appreciation of one’s felt need to stay as they are even when negative consequences are apparent or severe. Never manipulative, never designed specifically for change nor offered up in the spirit of contradictory restriction, the act of respecting individuals’ control over their being and the choices they make serves naturally to liberate them from the need to defend, broadcast, or otherwise impose these choices. In the absence of fear and threat, an individual is freer to consider what is working and what isn’t, and make changes experienced as autonomous.
When I think about many of the strategies we’ve seen in youth ministry to “win souls” or “disciple” our students, I wonder how many of them actually CHOOSE Christ versus how many are simply pressured into conformity. It should come as no surprise when they leave our nests that they don’t return. I’m not implying that we shouldn’t call out the best of our students but too often our means doesn’t allow for an autonomous choice driven by an awareness that the old way of doing things isn’t working and the promises of God are compelling enough to let them go. Let’s give kids permission to be who they really are and to validate their perspectives and feelings (regardless of whether they reflect current reality). Maybe by doing this our kids will allow us the influence we want but usually try to take by force.