I will always remember the look of anguish in a mother’s eyes, 30 years ago, when she told me that her daughter was excluded from her peer group at church, and therefore sought acceptance in a crowd of teenagers with low moral standards. In her view, this one act of snubbing had led to her daughter’s embrace of immorality and a complete lapse in church activity. The daughter was unusually beautiful and equally charming, turning the heads of many young men. Her mother blamed jealousy for the actions of the other young women, who shunned this girl from their parties and lunch table. Before long, the girl’s moral choices became another reason to distance themselves from her. Yet, according to her mother, she might not have made those choices if she had found acceptance among the “good girls.”

Another family I know struggled for years to get boys in their ward to play with their son. The “nothing in common” excuses soon led to his finding other friends at school, a crowd his parents would never have chosen, a crowd whose peer influence was to avoid church, scouting, and a mission, rather than to embrace those goals. Here he was accepted without harsh judgments or ridicule. Here he found acceptance, and soon pulled away from the path his parents had always urged him to follow. The mother says she will never forgive the flimsy excuses her supposed friends made, to avoid having their sons associate with hers.

Acceptance. Psychologists tell us it’s one of the basic human needs, on the same list as food and shelter. And while we shouldn’t jump through hoops to please a crowd, it’s nevertheless human nature to avoid people who disapprove of us, and to like those who like us back. Everyone needs a friend.

Thousands of families have borne the sorrow of their children being ignored-or worse, persecuted– by church members who should have embraced and loved them, as Christ taught. They see hypocrisy in families who point and whisper, who urge their children to stay away from kids who don’t fit the cookie-cutter image. It happens in schools and neighborhoods around the world, but we wince even more when it happens among church members who should know better. Gangly, awkward kids find themselves excluded from the “cool group,” brainy kids find themselves taunted by less academic children, overweight children are called names-you’ve seen the gamut of teasing and avoiding. And most kids can only tolerate so much rejection before they gravitate towards others who accept them as they are. But this should never happen among Saints who understand Christ’s gospel.

When I was in grade school my elder sister had been at a party where police had made a “marijuana bust.” Her name had been in the paper and the following day one of my LDS classmates told me she wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore. My sister’s actions had tainted me, labeled me, discounted me. Cruel and unfair? Of course. I could picture this girl’s mother, self-righteously forbidding her daughter to associate with me, and felt a wave of hurt that I still remember, almost 50 years later.

But this brings us to the other side of the coin. Aren’t we, as parents, supposed to steer our children toward good friends? In the booklet, “For the Strength of Youth,” kids are urged to find associates with high morals and ideals who help them keep their standards. We tell our children to pick friends wisely, and we worry if we see them hanging with the wrong crowd. So where do we draw the line? How do we encourage our children to love the unlovable and help those in need, yet still surround themselves with kids striving to do right? Can you do both at the same time?

Many families feel the risk is just too great. Let someone else rescue that guy, seems to be their thinking. They don’t want to take the chance that the rebel could influence their kid and pull him to “the dark side.” Consequently, the rebel finds a group that accepts him. Will God hold us accountable for being so unkind, so unwilling to reach out to one of his children and guide them back? Have we missed the opportunity to teach our children the importance of rescuing His sheep? Will they forever wrinkle their noses at people who are “different,” and avoid being contaminated by sinners?

It’s an ugly image, this idea of a supposedly squeaky clean crowd shunning the misfit-and the irony is deafening. Children who grow up without charity in their hearts are of little use in the kingdom. They become the missionaries who never really love the people, the workers who never really mentor the new guy, the spouses who can’t tolerate differences in their mate. They’ve never learned to look past the sin and love the sinner. While we know that righteous judgments must be made, they’ve stepped beyond that line and condemned. They’ve discriminated when they should have reached for the “hands that hang down.” Instead of serving, they were severing.

It’s true that we don’t need to embrace evil, or tolerate disobedience of God’s commandments. But we mustn’t confuse our devotion to our principles with our dedication to people. Children can befriend the underdog without losing their entire identity, or their grip on good sense. If parents have taught their children correct values, and if their children can be part of a rescue effort, their kids will be equipped to lead out better than ever, with testimonies stronger for having shared them.

None of our Heavenly Father’s children should be outcasts. A Young Men’s or Young Women’s group could take on a struggling teen as a project, plan activities that specifically address that person’s interests, and draw a circle that includes, instead of excludes. In that same “For the Strength of Youth Pamphlet” it says, “Treat everyone with kindness and respect, and refrain from judging and criticizing those around you. Do not participate in any form of bullying. Make a special effort to be a friend to those who are shy or lonely, have special needs, or do not feel included.”

Adults can invite the loner to their activities as well. People can cross the chapel to shake hands with someone whose appearance doesn’t reflect standard church attire, yet whose heart could be crying out for love. If this person were drowning, we’d jump into the water to save him. Maybe we need to remember that oxygen is on the same list as acceptance. Both are essential, both require our immediate action.

Listen to Hilton’s radio advice show at blogtalkradio.com/jonihilton on Thursdays at 2pm PST. And be sure to read her blog at jonihilton.blogspot.com. Hilton’s latest three novels, Jungle, Sisters in the Mix, and Pinholes Into Heaven are available at Amazon, www.mormonbooksandauthors.com, and in paperback at Createspace.com.

Her most recent LDS comedy is Funeral Potatoes-The Novel (Covenant Communications), available in LDS bookstores. She currently serves as Relief Society President in her ward in northern California.