Dobson's Use Of Inappropriate Stories To Illustrate Points

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Dobson peppered his books with numerous stories, anecdotes, and real-life examples to illustrate various points. As I read, I was struck by how inappropriate some of his illustrations were. This was not simply a matter of Dobson using one solitary poor example but rather of him consistently using inappropriate, misleading, or irrelevant illustrations throughout both The New Dare To Discipline and The New Strong-Willed Child.


Perhaps the most widely repeated and criticized of Dobson's illustrations is the story he tells of a confrontation that took place between him and his dog Siggie.

   [The members of the Dobson household] all lived together in relative harmony with a minimum of conflict and strife. But there was another member of our family who was less congenial and cooperative. He was a stubborn, twelve-pound dachshund named Sigmund Freud (Siggie), who honestly believed that he owned the place....He was not vicious or mean; he just wanted to run things--and the two of us engaged in a power struggle throughout his lifetime....
   Please don't misunderstand me: Siggie was a member of our family and we loved him dearly....However, we had some classic battles before he reluctantly yielded to my authority. The greatest confrontation occurred 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 was 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 that occasion, however, he refused to budge. He was in the bathroom, seated comfortably on the furry lid of the toilet seat. That was his favorite spot in the house, because it allowed him to bask in the warmth of a nearby electric heater....
   On the night of our great battle, I told Sigmund to leave his warm seat and go to bed. Instead, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He 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 the most threatening growl. That was Siggie's way of saying, "Get lost!"
   I had seen this defiant mood before and knew that I had to deal with it. The only way to make Siggie obey was to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else worked. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me "reason" with 'ol Sig. My wife, who was watching this drama unfold, told me that as soon as I left the room, Siggie jumped from his perch and looked down the hall to see where I had gone. Then he got behind her and growled.
   When I returned, I held up the belt and again told the angry dog to get into his bed. He stood his ground so I gave him a firm swat across the rear end, and he tried to bite the belt. I popped him again and he tried to bite me. What developed next is impossible to describe. That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling. I am still embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie jumped on the couch and backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him into his bed, but only because I outweighed him two hundred to twelve!
   The following night I expected another siege of combat at Siggie's bedtime. To my surprise, however, he accepted my command without debate or complaint and simply trotted toward the family room in perfect submission. In fact, Siggie and I never had another "go for broke" stand. (Emphasis mine)[1]

This story is troubling for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is uncomfortably violent; Dobson seems to actually emphasize the violent nature of the confrontation. Secondly, he does not appear to have tried to understand Siggie's needs and motivation. Thirdly, I suspect the entire confrontation could have been avoided, or at least vastly altered, if Siggie had been better trained. Fourthly, when the conflict arose Dobson immediately resorted to using painful physical measures to resolve the conflict. Finally, Dobson uses this story to open The New Strong-Willed Child; everything that comes after is coloured by the opening chapter, and Dobson evidently chooses to use the story of a violent confrontation with his dog to encapsulate the spirit of the philosophy he lays out in The New Strong-Willed Child.

The violence of the story should not, I think, be ignored. I am not a parent, and my only experience with child-rearing has been as a child; however, if I were a parent, my desire would be to have enough authority over my children that a violent confrontation like the one Dobson recounts would not occur in the first place. As a result I would be hesitant to take parenting advice from a man who uses this sort of story to illustrate his philosophy.

It seems to me that Dobson is, in a way, saying, "My child-rearing techniques will (or, at the least, can) result in violent physical confrontations between parent and child."

As a potential future parent, I would prefer to study the advice of people who say, "My child-rearing techniques will help you avoid violent confrontation and minimize the friction between parent and child."

As I look back upon my own childhood, I think that many of the confrontations that occurred between my parents and me sprang from misunderstandings and clashing points of view. I do not think my parents understood me and my desires and motivations particularly well, and I did not express myself in a way they could appreciate.

I wonder if a similar lack of understanding and communication was in play during Dobson's confrontation with Siggie. Dobson seems to have assumed that Siggie was being defiant merely for the sake of being defiant. I will grant that is a possible explanation; however, I can think of two other likely possibilities.

The first is that Siggie did not want to go to his nighttime enclosure because he found it uncomfortably cold. Dobson himself said that Siggie sat on the toilet seat because it was situated next to an electric heater. If discomfort was causing Siggie to rebel, it seems to me that, instead of beating him to make him obey, Dobson ought to have either taken steps to make Siggie's enclosure warmer and more comfortable or should have simply allowed Siggie to sleep were he was comfortable.

Another possibility is that Siggie did not like Dobson. Prior to their confrontation, Dobson had been out of the house for several days. Perhaps Siggie had realized how much more comfortable the home environment was without Dobson around and was angry to see him return. Perhaps Siggie was, in his own way, trying to stand up to an over-bearing and overly controlling individual. If that was the case, Dobson ought to have reconsidered the way he interacted with his dog and possibly have talked to a dog trainer about effective ways to communicate with Siggie.

It certainly seems to me that Dobson's relationship with Siggie as a whole was somewhat tainted by Siggie's lack of training. Elsewhere in the story Dobson mentions that...

Siggie refused to engage in any of the self-improvement programs that I initiated on his behalf.

Although I could be wrong, it sounds to me as if Dobson tried to train Siggie by himself and was, apparently, unsuccessful. According to Dobson, Siggie was a very stubborn and uncooperative animal. Perhaps an amateur such as Dobson was not qualified to train a dog like Siggie.

Instead of haphazardly trying to train his dog himself, perhaps Dobson ought to have enlisted the aid of a professional dog trainer. If he had done that, I suspect that the confrontation he wrote about would never have occurred.

I am more of a cat and small-fuzzy-animal person so I do not have any first hand experience with dog training. However, the research that I have done seems to indicate that many professional dog trainers consider spanking an inappropriate form of punishment or method of control. As well known dog trainer Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis has written...

Fear, pain and punishment are not training techniques. No good comes of them. To be clear, this rules out the use of fireplace tools, cattle prods, shock collars, bats, rolled up newspapers, dark closets, burning, spanking, hitting, thumping, sitting on, pulling ears or tail, stepping on paws, starvation, dehydration, chaining, yelling...[2]

Debbie Nagler, a dog trainer writing for Harmony Animal Hospital (an AAHA accredited animal hospital which was voted Best Animal Hospital in Palm Beach County by the readers of the Palm Beach Post[3]) wrote...

It is never okay to hit/spank your dog. There is nothing positive that can come from it. Your dog might become defensively aggressive (try to protect themselves from you), or submissive and afraid of you. They're supposed to respect and look to you in trust, for direction. Don't betray that.[4]

Beyond that, even the references I have read that speak about spanking a dog mention only one or two swift smacks. Nowhere do the descriptions of dog spankings even approach the knock-down, drag-out fight Dobson opens The New Strong-Willed Child with.

Even if spanking were an acceptable dog-training tool, it troubles me that, when confronted with disobedience, Dobson immediately turned to corporal punishment as a means of forcing obedience from his dog. Not only does this clash with Dobson's own teachings on spanking (as I will talk about later), it seems a gross overreaction. Were there no other milder measure he could have taken? It seems to me that if, as Dobson states, he weighed 200 pounds and the dog only weighed 12 pounds, then Dobson could have solved the problem merely by picking Siggie up (perhaps wrapping him in a towel to avoid getting scratched) and forcibly removing him to his enclosure.

The question does cross my mind: if Dobson is not able to even train his dog properly, then why on earth would I think he is capable of giving good advice on raising children who are infinitely more complex than animals?

Finally, I find it very troubling that Dobson chooses to open a book about child-rearing with this story. I do not know what constitutes animal abuse, but I do know that, had a child been substituted for Siggie, Dobson's actions would have amounted to child abuse.

This is no minor issue to me. The way an author chooses to open his book influences the spirit in which a reader views the rest of the work. Everything that follows will be read in the light of this first story and of the lesson Dobson is trying to convey. As he writes...

This is not a book about the discipline of dogs. But there is an important aspect of my story that is highly relevant to the world of children. Just as surely as a dog will occasionally challenge the authority of his leaders, a child is inclined to do the same thing, only more so.[5]

A few paragraphs later, he writes...

[W]hether you are a parent, a grandparent, a Scout leader, a bus driver, or a schoolteacher, I can guarantee that sooner or later, one of the children under your authority will clench his little fist and take you on. Like Siggie at bedtime, he will say with his manner: "I don't think you are tough enough to make me obey." You had better be prepared to prove him wrong in that moment, or the challenge will happen again and again.[6]

And should a parent respond to that challenge with brutal force? The implication of the story of Siggie certainly seems to be, yes.

But, beyond its violent aspects, it seems to me that through this story Dobson is starting to guide parents down a path that will result in a great deal of miscommunication and misunderstanding between them and their children. He is setting parents up to assume that when their children challenge them they are doing so solely for the sake of being defiant in and of itself--that they have no other motivation for being disobedient and want simply to see if their parents will cave to their demands or remain strong and punish them. By doing this, Dobson influences parents to view their children with distrust and to see every disagreement as a potential coup attempt and to respond with over-whelming force.

Any sections further on in The New Strong Willed Child where Dobson attempts to urge kindness and understanding, will, I suspect, be read in the light of this first story, and I fear that parents will feel it is inappropriate to give their children too much leeway or show them too much mercy because doing so might result in their children becoming rebellious.

The Girdle

Another widely dissected story told by Dobson is that of the time his mother struck him with her girdle.

   My own mother had an unusually keen understanding of good disciplinary procedures....She was very tolerant of my childishness, and I found her reasonable on most issues....But there was one matter on which she was absolutely rigid: She did not tolerate sassiness. She knew that backtalk and what she called "lip" were a child's most potent weapon to defiance and had to be discouraged.
   I learned very early that if I was going to launch a flippant attack on her, I had better be standing at least twelve feet away. This distance was necessary to avoid an instantaneous response--usually aimed at my backside.
The day I learned the importance of staying out of reach shines like a neon light in my mind. I made the costly mistake of sassing her when I was about four feet away. I knew I had crossed the line and wondered what she would do about it. It didn't take long to find out. Mom wheeled around to grab something with which to express her displeasure, and her hand landed on a girdle. Those were the days when a girdle was lined with rivets and mysterious panels. She drew back and swung that abominable garment in my direction, and I can still hear it whistling through the air. The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles, wrapping themselves around my midsection. She gave me an entire thrashing with one blow! But from that day forward, I measured my words carefully when addressing my mother. I never spoke disrespectfully to her again, even when she was seventy-five years old.[7]

This is an inappropriate illustration for several reasons....

Firstly, his mother's action clashes with Dobson's advice on corporal punishment.

In The New Strong-Willed Child Dobson reprints a series of spanking guidelines written by Dr. Den A. Trumbull. The fourth rule Dr. Trumbull sets down is…

Spanking should not be administered on impulse or when a parent is out of control.[8]

The action of Dobson's mother comes across as very sudden and impulsive--certainly not executed in a calm and reasoned fashion.

Dobson himself states very plainly in The New Strong-Willed Child that

[Spankings] should be confined to the buttocks area, where permanent damage is very unlikely.[9]

Not only did Dobson's mother strike him across the chest, she did so with an object that held many small, hard metal parts--hardly an appropriate spanking tool if one wants to be certain of avoiding permanent physical damage--and she used such force that Dobson himself states that she "gave me an entire thrashing with one blow".

Dobson himself is, evidently, aware of the controversy this story stirs up, for he goes on to write...

   I have shared that story many times through the years, to an interesting response. Most people found it funny and fully understood the innocuous meaning of that moment. A few others, who never met my mother and had no knowledge of her great love for me, quickly condemned her for the abusiveness of that event....
   If you're inclined to agree with the critics, please hear me out. I am the only person on earth who can report accurately the impact of my mother's action. I'm the only one who lived it. And I'm here to tell you that the girdle-blow was an act of love! My mother would have laid down her life for me in a heartbeat, and I always knew it. She would not have harmed a hair on my fuzzy head. Yes, she was angry at my insolence, but her sudden reaction was a corrective maneuver. We both knew I richly deserved it. And that is why the momentary pain of that event did not assault my self-worth. Believe it or not, it made me feel loved. Take it or leave it, Dr. Psychologist, but that's the truth.[10]

I, personally, find Dobson's claim that he is the only one capable of accurately assessing the impact of that encounter with his mother to be dubious at best. After all, how many abused women and children have convinced themselves that their abusers love them and are beating them because they deserve it?

However, even granting the claim that the incident with his mother was not improper and did not impact him negatively, the story itself is still an inappropriate illustration for this book. As Dobson himself has noted, it engenders very strong and conflicting emotional responses in people, and, as I have pointed out, his mother's actions do not line up with Dobson's personal advice about corporal punishment. As a result, the story causes confusion about Dobson's teachings, whereas the purpose of an illustration is to provide clarity.

The Grocery Carts

Very early in The New Strong-Willed Child Dobson searches to find an appropriate illustration to elucidate for his readers the difference between compliant children and strong-willed children. He settles upon the following example:

   Image yourself in a grocery store, pushing a cart up the aisle. You give the basket a small shove, and it glides at least nine feet out in front and then comes to a gradual stop. You walk along happily tossing in the soup and ketchup and loaves of bread. Grocery shopping is such an easy task, for even when the cart is burdened with goods, it can be directed with one finger.
   But buying groceries is not always so blissful. On other occasions, you select a cart that ominously awaits your arrival at the front of the market. When you push the stupid thing forward, it tears off to the left and knocks over a stack of bottles. Refusing to be out muscled by an empty cart, you throw all your weight behind the handle, fighting desperately to keep the ship on course. It seems to have a mind of its own as it darts toward the eggs and careens back in the direction of a terrified grandmother in green tennis shoes. You are trying to do the same shopping assignment that you accomplished with ease the week before, but the job feels more like combat duty today. You are exhausted by the time you herd the contumacious cart toward the checkout counter.
   What is the difference between the two shopping baskets? Obviously, one had straight, well-oiled wheels that go where they are guided. The other has crooked, bent wheels that refuse to yield.
Do you get the point? We might as well face it; some kids have crooked wheels! They do not want to go where they are led, because their own inclinations take them in other directions. Furthermore, the parent who is pushing the cart must expend seven times the energy to make it move, compared with the parent of a child with straight wheels. (Emphasis mine)

This illustration is so inappropriate and the mindset behind it so cockeyed that commentary by me almost seems superfluous; however, having started this critical essay, it is my duty to soldier on....

You simply cannot honestly liken children (whether strong-willed or compliant) to shopping carts. A shopping cart is a non-living, non-sentient instrument specifically created to aid people in the execution of their shopping tasks. Children, on the other hand, are living, sentient people with their own thoughts, their own emotions, their own desires and their own personalities. They have no set purpose on this earth, and they certainly weren't put here to make their parents' lives easier.

And yet, Dobson's illustration is based on the idea that a child should not have a will of his own, should not have a personal opinion about which direction he should go, should only go the way his parents guide him. Dobson implies that a child who has a strong sense of himself and his own desires is in some way defective--i.e. they "have crooked wheels".

When a shopping cart does not go the way it is pushed, that means there is something wrong with the cart. However, it does not follow that when a child does not go the way he is guided by his parents there is something wrong with him. Yes, in some situations, it might mean there is something wrong with him, but it might also mean that he has a better grasp of what his needs are than his parents do, or it might meant that, even though the child's desired course is not proper, the direction his parents are currently trying to force him to go is also not correct.

It seems to me that if a child is veering off on his own course, a parent should not immediately try to fight it but should instead observe what the child is trying to do, and, if it is safe, let him follow his desires.

There is no single route that life must follow; there are a million different destinations and a billion different ways of reaching them. Why should a parent not allow a child to explore his different desires and interests as much as is possible? Why try to force him to stay on one single arbitrary path?

The shopping cart illustration is not the only place in The New Strong-Willed Child in which Dobson tries to show his readers what a strong-willed child looks like, and I find myself coming away from these other illustrations with the same sense that I came away with from the above illustration--namely, that Dobson has shown less a particularly strong-willed child than he had shown a parent improperly responding to her child.

The Mothers Tell Their Stories

In the second chapter of The New Strong-Willed Child Dobson reprints a transcript of a discussion he had with several mothers of, ostensibly, strong-willed children that aired on the Focus On The Family radio show.

JCD:[L]et me ask Kristen to tell us her story.
Kristen: Well, in hindsight, I think we knew shortly after birth that our daughter, Lizz, was strong-willed. At ten days old she was taken to the hospital with a case of spinal meningitis. As they were trying to get a spinal tap from her, she would arch her back instead of compliantly lying in a fetal position. They had to hold her down at ten days of age. The technicians ended up trying ten or twelve times before they could get untainted spinal fluid to culture so they could verify that she really had spinal meningitis. In fact, it was so bad they ended up going through a vein in her skull to get a sample. Then at eighteen months of age, we were visiting some friends for dinner. My two older kids were there, and our hostess had cut-glass candy dishes at each end of her couch. They didn't have any children yet so they could risk having something that fragile sitting out.
   I told my two oldest children, "These are glass. They'll break. Don't touch them. Don't play rough around here." I didn't even mention them to Lizz. I thought, I'll deal with that when the time comes. When she finally saw the candy dishes after dinner, we told her emphatically, "No, you're not going to touch that." And again I said with conviction, "No, we're not going to touch it." After the battle was over, my friend said, "Do you realize you slapped her hand nine times before she yielded?"
JCD: Did she eventually obey you?
Kristen: Yes, for that moment.
JCD: But she was saying emphatically, "I think I can outlast you."
Kristen: Oh yes. But the biggest fight we fought happened when she was five. I had been home schooling the kids. Lizz decided she wasn't getting enough attention one day. So I pulled her up on my lap. While she was sitting on my lap and I was still trying to teach, she started kicking me with one of her legs. Well, I put her leg between my legs so she couldn't kick me anymore. Then she started kicking me with the other leg. I put both legs between mine, and she started pinching and scratching.
   We ended up on the floor. She was actually spread-eagle on the floor. I was holding her down so that she could not hurt me or try to do damage to me. She was screaming, "Let go of me, let go of me," and I was saying, "We're here until you calm down." She'd quit crying and I'd start to pray, and she'd immediately start to scream again, "Don't you pray for me." So we'd start again. It turned out to be a forty-five-minute battle.
JCD: Lizz, do you remember that?
Lizz: I remember several times when I would just argue and end up on the floor with Mother on top of me. I was thinking, Who's going to win?! So it went on and on--I mean, it seemed like hours, sometimes. (Italics his)[12]

Later in the transcript, Dobson asks a woman named Debra to tell her story.

Debra: Well, I had two [strong-willed children], but one was really tough; I knew she was a strong-willed child before she was born. She was part of a twin set. I wanted her twin brother to be the football player and my daughter to be the nice, sweet, little cheerleader. As it turned out, she is the one being recruited by the football team, and my son is a wonderful child who writes tender poetry. He'll be the best pediatrician in the whole world. So my kids kind of flip-flopped.
   The night before they were born, I was scheduled for a C-section because I don't dilate. I was playing table games with some friends next door, and I had this eruption, like a volcano or an earthquake, in my stomach. I know that it's probably not possible, but I swear my daughter switched places with my son. He was the lower child so he was expected to come out first, and she just went "shoo." I had this horrible experience the next morning. I woke up in a pool of blood. My baby girl was going to come out of that cervix whether it dilated or not. I was raced to the hospital and taken into emergency surgery. My daughter was going to come out no matter what the obstacles. So talk about being born smoking a cigar, yelling orders at the nursing staff, complaining about the temperature--that was my baby girl.
JCD: What was her babyhood like?
Debra: She was a challenge from the very first day! I had a five-year-old and a three-year-old, and then the twins were born. No grandparents lived close by. They would come and visit and help us, but I was a very busy young mother.
   Christina would scream and scream and scream. I thought, Well, she's sick. She must have medical problems, such as colic or whatever. But then her dad would walk in the room and she would start baby flirting and cooing. You know, that sweet little thing. All she wanted was her dad. So I thought, You can raise this child. I'll raise the other three. Because she's stronger willed than I am by a long shot.
JCD: How difficult was that for you emotionally?
Debra: It was very difficult because I was a mother at heart. I'd always wanted to be a mom. I had good relationships with my other children. My second is precious. She does what she can to help me and to serve. She's just a wonderful child. Then I get this child who's like...well, my in-laws and others call her "the kid and a half." (Italics his)[13]

Debra goes on to describe how her twins would climb out of their crib at night and would run around the house and do things like climbing into "the sink, playing with knives, opening the refrigerator, and throwing things around."[14]

I think both of these stories illustrate the ambiguity of the term "strong-willed child". I read these accounts and the children in them strike me as very normal--certainly not abnormally difficult, defiant, or energetic.

The idea that Debra's twins were displaying strong wills because they got up at night and ran around the house seems patently absurd. It is quite a leap in logic to claim that "my children get up at night and run around the house ergo they are strong-willed". What seems more likely is that they were getting up and running around because they weren't tired, couldn't sleep and were, therefore, bored.

It also seems a pretty big leap in logic to claim that the dramatic circumstances surrounding her birth are proof that a child possesses a strong will. I do believe children possess a certain degree of individual personality while they are still unborn, but there are so many different physical and medical factors involved in the process of giving birth that I don't think you can reasonably (and certainly not scientifically) claim that such-and-such a birth experience indicates the child possesses such-and-such a personality.

Nor do I see how a strong will is indicated by the fact that Debra's daughter desired her father's presence. Babies are people; they have their own personalities, needs and preferences. They get along with some people; they don't get along with others. It might, possibly, be somewhat more uncommon that a baby would prefer her father over her mother, but it's certainly not unheard of.

That she cried until her father entered the room also does not, in and of itself, indicate an overly strong will. Babies cannot talk. Their main way of indicating need is by crying. As a result, it seems very reasonable that a child who desires her father would cry until he finally enters the room.

I question Debra's ability to discern what is and is not a strong will. Elsewhere in the interview she states plainly, "I am not strong willed."[15] As a result, it seems to me that she could easily label another person "strong-willed" simply because, subjectively, that person has a stronger will than her, not because that person is objectively "strong-willed".

Just as I am dubious that Debra's experience of giving birth says anything about her daughter's personality, so am I also doubtful that the reaction of Kristen's daughter Lizz to being given a lumbar puncture says anything about her strength of will. The scene Kristen recounts strikes me as very understandable. Her daughter was sick with an illness that not only results in physical pain but has as some of its symptoms agitation, irritability, and mental status changes.[16]

As anyone who has watched House knows a lumbar puncture is a procedure in which a hollow needle is inserted into the subarachnoid space (i.e. the spinal canal) in the lower back and cerebrospinal fluid is extracted.[17] Is it really that abnormal that a sick baby would react in a strongly negative fashion to having that sort of procedure performed on her? Can Lizz's reaction really be taken as a sign of a strong-will?

Personally, I think not.

I will agree that the battle Kristen recounts having with Lizz does indicate that Lizz possesses (or, at least, possessed) a strong sense of herself and her own desires and a willingness to stand up against authority figures. However, it seems to me that (far from being a negative thing, which Dobson seems to be arguing), in this case, it was a very healthy character trait.

A mother who would physically fight her five year old child and hold her to the ground for forty-five minutes is clearly not treating her child properly. That sort of behavior strikes me as something that ought to be opposed, and, to me, it seems a sign of a healthy spirit that her daughter was standing up for herself against what I think can honestly be called abusive behavior.

During the course of the interview, Dobson briefly touches on this physical confrontation and says

If I may be candid, the three of you here today have described moments when you lost control of your children and were literally fighting physically to deal with your very difficult kids. It would appear that you were making some tactical errors at that point.

It shocks me, although it does not really surprise me, that Dobson speaks so mildly about a very serious lapse in both judgment and conduct. Far from Dobson's claim that Kristen "lost control of" her child, it seems to me that Kristen lost control of herself. I speak as a child who once had a parent physically attack me in a manner similar to the way Kristen assaulted her daughter: a parent should never do that; no good will come of it. I personally found such an experience to be extremely traumatic. It was insulting and degrading, and it resulted in an even greater rift in an already strained relationship.

For Dobson to refer to Kristen's treatment of her daughter as a mere "tactical error" seems to me to be a way of condoning Kristen's mindset even while he discourages her specific action. However, I seriously wonder whether the mindset that caused Kristen to physically attack her daughter might also have caused her to treat Lizz in a way that resulted in discord and promoted the negative sorts of actions that Kristen seems to think sprang from a strong will.

Examples of Abuse

To be fair, Dobson does speak against child abuse. In The New Dare To Discipline he writes...

   The cases I've dealt with over the years--of unloved and abused children--are impossible to forget. I remember the terrible father who regularly wrapped his small son's head in the sheet that the boy had wet the night before. Then he crammed the tot upside down into the toilet bowl for punishment. I also think of the disturbed mother who cut out her child's eyes with a razor blade. That poor little girl with go through life blind, knowing that her own mother deprived her of sight! Horrible acts like these are now occurring every day in cities and towns around us.
   We should also recognize that there are many ways to abuse a child without breaking the law. It can be done subtly by ignoring a boy or girl's desperate need for nurturance. It can be accomplished by unjust and unfair punishment, including parental acts that might pass for "corporal punishment"--such as routinely hitting, slapping, kicking, and throwing the child to the ground. Then there is the entire range of humiliating behavior by a mother or father, making a youngster feel stupid and weird and unloved. Within certain limits, these behaviors are not illegal. There is no one to rescue the pitiful child who is being twisted and warped by the big people around him. Let nothing in this book ever hint at my approval for such tyranny. (Italics his)[18]

On the one hand, it is very good that he condemns child abuse, but on the other hand, I question how much the above words help prevent inappropriate parental behaviour or cause parents to reconsider some of the ways in which they treat their children.

Although he mentions that milder types of abuse do exist, Dobson only gives illustrations of extreme forms of child abuse. I suspect that most parents would read those examples and be, as most people are, repulsed by them. I have never met anyone who thinks of themselves as a child abuser, and, based on my observations, parents naturally seem inclined to believe they're acting in their child's best interests.

My fear then is that, by associating the term "child abuse" with such extreme and brutal images, Dobson is making it less likely that the parents reading his book will recognized the abusive aspects of their own (milder) behavior. For example, when I read Kristen's account of physically holding her daughter down against the floor for forty-five minutes, my reaction is to term it abusive behavior. It is on the milder end of the spectrum, but it is still abuse. However, Kristin never shows any indication that she recognizes her behavior as even being inappropriate, much less actually abusive, and, even Dobson himself, only refers to it as a "tactical error".

While it is good that Dobson speaks out against extreme forms of abuse, I think his book would have been improved if he had then gone on to give some illustrations of milder forms of abuse that were also inappropriate, instead of simply mentioning "hitting, slapping, kicking, and throwing the child to the ground" in a general and abstract sense.

The Stories of Greg and Jake

In The New Strong-Willed Child Dobson gives two drawn out descriptions of what he considers to be strong-willed children and then proceeds to explain how he, if he were their parent, would go about disciplining them. I find these two stories and his response to them very interesting because I think they illustrate a fundamental inability on Dobson's part to step back and view the larger picture free from some of his preconceived ideas.

The description of Greg is actually a description from a book by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton entitled Toddlers and Parents which Dobson borrowed and reprinted in The New Strong-Willed Child

   When Greg began to be negative in the second year, his parents felt as if they had been hit by a sledge hammer. His good nature seemed submerged under a load of negatives. When his parents asked anything of him, his mouth took on a grim set, his eyes narrowed, and, facing them squarely with his penetrating look, he replied simply, "no!" When offered ice cream, which he loved, he preceded his acceptance with a "no." While he rushed out to get his snowsuit to go outside, he said "no" to going out.
   His parents' habit of watching Greg for cues now began to turn sour. He seemed to be fighting with them all of the time. When he was asked to perform a familiar chore, his response was, "I can't." When his mother tried to stop him from emptying his clothes drawer, his response was, "I have to." He pushed hard on every familiar imposed limit, and never seemed satisfied until his parent collapsed in defeat. He would turn on the television set when his mother left the room. When she returned, she turned it off, scolded Greg mildly, and left again. He turned it on. She came rushing back to reason with him, to ask him why he'd disobeyed her. He replied, "I have to." The intensity of her insistence that he leave it alone increased. He looked steadily back at her. She returned to the kitchen. He turned it on. She was waiting behind the door, swirled in to slap his hands firmly. He sighed deeply and said, "I have to." She sat down behind him, begging him to listen to her to avoid real punishment. Again he presented a dour mask with knitted brows to her, listening but not listening. She rose wearily, he walked over to the machine to turn it on. As she came right back, tears in her eyes, to spank him, she said, "Greg, why do you want me to spank you? I hate it!" To which he replied, "I have to." As she crumpled in the chair, weeping softly with him across her lap, Greg reached up to touch her wet face.
   After this clash, Mrs. Lang was exhausted. Greg sensed this and began to try to be helpful. He ran to the kitchen to fetch her mop and her dustpan, which he dragged in to her as she sat in her chair. This reversal made her smile and she gathered him up in a hug.
   Greg caught her change in mood and danced off gaily to a corner, where he slid behind a chair, saying "hi and see." As he pushed the chair out, he tipped over a lamp which went crashing to the floor. His mother's reaction was, "No, Greg!" He curled up on the floor, his hands over his ears, eyes tightly closed, as if he were trying to shut out all the havoc he had wrought.
   As soon as he was put into his high chair, he began to whine. She was so surprised that she stopped preparation of his food, and took him to change him. This did not settle the issue, and when she brought him to his chair again, he began to squirm and twist. She let him down to play until his lunch was ready. He lay on the floor, alternately whining and screeching. So unusual was this that she...felt his forehead for fever....Finally, she returned to fixing his lunch. Without an audience, Greg subsided.
   When she placed him in his chair again, his shrill whines began anew. She placed his plate in front of him with cubes of food to spear with his fork. He tossed the implement overboard, and began to push his plate away, refusing the food. Mrs. Lang was nonplussed, decided he didn't feel well, and offered him his favorite ice cream. Again, he sat helpless, refusing to feed himself. When she offered him some, he submissively allowed himself to be fed a few spoonfuls. Then he knocked the spoon out of her hand and pushed the ice cream away. Mrs. Lang was sure that he was ill.
   Mrs. Lang extracted Greg from his embattled position, and placed him on the floor to play while she ate lunch. This, of course, wasn't what he wanted either. He continued to tease her, asking for food off her plate, which he devoured greedily. His eagerness disproved her theory of illness. When she ignored him and continued to eat, his efforts redoubled. He climbed under the sink to find the bleach bottle which he brought to her on command. He fell forward onto the floor and cried loudly as if he'd hurt himself. He began to grunt as if he were having a bowel movement and to pull on his pants. This was almost a sure way of drawing his mother away from her own activity, for she'd started trying to "catch" him and put him on the toilet. He smiled smugly at her, but refused to perform. Mrs. Lang felt as if she were suddenly embattled on all fronts--none of which she could win.
   When she turned to her own chores, Greg produced the bowel movement he'd been predicting.[19]

After presenting this description, Dobson concludes, "This, my friends, was not a description of a typical toddler. Greg was a classic strong-willed child."

Dobson then goes on to make several statements about and give several suggestions for controlling Greg.

Again, to be fair, Dobson does note that "This response by the mother must be done without abusing the child physically or emotionally." He also states that he believes abuse is less likely to occur if the parent "is empowered to handle the challenge early...rather than wait until she is too frazzled to control herself."

He also tells parents to not punish children for normal childlike behaviour that is necessary for their learning and development such as the exploration of their environment and the investigation of items they come across. He also tells parents to never punish their children for touching something that they did not know was off-limits.

His advice in this situation is not horrible advice. In fact, I will grant that it is benignly mediocre and will probably not cause harm and might even result in some mild positive changes.

However, it strikes me that Dobson views the outlined situation and the crabby child involved in a needlessly negative fashion. Far from being a "classic strong-willed child", Greg seems like a normal toddler reacting in an expected manner to a mother who seems fairly prosaic and perhaps a little young and insecure.

It is common knowledge that two-year-olds can be stubborn, crabby, and difficult to manage; words they regularly use are "Mine" and "No". However, if I must cite an actual source, among the various aspects of a two-year-old's social and emotional development, the National Network For Child Care includes...

Those seem to be all traits that Greg displayed, and they are all very normal for a two-year-old. It troubles me, therefore, that Dobson would claim that Greg is not a typical two-year-old but is, in fact, a "classic" strong-willed child.

It also troubles me that Dobson's response to the situation is to suggest that the mother first warn her son and then spank him if he continues to misbehave. When I view the above illustration, it seems to me there are several underlying problems that Dobson's advice does not affect or even, really, take into account.

Firstly, Mrs. Lang seems like she is a young and somewhat inexperienced mother. Greg appears to be her only (and I would assume her first) child. Raising a child is a daunting task, particularly when you're approaching it for the first time and have absolutely no experience. Mrs. Lang might find herself less overwhelmed if, instead of staying home by herself with her son, she got together with a female friend who also has a child; they could enjoy each other's company and encourage each other along the parenting path.

I also think that she could probably benefit from some time to herself. She ought to consider hiring a babysitter for Greg once or twice a week so she can get out of the house and spend some time either by herself or in the company of other adults and have time to relax on a regular basis. She then might not get worn down so easily when dealing with Greg.

It also seems to me that, in the story, a lot of Greg's bad behaviour is motivated either by boredom or a desire to gain his mother's attention. For example, his mother is in another room and he is left alone to occupy himself. It seems only natural that he would turn the television on. If his mother doesn't want him to watch television it seems to me that a better way of accomplishing that end would be to not spank him and punish him for turning the television on but instead to play with him or, if she is unable to play with him, to at least get out some toys and games and try to interest him in those instead of the t.v. He's a two-year-old child; he needs stimulation and attention--that's simply the way two-year-olds are.

Another factor that I suspect strongly influences a child's overall mood (and, as a result, his behaviour) is the state of his health and in particular the quality of his nutrition. Is Greg being fed a diet of healthy, natural foods? Or is he being given a lot of food that may be very easy to make but does not have the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables and foods without a lot of additives and preservatives?

If I were a parent and my child was acting out and displaying a lot of negative attitudes, one of the things I would do is make sure that his hormone levels were properly balanced because, as a person who struggles with depression, I know from experience that a person's biochemistry can affect their mood to a very great degree.

Dobson, however, seems to consider none of these issues--neither that the mother might be young, insecure, and isolated, nor that Greg might be bored and in need of attention, nor that he might not be getting the proper nutrition.

It troubles me greatly that, rather than trying to see if there might be some underlying issues that a child is reacting to in a negative way, Dobson seems to assume that the child is just misbehaving for the sake of misbehaving--that he is misbehaving simply because he wants to drive his mother nuts. That seems a needlessly suspicious if not outright paranoid mindset.

This inability or unwillingness to explore the issues underlying a child's misbehaviour is even more evident in Dobson's response to the story of Jake.

Dear Dr. Dobson:
   More than anything else in this world, I want to have a happy family. We have two girls, ages three and five, and a boy who is ten. They don't get along at all. The boy and his father don't get along either. And I find myself screaming at the kids and sitting on my son to keep him from hitting and kicking his sisters.
   His teacher of the past year thought he needed to learn better ways of getting along with his classmates. He had some problems on the playground and had a horrible time on the school bus. And his didn't seem to be able to walk from the bus stop to our house without getting in a fight or throwing rocks at somebody. So I usually pick him up and bring him home myself.
   He is very bright but writes poorly and hates to do it. He is impulsive and quick-tempered (we all are now). He is tall and strong. Our pediatrician says he has "everything going for him." But Jake seldom finds anything constructive to do. He likes to watch television, play in the water, and dig in the dirt.
   We are very upset about his diet but haven't been able to do anything about it. He drinks milk and eats Jell-O and crackers and toast. In the past he ate lots of hot dogs and bologna, but not much lately. He also craves chocolate and bubble gum. We have a grandma nearby who sees that he gets lots of it. Se also feeds him baby food. We haven't been able to do anything about that, either.
   Jake's teachers, the neighbor children, and his sisters complain about his swearing and name-calling. This is really an unfortunate situation because we're always thinking of him in a bad light. But hardly a day goes by when something isn't upset or broken. He's been breaking windows since he was a toddler. One day in June he came home early from school and found the house locked, so he threw a rock through his bedroom window, broke it, and crawled in. Another day recently he tried the glass cutter on our bedroom mirror. He spends a great deal of time at the grandma's who caters to him. We feel she is a bad influence, but so are we when we're constantly upset and screaming.
   Anyhow, we have what seems to be a hopeless situation. He is growing bigger and stronger but not any wiser. So what do we do or where do we go?
   My husband says he refuses to take Jake anywhere ever again until he matures and "acts like a civilized human being." He has threatened to put him in a foster home. I couldn't send him to a foster home. He needs people who know what to do with him. Please help us if you can.
Mrs. T

   P.S. Our children are adopted and there isn't much of anything left in our marriage.[22]

Dobson points out that it might be possible that Jake has ADHD. However, since, later on in the book, he has an entire chapter devoted to parenting a child with ADHD he does not go into that issue in response to this story.

He also states that Mrs. T's longing "for peaceful coexistence and harmony apparently led to many of her problems with Jake. She lacked the courage to do battle with him."[23]

He then goes on to discuss two mistakes that Mrs. T. and her husband made in dealing with Jake....

Dobson then goes on to say that, if his circumstances had been different, he would have loved to have taken Jake into his home for "a period of time." He then goes on to outline the message he would give Jake upon the child's arrival in his home.

   First, you'll soon learn how much we love you in this house. I'm glad you're here, and I hope these will be the happiest days of your life. And you should know that I care about your feelings and problems and concerns. We invited you here because we wanted you to come, and you will receive the same love and respect that is given to our own children. If you have something on your mind, you can come ight out and say it. I won't get angry or make you regret expressing yourself. Neither my wife nor I will ever intentionally do anything to hurt you or treat you unkindly. You'll see that these are not just empty promises that you're hearing. This is the way people act when they care about each other, and we already care about you.
   But, Jake, there are some other things you need to understand. There are going to be some definite rules and acceptable ways of behaving in this home, and you are going to have to live within them, just as our other children do. I will have them written for you by tomorrow morning. You will carry your share of responsibilities and jobs, and your schoolwork will be given high priority each evening. And you need to understand, Jake, that my most important job as your guardian is to see that you behave in ways that are healthy to yourself and others. It may take you a week or two to adjust to this new situation, but you're going to make it and I'm going to be here to see that you do. And when you refuse to obey, I will punish you immediately. In fact, I'm going to be right on your neck until you figure out that you can't beat the system. I have many ways to make you miserable, and I'm prepared to use them when necessary. This will help you change some of the destructive ways you've been acting in recent years. But even when I must discipline you, know that I will love you as much as I do right now. Nothing will change that.[26]

Dobson then goes on to state, "The first time Jake disobeyed what he knew to be my definite instructions, I would have reacted decisively. There would have been no screaming or derogatory accusations, although he would quickly discover that I meant what I said. The following morning we would have discussed the issue rationally, reassuring him of our continuing love, and then started over."[27]

First off, I agree with Dobson both that Mrs. T. and her husband abdicated their roles of leadership and that they assaulted Jake's spirit with the way they treated him. However, I find the way Dobson approaches this issue to be deeply troubling.

He focuses mainly on Jake and talks about how he would treat Jake to bring about a change in behaviour; however, in this situation, I think the focus on changing Jake is unhealthy. It seems to me that this family is troubled and dysfunctional far more deeply than merely one ten-year-old that is acting out.

The father is outright verbally abusive, the mother is arguably physically abusive, and both parents seem to have anger management issues. Is it any wonder that Jake is maladjusted? It seems to me that Jake's bad behavior is just one more symptom of a greater and deeper trouble with this family, and I seriously question Dobson's wisdom in focusing specifically on how to correct Jake while for all practical purposes ignoring the larger overall problems that this family so obviously struggles with. Jake's behaviour certainly is not beneficial to him, but it seems natural to me that he would react negatively to a bad home life.

In addition to totally overlooking the family issues that could be causing or encouraging Jake's bad behaviour, Dobson never addresses the fact that Jake has been adopted. Consequently, Dobson completely ignores some of the emotional issues that adopted children routinely face and that could also be contributing to Jake's behaviour such as...

I simply don't understand how any reputable psychologist could gloss over, much less outright ignore, these issues. But perhaps (being as I am neither a psychologist nor a therapist) I am merely revealing my own ignorance and naïveté when I admit that I suspect the poor family dynamic and the fact that he is adopted are key issues behind Jake's bad behaviour and both of those probably need to be addressed in order to bring about lasting change in him.

Dobson's solution to Jake's behavioural problems, however, is really no solution at all. He says that he would like to take Jake into the Dobson home for a season and describes what he would say to Jake, but, of course, he doesn't really take Jake in and does not offer any other--viable--alternatives.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say that the best response to Jake's misbehaviour is to send him away to somebody else's home. And sometimes maybe that is the answer. I have had married adult friends who have, for a time, taken in friends of their children. It did not necessarily improve the relationships between those children and their parents, but it did provide the children a time of peace and rest and gave them the opportunity to enjoy a home environment where they were accepted and not in constant conflict with those around them.

However, it seems to me that if a parent is going to send their child away they ought to try to send them to a family that the child knows and likes. Would not a parent risk making a child (particularly a child who has already been adopted once) feel as if they are unloved, unwanted, and are being abandoned by sending them off to the home of some stranger the child has never met and know nothing about (which is basically what Dobson was advocating)?

James C. Dobson Superhero Extraordinaire Faces Down Some Villainous Juvenile Delinquents

Up until this point, all of the stories and illustrations Dobson has used have at least contained points. I may disagree with those points and believe that the stories do not illustrate them well, but at least I can see the purposes behind them.

However, there are a couple different stories Dobson tells that really seem to serve no purpose whatsoever and to be connected to the general narrative in only the most tenuous of ways.

One of these stories is the one he tells of Danae and a two pound bag of chocolate[29], but I can overlook that one if only because many parents seem to have a pathological need to bore other people with tales of their adorable munchkins' exploits. (I do the same thing--only about my hamster not my children of which I have none.)

But, there is another story, that appears in The New Dare To Discipline that does not involve Dobson's children and is only vaguely related to rest of the book's text.

   The shoulder muscle is a surprisingly useful source of minor pain. It can be utilized in those countless situations where face-to-face confrontations occur between adult and child. One such incident happened to me back in the days when my own kids were young. I had come out of a drugstore, and there at its entrance was a stooped, elderly man, approximately seventy-five or eighty years of age. Four boys, probably ninth graders, had cornered him and were running circles around him. As I came through the door, one of the boys had just knocked the man's hat down over his eyes and they were laughing about how silly he looked, leaning on his cane.
   I stepped in front of the elderly fellow and suggested that the boys find someone else to torment. They called me names and then sauntered off down the street. I got in my car and was gone about fifteen minutes. I returned to get something I had forgotten, and as I was getting out of my car I saw the same four boys running from a nearby hardware store. The proprietor raced after them, shaking his fist and screaming in protest. I discovered later that they had run down the aisles in his store, raking cans and bottles off the shelves and onto the floor. They also made fun of the fact that he was Jewish and rather overweight.
   When the boys saw me coming, I'm sure they thought I viewed myself as Robin Hood II, protector of the innocent and friend of the oppressed. One of the young tormentors ran straight up to my face and stared defiantly in my eyes. He was about half my size, but obviously felt safe because he was a teenager. He said, "You just hit me! I'll sue you for everything you're worth!"
   I have rather large hands to go with my six-foot-two, 195-pound frame. It was obviously time to use them. I grasped his shoulder muscles on both sides, squeezing firmly. He immediately dropped to the ground, holding his neck. He rolled away and ran off with his friends, screaming insults back at me.
   I reported the incident and later that evening received a phone call from the police. I was told the four young thugs had been harassing merchants and customers along that block for weeks. Their parents refused to cooperate with authorities, and the police felt hamstrung. Without the parents' help, they didn't know what to do. As I reflect now on that incident, I can think of no better way to breed and cultivate juvenile delinquency than for society to allow such early defiance to succeed with impunity. Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying, "He who does not punish evil commands it to be done."[30]

Where to begin...

The jaded, cynical part of me strongly suspects that Dobson only includes this story in his book because he wants to show all his readers how tough and cool he is. It seems out of place and rather pointless otherwise.

The New Dare To Discipline is a book that ostensibly offers advice to parents on how to raise their own children so a story on confronting juvenile delinquents seems rather out of place.

Perhaps the point of the story is to illustrate the efficacy of pinching a child's shoulder muscle. But, I'm then left wondering: should a normal, average, typical child be punished and controlled with the same methods used to control juvenile delinquents? It seems to me that if you've reached the point where you have to treat your child in the same manner you would treat a juvenile delinquent then your parenting techniques have failed miserably.


I have read through The New Dare To Discipline and The New Strong-Willed Child both several times, and I must admit I was and am surprised by the very fuzzy logic Dobson displays throughout both of these books. He's gone to college. He's gone to graduate school. He has a doctorate. And yet all of that education does not prevent him from presenting false and tenuous analogies (such as the grocery cart with broken wheels) to say nothing of simply ignoring basic, important facts (as in the story of Jake). This lack of clarity in thought/expression, although not necessarily a reason in and of itself to dismiss his child-rearing philosophy, causes me to look dubiously upon the theory he presents.

I am also deeply troubled by the suspicion with which Dobson seems to view children and children's actions. Several times he give the impression (at least to me) that he believes children misbehave and act defiantly for no other reason than that they want to misbehave and act defiantly. In that respect, I think he misjudges children, for I believe that, in general, no matter how crazy they might look when viewed from the outside, there is an internal logic and reason behind a child's actions just as there is an internal logic and reason behind an adult's actions. Based on my own memories of being a child, I honestly don't think children go through their days intentionally trying to figure out ways to vex and defy their parents. And I think that through his teaching Dobson sets parents up to take their children's misbehavior more personally than it is meant.


1. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 1 pp. 1-3 Back
2. "Don't Be Cruel", Matthew Margolis, Creators Syndicate Back
3. Back
4. "Dog Training Tips", Debbie Nagler Back
5. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 1 pp 3 Back
6. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 1 pp 4 Back
7. Dare To Discipline, James Dobson, Chapter 2, pp 23-24 Back
8. The New Strong-Willed Child, Chapter 8, pp. 132 Back
9. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 8, pp. 135 Back
10. Dare To Discipline, James Dobson, Chapter 2, pp. 24-25 Back
11. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 1 pp. 6 Back
12. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 2 pp. 17-18 Back
13. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 2 pp. 19-20 Back
14. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 2 pp. 23 Back
15. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 2 pp. 20 Back
16. "Symptoms of spinal meningitis" Back
17. Tests & Procedures Lumbar Puncture Back
18. Dare To Discipline, James Dobson, Chapter 2, pp. 12 Back
19. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 7 pp. 97-99 Back
20. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 7 pp. 99-101 Back
21. "Ages & Stages - Two Years Old" Back
22. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 5 pp. 71-72 Back
23. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 5 pp. 72 Back
24. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 5 pp. 72-73 Back
25. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 5 pp. 73 Back
26. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 5 pp. 74 Back
27. The New Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson, Chapter 5 pp. 75 Back
28. "Long-Term Issues for the Adopted Child" Back
29. Dare To Discipline, James Dobson, Chapter 5, pp. 91-92 Back
30. Dare To Discipline, James Dobson, Chapter 3, pp. 40-41 Back



Copyright 2008 Jessica Menn