My problem(s) with Dobson

In the entry on Religious Intolerance, turnerbroadcasting said"BTW Dobson is one of the Great Doctors IMHO and a good father. I recommend reading "Hide or Seek" - one of his earliest works, it helps with raising young boys."

Like many here, I have some pretty strong feelings about Dobson and his kind of Christianity, but before I'd ever heard of his religious views, I had been put off by his views on parenting.

I first heard about James Dobson when my kids were younger. Actually, on a particularly challenging outing to the grocery store, a smiling woman in front of me in line handed me a small piece of paper with a book suggestion for me:  The New Dare to Discipline by Dr. James Dobson. At that point, I knew enough about Dobson to know that this was her way of saying, "Those kids need to be smacked more often!" I am convinced that our nation's overreliance on punitive "teaching" methods is a big part of our problem...but I will need to address that issue in more detail at another time.

By the way, just as there are religious progressives here, there is also a "Christian parenting expert" with a very different approach. Click here to see how Dr. William Sears answers questions related to discipline.)

Dobson has written a book specifically addressing how to parent a "strong-willed child", and in it he uses the example of the way he dealt with his dachshund's "willful" behavior.

Please don't misunderstand me. Siggie is a member of our family and we love him dearly. And despite his anarchistic nature, I have finally taught him to obey a few simple commands. However, we had some classic battles before he reluctantly yielded to my authority.

"The greatest confrontation occurred a few years ago when I had been in Miami for a three-day conference. I returned to observe that Siggie had become boss of the house while I was gone. But I didn't realize until later that evening just how strongly he felt about his new position as Captain.

"At eleven o'clock that night, I told Siggie to go get into his bed, which is a permanent enclosure in the family room. For six years I had given him that order at the end of each day, and for six years Siggie had obeyed.

"On this occasion, however, he refused to budge. You see, he was in the bathroom, seated comfortably on the furry lid of the toilet seat. That is his favorite spot in the house, because it allows him to bask in the warmth of a nearby electric heater..."

"When I told Sigmund to leave his warm seat and go to bed, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He deliberately braced himself by placing one paw on the edge of the furry lid, then hunched his shoulders, raised his lips to reveal the molars on both sides, and uttered his most threatening growl. That was Siggie's way of saying. "Get lost!"

"I had seen this defiant mood before, and knew there was only one way to deal with it. The ONLY way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else works. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me 'reason' with Mr. Freud."

Nice. I don't know of any dog behavior experts who recommend the belt method. Go here and click "Aversives for Dogs" for a PDF listing more humane suggestions. Neither is physical punishment recommended for improving the behavior of children--sure, you will find some, like Dobson, who maintain that it's a good idea. Me? I think I'll listen to the American Academy of Pediatrics before I take his advice.

I find Dobson's advice especially troubling because I am the parent of a "strong willed child". It is my belief, both from my experience with my child and what I've read about children with similar characteristics, that Dobson's approach would be counterproductive.

Dobson advocates the spanking of children from 15-18 months to eight years old. According to Dobson, "pain is a marvelous purifier" especially for rebellious children. (Dare to Discipline, p.6) He does not advocate harsh spanking, "it is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely." (Ibid., p.7.)

In The Strong-Willed Child (p.73), Dobson writes: "Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted." To help determine the amount of punishment, he suggests that "two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, 'You must obey me.'" (The Strong-Willed Child, pp. 53-4.)

Dobson suggests that by correctly portraying authority to a child, the child will understand how to interact with other authority figures. "By learning to yield to the loving authority...of his parents, a child learns to submit to other forms of authority which will confront him later in his life -- his teachers, school principal, police, neighbors and employers." (The Strong-Willed Child, p. 235.)

Dobson stresses that parents must uphold their authority and do so consistently, "When you are defiantly challenged, win decisively." (Dare to Discipline, p. 36.)

For some kids, this is a recipe for escalation of the problem. Ross Green's concept of the explosive child was very helpful for me in understanding kids like this. And Gordon Neufeld's concept of counterwill affirmed something that I had already suspected. What appears to be "willful behavior" in fact, it reflects an absence of a well integrated self and "will" as well as an environmental experience of being overrun by someone else's will.

Kids like this need help learning self-control, coping skills, shifting gears. A while back I watched a video featuring Rick Lavoie, an expert on learning disabled children. He gave an example of a friend of his who has a daughter with a learning disability. When Rick was at the man's house for dinner, the daughter said something inappropriate at the dinner table. After the girl had been sent to her room, he asked (I'm paraphrasing from a sketchy memory here), "If she were doing badly in a sport, would you punish her or coach her?" Rick Lavoie recommends a technique he calls a "social autopsy" as a teaching tool for children with social skills deficits.

Mind you, finding out the root of the problem, and teaching the necessary skills is "hard work", but for some "strong willed" children, it's the only sane, humane solution.

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Dobson's The Model For Lakoff's 'Strict Father'
On top of everything you've written, people should know that Dobson is cited by Lakoff in Moral Politics as the prime embodiment of the "Strict Father" parenting model.  

Lakoff also goes into the research which shows that Dobson's approach doesn't work--most notably, the research of Diana Baumrind (super-briefly summarized here). Instead of producing the morally autonomous adults it's supposed to, it tends to turn out adults who lack a strong inner-directed moral sense.  

Of course, we all know that turnerbroadcasting is a fool, so his praise for Dobson comes as no surprise.

by Paul Rosenberg 2005-04-18 07:38PM | 0 recs
I followed your link to the original post, provided a quick reply there, and am posting my full comment here.

My wife and I did a lot of research on parenting styles and parenting practices, etc. Dobson's methods fall into the "let the kids cry" camp and are antithetical to the more humane practices espoused by Dr. Sears.

There is a huge, huge amount of discussion elsewhere in the Internet about the merits--and demerits--of these two camps. Very divisive stuff.

Since we are in a political forum, however, I'll limit my comments to the Dobson's sociopolitical aspects of parenting that I dislike.

But before I do, I offer this anecdote which I think typifies Dobson's wrongness.

When Googling for some info on "Attachment Parenting" (whose principles also are antithetical to Dobson's creed), I was amazed that a "Attachment Parenting"-tagged paid link appeared pointing to one of Dobson's parenting web sites. The lead to the link said his site offered "scientific evidence" about parenting decisions.     (The lead still exists at the top of Google's paid advertisers but no longer includes this phrase.)

I reviewed his site pretty extensively and found (a) the phrase "attachment parenting" appeared no where on his site--still the case--, and (b) his site actually disreputed the value of scientific evidence for making parenting decisions.  Though I already had little esteem for Dobson, still it surprised me that his camp would create such a misleading Google ad link to his site.  

Back to the socio-politics of the matter.  

In a nutshell, Dobson perpetuates a continuation of the so-called "traditional" hierarchical and patriarchal family model.  It is a simplistic model of absolutes which discounts variances among children and their personalities. What's convenient for the parent today often takes precedence over what's good for the child in the long run. "It worked for me" and "It was good enough for me" often seem to be the only rationales to support some of the practices and theories.  It take no imagination to see how this attitude reflects the tone of today's Republican party.  My gosh, the lead item on his "family" web site ( is his organization's support of the end of filibusters!    His true agenda and priorities are obvious.

In contrast, Dr. Sears  and Attachment Parenting International (API) do rely on scientific research, and promote the expansion of more research in critical areas.  I'll pull just one line each from each site to exemplify their general philosophies.

From Sears: "Being a moral child includes being responsible, developing a conscience, and being sensitive toward the needs and rights of others."

From API: "These [parenting] methods nurture and fulfill a child's need for trust, empathy, and affection, providing a lifelong foundation for healthy, enduring relationships.

I tip my hat to those who have the time and energy to cite and include original source material; unfortunately, I do not at this time and so can only present a synthesis of my opinion on the matter.  However, a quick browse of the three web sites I've mentioned would quickly illustrate their different tones and philosophies.

by sawgrass727 2005-04-18 07:57PM | 0 recs
Forgot to include API's site
Attachment Parenting International
by sawgrass727 2005-04-18 08:22PM | 0 recs


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