I’m Still Here…

I wanted to write explaining my absence the past few weeks. About a month ago, I went to the doctor for what I thought wasn’t a big deal and the whole thing turned into a giant health scare. I ended up having to see two specialists and had two MRI’s to rule out a stroke and a brain tumor. Stroke and brain tumors have been present in some of my extended family members, so there could be a hereditary component, which is why the doctors were so concerned.

As it turns out, I’m perfectly fine and healthy, there is nothing to worry about, thank goodness. I had to wait on results for several weeks though, which was extremely unpleasant. And writing this blog was simply a bit much during that time. I found I couldn’t concentrate on it, and in the face of such potential scariness, I found that I really couldn’t even think about my upbringing and all this stuff. It just wasn’t anything I had any emotional energy for.

Being as scared as I was may have been illogical, but all the intellectualizing of the situation didn’t calm my nerves one bit, unfortunately. So I did what I could for those few weeks, while I anxiously awaited my test results. I got them back about a week ago, and it’s taken me a bit to let it sink in that I’m fine and nothing serious is wrong with me.

In some weird way, I almost feel like going through that ordeal that turned out not to be such an ordeal was healing with regards to my upbringing. I mean, clichéd as it is, life is indeed short, and I don’t believe there’s a heaven waiting for me on the other side. The way my parents treated me will probably always hurt. I’ll likely never truly understand why they did what they did. But like my therapist always says, it’s not truly about what others think about you, it’s about what you think of yourself. What do you feel you deserve in life? Yes, we humans are very social and communal creatures, and we need to bond with others, especially as children, but as adults as well. But at the end of the day, and perhaps also at the beginning of the day, what matters so much is how you feel you deserve to be treated, and what you want your life to be like.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though my parents thought so little of me for being strong-willed and not fitting into their fundie Christian mold, both with regards to personality and body type, that doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve at least the option to make a good life for myself. It doesn’t mean that I can’t take care of myself, it doesn’t mean I can’t work and feel accomplishment for that, it doesn’t mean I can’t earn my own money, it doesn’t mean I can’t have fun or travel, or have great friends or a fulfilling marriage. And perhaps because I have felt some healing from this unpleasant-but-happy-ending journey, I haven’t felt as much urgent need to be in this space. However, I’m not done writing. I do feel it is unfinished. I’m thrilled to report that in a couple of months I am making a huge leap forward in my career, which is so exciting but will probably be quite time-consuming, and I don’t yet know what that means for this blog. But, we’ll jump off that bridge when we get there. Too many unknowns right now. In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing. Thank you for your patience everyone.    

“The Strong-Willed Child” Chapter 2: pp. 29-30

So we begin Chapter 2 with a wordy story about a mother of a 3-year-old girl in Kansas City who meets Dobson and at first thanks him for his book Dare to Discipline. Apparently,

“…they (this girl’s parents) bought the book and learned therein that it is appropriate to spank a child under certain well-defined circumstances. My recommendation made sense to these harassed parents, who promptly spanked their sassy daughter the next time she gave them reason to do so.”

And here we have more instance of Dobson in general just letting us know how much he really seems to dislike children in general. The parents were harassed?? Really? The daughter was sassy? Look, I have no idea who these people are, or if they even exist, so I don’t know what their situation was that compelled them to seek out Dobson’s advice. Maybe the daughter was legitimately out of control. I don’t know, and I’m not automatically assuming that to be the case. All I do know is that accusing a 3-year-old of “harassing” anyone is just not appropriate, whatever the circumstances. I know children that age do irritating things and can be really frustrating, but this is just not cool.

Anyways, he continues,

“When her mother awoke the next morning, she found her copy of Dare to Discipline floating in the toilet! That darling girl had done her best to send my writings to the sewer, where they belonged. I suppose that is the strongest editorial comment I’ve received on any of my literature!”

Smart girl. And Dobson, you said it, not me. The toilet is absolutely where your crappy, child abuse manuals belong.

But there’s more!

“This incident with the toddler was not an isolated case. Another child selected my book from an entire shelf of possibilities and threw it in the fireplace. I could easily become paranoid about these hostilities. Dr. Benjamin Spock is loved by millions of children who have grown up under his influence, but I am apparently resented by an entire generation of kids who would like to catch me in a blind alley on some cloudy night.”

This is possibly one of the more triggering, angering and frustrating sentences in the entire book for me personally to read. I mean, the guy actually seems proud of himself that kids raised on his advice resent him. Seriously, was that his goal all along???

Furthermore, Dobson, instead of saying this in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek way, why don’t you do some soul searching as to why that is. Yes, entire generations of kids who grew up with parents using your methods are filled with resentment. They are also plagued with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, difficult divorces (including your own son!), and have become abusers themselves. Families are fractured and parents are filled with remorse thanks to you. Why don’t you take some responsibility for it?

I know this post is much shorter than I usually do, but that’s about it for me for today. This section is utterly horrifying to me. He’s flat-out admitting that children raised on his methods grow up miserable and resentful and he’s actually proud of that. I just…. I just can’t….

“The Strong-Willed Child”, Chapter 1, pp. 26-28: Where Dobson *Almost* Gives Good Advice

If you’ll recall, we’re in the middle of the end of chapter Q&A session. Here’s the next question:

            “Should my child be permitted to say ‘I hate you!’ when he is angry?”

To me, there are two issues with this question. First, the “I hate you” part, and secondly, the word “permitted.”

Here’s the start of Dobson’s answer:

“Not in my opinion. Other writers will tell you that all children hate their parents occasionally and should be permitted to vent that hostility. I believe it is possible (and far more healthy) to encourage the expression of negative feelings without reinforcing temper tantrums and violent behavior.”

Had he stopped there, this blog post might be really, really short. I will agree here that the phrase “I hate you” is incredibly destructive and really doesn’t have any place in a loving relationship. It can be apologized for, but never truly unheard. It is simply not a good or constructive tool to have in one’s arsenal of conflict resolution tricks. But I said IF Dobson had stopped there. He didn’t…

“If my child screamed his hatred at me for the first time in a moment of red-faced anger, I would probably wait until his passion had cooled and then convey this message in a loving, sincere manner:

‘Charlie, I know you were very upset earlier today when we had our disagreement, and I think we should talk about what you were feeling. All children get angry at their parents now and then, especially when they feel unfairly treated. I understand your frustration and I’m sorry we got into such a hassle. But that does not excuse you for saying, ‘I hate you!’ You’ll learn that no matter how upset I become over something you’ve done, I’ll never tell you that I hate you. And I can’t permit you to talk that way to me. When people love each other, as you and I do, they don’t want to hurt one another. It hurt me for you to say that you hated me, just as you would be hurt if I said something like that to you. You can, however, tell me what angers you, and I will listen carefully. If I am wrong, I will do my best to change the things you dislike. So I want you to understand that you are free to say anything you wish to me as always, even if your feelings are not very pleasant. But you will never be permitted to scream and call names and throw temper tantrums. If you behave in those childish ways, I will have to punish you as I would a little child. Is there anything you need to say to me now? (If not, then put your arms around my neck because I love you!).’”

This really brings me to the second part of all this, the word “permit.” Basically, Dobson is advocating making “no saying ‘I hate you’” a house rule. I think this is a huge mistake. Now, to be clear, I’m personally okay with setting some rules, even if they may be arbitrary or come off as such to a child. I do think it’s more effective to explain your thinking behind why bedtime is at 8:30 pm sharp, or why video game time is limited to thirty minutes a day, or what have you. But I do not think setting such rules in the first place is wrong or abusive. Setting this other kind of rule, about not saying certain things in anger, well, this is different. Saying “I hate you” is destructive, yes, but just saying, “that’s against the rules and you’ll be punished for saying it” doesn’t at all convey to a kid WHY that phrase is so hurtful. If that’s all you do, trust me, he’ll still be thinking it, which really didn’t teach him anything about human interaction at all. Rather than banning the phrase, I’d much rather kids be taught and modeled respect, communication skills, and constructive conflict resolution. I would hope my (hypothetical) kid wouldn’t say “I hate you” to me because he/she respects me and has learned and internalized that that phrase is destructive and hurtful, not because I banned it with an iron fist. And I’m not even remotely going to sit here and pretend that I wouldn’t be very hurt to hear such a thing from my child. But I think that is what would be important to communicate – that I do have feelings, that I am a human being, that you the kid are capable of hurting people with your words and actions, and then let that sink in. And I don’t think it would sink in if I just hauled off and hit the child for saying it.

For a personal note here: a few years ago, my mom commented to me that as a teenager I rarely back-talked my parents. My immediate response was, “well, not out loud.” She looked genuinely surprised and taken aback. Honestly, I don’t know why…

Another part of this little speech I have to touch on is the part where Dobson prattles on about how he as a parent would never say “I hate you” to his child. My parents never said those exact words to me. They never did, I don’t think even once. But they did communicate that idea to me, over and over and over, even if they never said it outright. I guess my overall point is, when you (Dobson) are writing entire books instructing parents to infer a ton of nasty intent on their kids’ actions, and beat them with belts, it’s pretty rich to turn around and put a little halo on your head because you never actually utter the phrase, “I hate you.”

Also, is it just me, or did Dobson’s little speech to his hypothetical kid Charlie remind anyone else of O-Ren Ishii’s speech to the Japanese mafia in Kill Bill: Volume 1 after she “deals with” Boss Tanaka? I swear….

And of course, this ends on a very creepy, totally icky note – ordering a kid to give you a hug – which really doesn’t surprise me, unfortunately. I mean, if you’re advocating hitting kids with belts, how can you suddenly respect their boundaries when it comes to affectionate touch?

The last Q&A is about whether parents should apologize to their kids when they mess up, and surprisingly, Dobson says they should. He keeps this section very short, and there’s not that much to say about what he wrote.

And this concludes chapter 1! Stay tuned…

“The Strong-Willed Child” Chapter 1, pp. 25-6: It’s All About Intent! (SMH)

So now we come to a Q and A section that will close out Chapter 1. It is rather wordy so I’m not going into too much detail, but the first question disturbed me and I have to expound on it. The Question is as follows:

“I’m still not sure if I understand the difference between willful defiance and childish irresponsibility. Could you explain it further?”

Here’s Dobson’s answer:

“Willful defiance… is a deliberate act of disobedience. It occurs only when the child knows what his parents expect and then chooses to do the opposite in a haughty manner….. By contrast, childish irresponsibility results from forgetting, accidents, mistakes, a short attention span, a low frustration tolerance, immaturity, etc.”

Then Dobson continues,

“Ultimately, the appropriate disciplinary reaction by a mother or father should be determined entirely by the matter of intention.”

This is the part I want to expound upon. This is the meat of the section and what really bothers me. This whole knowing another person’s intentions part. Dobson gives the example using his own son Ryan, who I believe was fairly young at the original publishing of this book. He says that if Ryan is standing in the doorway and Dobson says, “Ryan, shut the door,” but Ryan mishears or misunderstands and actually opens the door instead, that is not willful defiance. Now, the scenario Dobson is describing is the most plausible one – Ryan probably misheard and thought he was doing the right thing here. But how does he (Dobson) know for sure? This is my overall point. You can’t truly know another person’s intent all the time.

Then Dobson gives another example, that of Ryan being told to pick up his toys and screaming “NO!” and throwing a Tonka truck at his dad. This, Dobson says, is willful defiance. He “knows” this by determining little Ryan’s intent. But the problem is, he doesn’t completely know Ryan’s intent. Maybe Ryan was pushing limits and testing boundaries, but maybe not. Maybe Ryan was extremely invested in his playing and being abruptly told to stop playing was a very emotional thing for him and he reacted in frustration. Maybe just minutes before, Ryan’s mom, unbeknownst to his dad, had told Ryan he could play for another half hour, and poor Ryan is very mad and confused at getting mixed messages about something that is very important to him. Maybe the whole thing wasn’t about you, Dobson.

But this brings me to a major point I want to bring up. If I have learned nothing else from my nearly ten years of marriage, it’s that deciding you know someone else’s intent is one of the least constructive things you can do in a relationship. It’s so much better to focus on the actual behavior or action itself. It’s so much more peaceful to say something like, “Sweetie, when you did X it really bothered me/hurt my feelings/ made me feel XYZ/etc.”, and then give Sweetie a chance to respond, not “Why the hell did you do that? You must not care about me at all!”
Honestly, I don’t think it’s that different with kids. My parents loved ascribing intent to my behavior, and they were wrong so much of the time. If you’re primed by this book its messages, it’s just too easy to infer intent that isn’t there when your kid does something irritating. And that destroys relationships. I always thought my parents hated me precisely because of this advice Dobson is giving. They always inferred this terrible destructive intent that I simply didn’t have. There were even some instances where they assumed I was trying to be obnoxious when I was in fact trying to be helpful, which hurt immensely. 

Now, back to the example of Ryan throwing toys. I’m not saying that throwing toys is okay. It’s not. It’s not a constructive way to solve conflicts and it can even be dangerous. But I don’t know why a parent has to see this as willful defiance and think they know exactly what this child’s intent is. Why can’t they focus on the behavior itself and find some age-appropriate, non-violent way of communicating to their child that civilized people do not throw things at each other?

Addendum to Yesterday’s Post

Upon thinking some more about my post from yesterday, especially about Dobson equating strong-willed with entitled brat, plus him saying that strong-willed children don’t want parental acceptance/approval, I had some additional thoughts I wanted to share.

First off, let me reiterate that the compliant child and the strong-willed child are not coming from opposite vantage points regarding parental acceptance/approval!! They just have different emotional needs. All children, no matter what their temperament, desperately need their parents’ acceptance.

I really bristle at being told that because I was strong-willed, I was also an entitled little brat. That is NOT true. I didn’t need to be right all the time. I didn’t need to get my way every time. What I needed was to be told that I was okay the way I was born – that my talents and interests were valid. What I needed was to be listened to, to have my opinion matter, even if it wasn’t technically correct all the time. What I needed was to have some control and some sort of a say over my life. What I needed was space and freedom to pursue my passions, not forced to pursue someone else’s passions in the name of molding my will. What I needed was a little bit of autonomy and the freedom to learn from my own mistakes. (And for that to happen, I suppose I needed the freedom to make mistakes in the first place!) What I needed was some space and patience to figure things out on my own, even if my parents already knew the answer. What I needed was a creative outlet that I chose, and some genuine support in pursuing it. What I needed was a parent that trusted me and accepted that sometimes I knew what I was talking about when it came to my desires, needs and boundaries. What I needed was to have explanations given for why: why certain rules must be followed, why I couldn’t do something, etc. What I needed was, in effect, to be accepted. 

And that doesn’t mean I should get my way all the time. In fact, although I vehemently disagree with their parenting philosophy and model, I am actually quite grateful that I didn’t always get my way. I’m grateful that I learned that the world doesn’t revolve around me. I’m grateful that I was made to do chores, eat my vegetables and pick up after myself. I’m not grateful for my will being molded and shaped. Not for a minute, not one little bit.

You know, I’m still here, Mom and Dad. I’m still me. You may have crushed my spirit, but you didn’t actually break my will – because no one can do that. You may have ruined a lot of my childhood and given me lots of things to work through in therapy, but you didn’t fundamentally change who I am and my basic needs. You didn’t snuff out my creativity, though you surely tried. You didn’t rid me of my ambitious nature and my ability to dream big. You didn’t change me from an abstract thinker to a concrete one. You didn’t quell my curiosity about the world or my love of animals. You may have forced me to set it on the shelf for awhile, which made me miserable, but it was always there. You read this book and were determined that you could mold me into a compliant child who never asked questions, who didn’t care about being creative (except on your terms), who was only interested in the sorts of things you were interested in, and who only valued the things you value. But I’ve got news for you, Mom and Dad: you failed.

“The Strong-Willed Child” Chapter 1, pp. 19-25: Your Strong-Willed Child is a Defective Grocery Store Cart

We start off this section with a rarity – agreeing with something Dobson says:

“I have been watching infants and toddlers during recent years, and have become absolutely convinced that at the moment of birth there exists in children an inborn temperament which will play a role throughout life.”

This is true, and since 1978 when this book was published, numerous studies have backed this assertion up.

“Another newborn characteristic … is more interesting to me and relates to a feature which can be called ‘strength of the will.’”

Dobson will now describe in a nutshell an example of the compliant baby and then contrast that with his description of the strong-willed baby. Buckle your seatbelts.

First up we have the compliant babies:

“As infants, they don’t cry very often and they sleep through the night from the second week and they goo at the grandparents and they smile while being diapered and they’re very patient when dinner is overdue. And, of course, they never spit up on the way to church.”

He’s not done yet, but I have to give pause for a WTF moment: a baby spitting up is a sign of their temperament?!?!?! I’m not a parent myself, but I can easily imagine that spit-up is very annoying and probably happens at inopportune times. But it is a physical condition!!! I’ve heard that diaper blow-outs are horribly inconvenient as well. Should we blame a baby’s temperament for those too? I mean, basically what he is sneakily implying here to parents is that when your baby has a (usually) non-serious yet messy and inconvenient physical condition, you should assume that means they are not a compliant baby and are doing it to “get you.” I can’t even…….

Anyways, continuing on in his description of the compliant child:

“During later childhood, they love to keep their rooms clean and they especially like to do their homework and they can entertain themselves for hours. There aren’t many of these supercompliant children, I’m afraid, but they are known to exist in some households, (not my own).”

I’m not going to spend too much time on this because I really want to get to the strong-willed baby section, but this does leave me shaking my head. This hypothetical supercompliant child sounds like robot. I think it’s a wonderful thing there aren’t too many of them. God forbid children have personalities and individuality.

Alright, now we get to the strong-willed, or defiant baby:

“…there are others (children) who seem to be defiant upon exit from the womb. They come into the world smoking a cigar and yelling about the temperature in the delivery room and the incompetence of the nursing staff and the way things are run by the administrator of the hospital. They expect meals to be served the instant they are ordered, and they demand every moment of mother’s time. As the months unfold, their expression of willfulness becomes even more apparent, the winds reaching hurricane force during toddlerhood.”

Okay, I was initially a tad confused upon reading this section. I mean, I have a very low opinion of Dobson, but even I do not believe he literally thinks any newborn has the wherewithal to locate and properly light up a cigar. So what’s going on here?

My conclusion is that this is a little priming trick Dobson is playing on the parents reading his book. What he’s describing isn’t literal newborn behavior, which everyone knows, but he is describing an attitude of entitlement and self-centeredness. Basically, what he is sneakily doing is conveying the idea that strong-willed children are entitled little brats, but by being light-hearted and using hyperbole, he avoids having to come out and say it.

My take? Yes, self-absorbed, entitled, bratty behavior and attitudes do exist, in children and adults; but being strong-willed and being entitled are not remotely the same things!!! Conflating the two is so patently absurd and incredibly unfair, not to mention just plain inaccurate! In fact, they have nothing to do with one another!!

But, now we get to the really good part: comparing children to grocery store shopping carts. Oh yes. This section is extremely wordy, but suffice it to say that Dobson goes into great detail comparing a smooth shopping cart (the compliant child) that flows freely and steers correctly to a shopping cart with crooked wheels that won’t turn when you need it to and is difficult to control and frustrates everyone to no end. First of all, I agree that “crooked wheel” shopping carts are annoying. They are defective carts. See, grocery carts are designed with a specific purpose in mind, and if they cannot fulfill that purpose, then they are defective. So me personally, what I do when I encounter a defective shopping cart, is that I return it and get a new cart, instead of attempting to push it around the store and throwing a hissy fit the whole time. Revolutionary, I know. But here’s the real gem to this analogy:

            “We might as well face it, some kids have ‘crooked wheels’!”

And there you go. There it is, in plain and literal print. Your strong-willed child is a defective grocery store cart. Ergo, your strong-willed child is a defective person. (While your compliant child is a properly designed and executed grocery cart.)

Now we move on to describe a somewhat typical family occurrence, where one child is laid-back and the other is strong-willed. And of course, Dobson gets this so, so, so wrong.

“The easygoing child … spends most of his time trying to figure out what his parents want and how he can make them happy. In reality, he needs their praise and approval …. The second child is approaching life from the opposite vantage point.”

NO!!! Both those children need their parents’ love and approval! I cannot believe he just told parents that their strong-willed child doesn’t care about their acceptance and approval. That is so wrong on so many levels. Why is it so much to ask to let a child be themselves and have their parents accept them for who they are??? But no, Dobson literally, outright tells parents that their strong-willed child is defective. And trust me, parents who believe that WILL communicate that message to their kid. Not getting my parents’ acceptance for my own inborn personality has been the hardest and most painful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.

So now we close the section with some scare tactics.

“I honestly believe, though the assumption is difficult to prove, that the defiant youngster is in a ‘high risk’ category for antisocial behavior later in life. He is more likely to challenge his teachers in school and question the values he has been taught and shake his fist in the faces of those who would lead him. I believe he is more inclined toward sexual promiscuity and drug abuse and academic difficulties.”

So he gives no numbers, no empirical evidence, no peer-reviewed studies, no statistics, no nothing for this very strong and dire warning/assertion. This is pure fear-mongering! So it’s antisocial to challenge your teachers in school? Guess what? Teachers are human beings who make mistakes and sometimes push agendas, and occasionally it’s fine and even healthy to challenge them. And sure, there are times when such behavior may not be appropriate, but it doesn’t make a child automatically antisocial. Geez…. Secondly, everyone should question the values they are taught, even if they come around to agreeing with them in the end. If you don’t, you are not thinking for yourself and you don’t truly know what you think and believe. Your parents, like your teachers, are just humans who are wrong sometimes. I’m very glad I questioned the values I was raised with, thank you very much. And if my parents had bothered to question the values they were raised with, maybe things would have gone a lot smoother in our household. And the third example, the fist-shaking at leaders, is frankly just too vague and ridiculous to say much about. Who is doing the leading and where to? Seriously, Dobson, provide some context just once in your life. And the last sentence should hold no water because he doesn’t back it up with anything and freely admits that it’s just his belief. But, by all means parents, beat your kids with a belt to try and avoid the outcome of Dobson’s guesswork…

Next, we get to the end of this chapter, where there is a Q&A session. Stay tuned…

“The Strong-Willed Child” Chapter 1, pp. 18-19: Comically Absurd Examples of ‘Willful Defiance’

And now Dobson shall whine about “the experts” again.

“Let me repeat my observation that the most popular textbooks for parents and teachers fail even to acknowledge that parenthood involves a struggle or contest of wills.”

And let me repeat my observations that parenthood doesn’t involve a contest of wills unless you want it to. You do have the option to accept your child for who they are and employ more positive and constructive tools of parenting such as communication and refusal to reward bad behavior.

“Books and articles written on the subject of discipline usually relate not to willful defiance but to childish irresponsibility. There is an enormous difference between the two categories of behavior.”

Again, not really. Not unless you want there to be a huge difference. And let’s discuss his so-called examples of “willful defiance.”

1)      “A child is capable of spitting in his parent’s face”. One of my nephews actually did this to his mom as a toddler. He got a time-out and an explanation about how that behavior is not nice or respectful. He did this a few more times over the next few weeks, consistently got a time-out, and hasn’t done it since. This is a big deal how?

2)      “Running down the middle of a busy street”. Yes, children should absolutely be taught not to do this, it’s terribly unsafe. But why does Dobson think it’s an act of willful defiance? Maybe they are just excited and not thinking. Why on earth would he automatically jump to the conclusion that it’s always done out of defiance? That doesn’t even make sense.

And for a personal anecdote: I ran into a very busy street one Easter Sunday when I was around 6 or 7 years old. I was wearing a very nice outfit to Easter service at church, which included a little hat with a bow on it. The day was extremely windy, and as we’d just gotten done crossing a four-lane, one-way street with a speed limit of about 45 mph, the wind blew my hat off my head and into the street where the light had just changed to green. I felt a surge of panic and ran into the street to retrieve my hat. Why? Because my mom had made this huge deal about how special my entire outfit was, and how expensive it was, and how I should be grateful for it. I thought my parents would be horribly angry and that I’d get a spanking if I lost the hat. So, not thinking about the danger and only thinking about avoiding a spanking, I ran into oncoming traffic to get the damn hat. I moved quickly and fortunately I was not hurt. But I could have been, for sure. Of course my parents were horrified and relieved I wasn’t hurt. When we got to the car, my dad spent the entire way home berating me about how stupid I was to run into the street, and of course assumed I had done it just to scare him. THIS IS WHAT THIS STYLE OF PARENTING DOES TO KIDS. I was more worried about getting spanked than getting hit by a car. Due to the constant “contest of wills” my parents believed in, I was accustomed to being fought and berated about every tiny little thing, and it didn’t occur to me that Mom and Dad might be reasonable and realize that the wind blew my hat off and that it wasn’t my fault.

3)      “Sawing a leg off the dining room table”. I needed a minute on this one. Okay. First of all, if my (hypothetical) small child got ahold of a chainsaw and all that happened was the table losing a leg, I’d be extremely GRATEFUL. He could have cut his or someone else’s femoral artery! Secondly, this example is just utterly stupid. Um, keep power tools away from children! Keep them locked in a storage area! I’m also having a tough time even envisioning a small child who is physically and mentally capable of working a chainsaw.

4)      “Trying to flush baby brother down the toilet”. Dobson offers no context on this one. Is this two older children horsing around? When they were kids, my mother’s older sibling occasionally dangled her over the toilet and threatened to flush her down. Guess what? She’s alive and well, not rotting in a sewer somewhere. It was a joke. I get that it wasn’t funny to her, it wouldn’t be funny to me either, and were it my child doing that to a younger sibling, we’d have some firm discussions about respecting boundaries and being civilized to each other. But in that context, it is a joke, not an act of “willful defiance” (albeit an immature and inappropriate joke). Don’t make it more than it is. And if this is a child literally holding an infant over the toilet, then your child is probably feeling horribly neglected and resentful and it’s time for YOU to look in the mirror and make some changes. Or, once again, your child is possibly exhibiting early signs of having a sociopathic personality disorder – which has nothing to do with temperament!!! Also, why are you leaving a small child unsupervised with an infant?

This section concludes with this little gem,

“Responsible behavior is a noble objective for our children, but let’s admit that the heavier task is shaping the child’s will!”

Wow. So it’s more important to mold your child into something convenient for you than to teach her to be responsible for herself. It’s more important that your child never talk back or ask questions than learn how to take care of himself. It’s more important that they walk around on eggshells around their parents than learn to own their own actions and behavior and mistakes and decisions. That’s just great, Dobson. 

“The Strong-Willed Child” Chapter 1, pp. 16-18: Where Children Test Limits, Egads!

A quick note on my wording: it was most cathartic to write this section sort of like it’s an open letter in part to Dobson and in part to my own parents, hence usually referring to parents with the pronoun “you”. I’m not at all speaking to the good parents out there.

This next section begins by discussing the fact that children test limits.

“They (children) will occasionally disobey parental instructions for the precise purpose of testing the determination of those in charge.”

And apparently when children do test limits, what they are really thinking is,

“’I don’t think you are tough enough to make me do what you say.”’

Yeesh. Um, yes, children test limits. Absolutely. But, newsflash! – it’s not all about you when they do so. Children are natural experimenters. They pull the cat’s tail to see what will happen. They combine milk and Kool-Aid to see what it tastes like. They unroll the toilet paper to see how it works. Limits set by parents simply fall under that experimentation. They aren’t seeing how tough you are, they usually just want to know what will happen. Geez…

Also, when you set a rule for a child, oftentimes that rule or limit sounds very arbitrary to them. So a lot of the time they go past it because it meant nothing to them in the first place. Which, again, has nothing to do with you, you, you. Yes, it is your job as a parent to consistently enforce the boundary, and no, it may not be convenient for you, and yes, it may take about forty times of saying the same damn thing to get the message across. But you know what? That’s what you signed up for when you chose to carry the pregnancy to term, Mom and Dad!!

Next there is a somewhat wordy section on the Garden of Eden, and how “original sin” explains strong-willed children. I’m not even sure what to say here. I don’t personally find the Bible to be at all authoritative in my life, so his “source” means nothing to me; but beyond that, I think explaining some kids’ temperaments as “original sin” is extremely offensive. Not that I’m terribly surprised. This is such an easy cop-out for fundie evangelical parents, and not many of them resist the temptation.

Dobson goes on,

“When a parent refuses to accept his child’s defiant challenge, something changes in their relationship. The youngster begins to look at his mother and father with disrespect;…”

Okay, no. Just, no. Backing down from a defiant challenge is not what causes children to disrespect their parents, and a lot of the time, ignoring certain behaviors in children is key to mitigating them. Look, the dynamic between parents and children isn’t all that different from the dynamic between two adults. You decide how other people treat you. If you allow someone to call you names, take advantage of you, or waste your time, then they will. And it doesn’t matter if this person is your child, your mother, your neighbor, or your boss. If you set boundaries with people and don’t reward certain behaviors, the vast majority of the time, those undesirable behaviors will stop, or not ever occur in the first place. No matter who you’re dealing with. This concept comes up in more detail later in the book.

“…(the child will determine) they (the parents) are unworthy of his allegiance.”

No. This is so incredibly wrong. This is a fundamental problem with this book and why it is so destructive. Parents always have their kids’ allegiance, no matter how many mistakes they make. Parents still have their kids’ loyalty even when they do not deserve it! Children are so incredibly vulnerable, and so incredibly dependent on their parents. Pretending otherwise is so damaging! Children will keep craving your love and affection even if you withhold it. They will keep trying to please you even if you constantly hold them to impossible standards. Even the most overly permissive parents are the first people their kids turn to when they are sick or hurt. No, you never lose your child’s allegiance, even when you should (though this can become a different matter entirely once said child is grown; lots of abused children, myself included, do sever contact with an abusive parents upon adulthood). So this fear mongering is completely inappropriate and just an outright lie!

“More important, he (the child) wonders why they (the parents) would let him do such harmful things if they really loved him.”

Ugh, you’ve got to be kidding me. Kids have no idea what is and isn’t harmful! It’s your job as a parent to teach them. We’ve all been around enough older babies, toddlers, and small children to know – sometimes their fears are completely irrational (“Daddy will run me over with the lawn mower”) and other times they are completely unafraid of something they should be afraid or at least wary of (just try and find a child who hasn’t helped himself to some ABC gum). So, this sentence is ridiculous and not remotely grounded in reality. Letting your child harm themselves is bad, yes. But children do not automatically know what is and isn’t going to be harmful. And to say that they wonder why you let them do something is ridiculous, because it presumes to read their minds, which you cannot do. Growing up, my cousins were never made to wear seatbelts or stay in their car seats as toddlers. They never knew that was dangerous. Trust me, all the other adults who knew about this wondered if they were actively trying to kill their children, but the kids never wondered that. They had no clue it was dangerous, and they were genuinely confused when they got in another adult’s car and were made to wear a seat belt. They literally didn’t know the purpose of seat belts!

“The ultimate paradox of childhood is that boys and girls want to be led by their parents, but insist that their mothers and fathers earn the right to lead them.”

No. For the love of god, NO. There isn’t a paradox here at all. Children are born as helpless individuals who need to be both protected and accepted for who they are. There’s nothing mutually exclusive here. Have you ever been in a parking lot and seen a child throwing a fit about getting into his car seat, but then in the next moment rushing to his mom or dad when a car drives by too fast? This is what I’m talking about. The idea that a child expressing individuality and their own personhood is somehow meant to insult Mom and Dad is patently absurd and so incredibly destructive!

When you respect your child and respect yourself, it teaches them a valuable life lesson about how to treat themselves and others. But this lesson does not get conveyed in any way when you make parenting about a “contest of wills.” The minute you do that, their childhood becomes purely about survival. Kids may obey authoritarian parents out of fear of being hit, but they have learned absolutely nothing about respecting them.

“The Strong-Willed Child”, Chapter 1, p. 16

Remember how Dobson condoned bullying behavior from children yesterday? Well, now we shall see that Dobson raises his children to at least tolerate and possibly even perpetrate such awful behavior. It begins when his (at the time) fifth grade daughter has fourteen girls (classmates) over for a slumber party.

“I met most of them (the daughter’s friends) for the first time that weekend, yet during those seventeen hours together I was able to identify every child’s position in the hierarchy of respect and strength. There was one queen bee who was the boss of the crowd.”

Hierarchy of respect and strength??? Really?? Oh geez… There may be a hierarchy, but labeling it as such is incredibly disingenuous. Okay look, queen bee is just a euphemism for mean girl. This girl is a bully and there’s no excuse for it.

“At the bottom of the list was a harassed little girl who was alienated and rejected by the entire herd. Her jokes were as clever (I thought) as those of the leader, yet no one laughed when she clowned. Her suggestions of a game or event were immediately condemned as stupid and foolish.”

It’s obvious this “harassed little girl” is not his daughter. He doesn’t specify if his daughter is the queen bee or not, but what is abundantly clear is that his daughter is either bullying this girl or standing by and tolerating it while one of her friends bullies this girl. And Dobson has no problem with that.

“Unfortunately, there is a similar outcast or loser in every group of three or more kids (or either sex). Such is the nature of childhood.”

There you go. My daughter is completely absolved of responsibility because “such is the nature of childhood.” And I as her parent am completely absolved of any responsibility here because “such is the nature of childhood.” Wow.

Just to recap, Dobson, what you describe at your daughter’s slumber party is one or two mean girls calling the shots and no one having the nerve to stand up to them. This culminates in one girl in particular experiencing the brunt of the mean girl antics. If you are such a great parent, why is your daughter even friends with such mean girls in the first place? Why isn’t she standing up for this harassed girl? I think you have some real problems on your hand. But you don’t seem to think so. You just use your daughter’s horrible behavior as an excuse to teach parents to basically be bullies in the name of respect, strength and toughness. I’ve got some news for you: no one respects bullies, and that doesn’t change whether the bully is some random kid in elementary school or your own father.

“The Strong-Willed Child”, Chapter 1, p. 15

The first paragraph of this section has left me shaking my head. We start this section by saying,

“Everyone knows that they (children) are lovers of justice and law and order and secure boundaries. The writer of the book of Hebrew in the Bible even said that an undisciplined child feels like an illegitimate son or daughter, not even belonging to his family.”

Hoo boy. Where to begin… Yes, children do appreciate justice, law and order, and secure boundaries. It’s called fairness and safety. You know what? Adults tend to like those things too. But apparently this PhD feels it is perfectly acceptable to offer the book of Hebrew as evidence for his broad assertion. Because the writer of Hebrew conducted studies of undisciplined children, interviewed them, compiled empirical evidence, and thus can tell us exactly how they feel. And this exemplifies one of the major problems I have with this book, and why I cannot fathom why so many people were taken in by it. Dobson offers no empirical evidence for anything he says. He just makes broad assertions and backs them up with “evidence” so flimsy and unconvincing as to be a joke, or not at all. I’ve done tons of reading in social sciences, both for academics and for pleasure, and NO ONE in that field gets to write a book just saying, “well, I have a doctorate from a good university, so what I say is gospel truth and must be taken at face value and never questioned.” It doesn’t work that way!! You cite credible sources, you study the existing literature on your subject, and you back up what you say with evidence.

Also, what did “illegitimate child” mean back in the days of the writing of Hebrews? Illegitimate child has several different colloquial definitions today (it could simply mean a child whose parents are happily together but don’t happen to be married by law, or it could mean a secret child conceived by an illicit affair between already-married people, and many things in between), so you’d think Dobson would find it necessary or at least important to go into some background here, to help us make sense of the point he’s trying to convey. But no. Dobson offers no context for this statement, which renders it somewhat meaningless.  

“Why, then, can’t parents resolve all conflicts by the use of quiet discussions and explanations and gentle pats on the head?”

Well, if you are patting your kid on the head, then you’re being very disrespectful and condescending, which they are going to find very offensive. That probably escalates the situation right there and negates the quiet discussions and explanations. If you do not patronize your child, then you probably can solve most conflicts with quiet discussions and explanations. But, Dobson has a better answer:

“The answer is found in this curious value system of children which respects strength and courage (when combined with love).”

As evidence, he cites the popularity of cartoon shows like Superman, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. Yup, that explains everything!

Also, there’s this:

            “Why else do children proclaim, ‘My dad can beat up your dad!’?”

Well, let’s see. I mean, there could be another reason that children say things like that… Maybe it’s said out of loyalty and love to one’s dad. Maybe it’s said in response to being bullied. Maybe it’s unhealthy and shouldn’t be said at all. Let us not forget, the dads beating each other up will both end up in jail, regardless of who wins.

We continue,

“You see, boys and girls care about the issue of ‘who’s toughest.’ Whenever a youngster moves into a new neighborhood or a new school district, he usually has to fight (either verbally or physically) to establish himself in the hierarchy of strength. Anyone who understands children knows that there is a ‘top dog’ in every group, and there is a poor little defeated pup at the bottom of the heap.”

So, basically Dobson is saying that kids bullying each other is self-evident and there’s nothing to be done about it (does he even want to do anything about it?). I cannot possibly disagree more. Um, how about we don’t accept this horrible behavior from our kids? Why don’t we start anti-bullying campaigns to bring awareness to this screwed-up social construct and take action to eliminate it or at least reduce it? Here’s an idea: why don’t teachers reprimand students they catch bullying other kids – send them to the principal’s office or something? Honestly, this book is so ass-backwards! Don’t tolerate your baby crying because he’s hungry, but if your son or daughter is bullying the kids at school, well, that’s just life. We’ll see in the next section that that is precisely how he raised his own kids.

Some additional thoughts: Dobson says that children value “toughness (when combined with love)” but then he defines that toughness as behavior that is clearly bullying and should be unacceptable in any civilized society. When these broken dynamics are occurring in schools and neighborhoods, children are generally interested in who is “top dog” to avoid getting beaten up. They don’t “value” the toughness. They may fear it, but they do not value it. Everyone hates the schoolyard bully. There is absolutely no love there. This behavior he has described is not healthy. It is not something that should be modeled or repeated at home, and yet, that is exactly what he is advocating. Sick. Utterly and completely sick.