Advocates of unconditional acceptance find themselves confronted with a dilemma since this concept strips parents, teachers, and other authority figures in society of a basis for dealing with bad behavior. If a parent is committed to unconditional acceptance, what does he or she do with the teenager who is doing drugs and not doing homework? Or how does the teacher committed to unconditional acceptance respond to the student who disrupts class, making it impossible for others to learn?
Taken at face value, unconditional acceptance calls these authority figures to accept unconditionally, which means unconditionally. Therefore, it will not do to convey, “I accept you if you stop taking drugs, start doing your homework, or stop disrupting the class.”
One tactic those committed to unconditional acceptance employ to escape this dilemma is expressed in the cliché: “I accept you but not your inappropriate behavior.” This perspective allows the authority figure to maintain acceptance of the person and still deal with the problem. At least that is the theory.
However, this cliché will not work for several significant reasons.
The Human Problem
The foundational problem with this perspective is that making a dichotomy between the person and his behavior strips the human being of his humanness. If my choices and the resulting behaviors, whether they manifest themselves in attitudes, words, or actions, do not characterize who I am as a human being, if I can be acceptable even though my behaviors are not, then my humanness has been reduced to something very shallow.
Jesus rejects this dichotomy between the person and his behavior in saying: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.” (Mat 12:33) “I accept you but not your inappropriate behavior” asserts that bad fruit can grow on a good (acceptable) tree.
The problem with this perspective becomes especially apparent when we consider the person who displays good behavior. He no doubt would take affront to the position that his morality, hard work, and discipline say nothing about who he is as a person, make him no more or less acceptable than someone who never studies, does drugs, and spends all his spare time eating Twinkies and playing perverse video games.
In essence, this position asserts that character does not matter. A person is equally acceptable with bad or good character. Some psychologists speak of the individual’s “human core” as if it is distinct from his behavior. “I’m okay, you’re okay” presupposes that one’s human core makes him okay ipso facto, and therefore whatever his behavior might be is irrelevant. Are they ready to say that Adolf Hitler was okay? Would we accept him but not his inappropriate behavior?
Both Scripture and a commonsense view of human nature make the person and his behavior inseparable.
The Practical Problem
In an attempt to apply unconditional acceptance in the real world, accepting the person but not his behavior creates a practical problem in dealing with the person behaving inappropriately.
By distancing the individual from his behavior, we negate the basis for discipline. We can’t discipline behaviors. We can only discipline persons. A parent doesn’t say, “You bad behavior, I’m going to put you in timeout.” It is the person that is put in timeout. But if the person is acceptable, why are we disciplining him? And if we do discipline him, are we not conveying non-acceptance toward the person?
Discipline is difficult enough to administer when we have a solid foundation for doing so. For most of us it requires all possible motivation to engage in this unpleasant task. Consequently, the confusion instigated by “I accept you but not your inappropriate behavior,” discourage authority figures in contemporary society from engaging in disciplinary action, or at best minimizing this endeavor. We see the results in every nook and cranny of contemporary American society.
We see, then, that “I accept you but not your inappropriate behavior” does not provide a valid and practical approach toward dealing with those displaying destructive behaviors while conveying unconditional acceptance to them. Instead, unconditional acceptance deprives authority figures of any means of exercising their authority and hence meeting the commensurate responsibilities. We find this impossible situation and the tensions it creates especially manifested in the relationships between parents with their children and teachers with their students. Both arenas in contemporary society have turned into battle zones specifically because of this unresolved tension between our cultural commitment to unconditional acceptance and the realities of human nature.
However, the psychology of Carl Rogers gives us assurance that this will all work out for the best. His basis for this assurance is the topic for tomorrow’s post.