“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.



  1. Wow! I can see my own childhood in this series of blogs and it is not good! I am 39 years old and refuse any contact with “Those who raised me”. Years of therapy and medication has not been able to “fix” what was broken. You are dead on in your interpretation of the Dobson disaster.

  2. Ah yes the dilema of the child. Still craving to run and hug and get comfort from the person that seem to hit you with a wooden stick at random. Not a good place for a child’s heart and mind to be in.

  3. My son, at the tender age of 4, was wondering how razors work. He tried carving up a toy fire truck, then the tip of a finger! a) It was our fault for having straight razors (used as box cutters) where he could find them b) he was curious. The stitches he ended up getting were enough of a life lesson. We did NOT punish him, but we made sure that dangerous stuff was out of his reach. What a dolt this Dobson is. My own brother got severely “spanked ” all the time. He was more adventurous than the rest of us.

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