“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. 



  1. Let us not leave out the “wishy washy” description of the magazine article. This guy really is a piece of work…

    I too got a copy of this book. My therapist hadn’t heard of him, so I am lending her the copy. After you finish your take down, I plan to burn the book a page at a time, while denouncing all the horrid things my mother did to me based on his advice.

    1. Oh, I love that idea!!!! I may do that with my copy too.

      Yeah, my therapist wasn’t too familiar with him either. She’d vaguely heard of Focus on the Family but only knew of them as getting involved in right-wing politics. Fortunately, she’s duly horrified at his child rearing advice.

    2. Sounds like great therapy. I might do the same with my inherited “Character Sketches” by Gothard. But I have thought of doing a series on that book in the same way others are doing with books.

  2. Everything in this book seems to be discussed as complete exagerations. ????? What toddler is sawing furniture????? These examples are so unrelatable to real life???? I don’t understand how my mother read this and thought the man was a genius?

    1. OK I’m answering my own comment, how awesome is that? Actually, I may have an inkling why my mom “enjoyed” this book. Because she seems to want to hurt people. That’s just how she seems, she seems to inflict pain because she had pain and wanted to lash out. So of course she grasped onto a book she could use to explain away and spin her parenting choices. She still has deep pain from her childhood and STILL wants to tear people down, now that she can’t do it physically she tries to do it with a well honed poisoned tounge. It’s just sad.

      1. As my mother said when I told her how horrible her parenting was, “well, I didn’t know any better. My dad beat me too.”

        Yeah. And my mom beat me and I did not grow up to be an abuser. I did know better. So I was left with the same suspicions about my mom that you have about yours–that she just wants to inflict pain because she wants to lash out. I am fifty two, and sometime within the last two years my mom actually said that one of the reasons she didn’t like me as a child was because I reminded her of her sister. All I could think was, “Congratulations. You have now proven yourself a complete monster.”

    2. Unfortunately, ridiculous exaggerations are a running theme in this book… The first two examples he gives are plausible, but they are not automatically some act of defiance. The latter two are extreme exaggerations teetering on the edge of implausibility, which makes this book not terribly credible.

      1. To be perfectly honest, I think Dobson still lives in the 50’s, where spitting on anything was seen as unacceptable and small children had easy access to power tools.

  3. Did he actually say chainsaw???? How in the world would a small child even be able to lift it, then pull the chain hard enough to start it?? Now a curious kid with a hacksaw, I could see that. But it would take a really long time to actually saw off a table leg with one of those, so what is the parent thinking leaving a small child unsupervised that long anyway?

    1. I just rechecked the text, he doesn’t specify how said child is sawing the leg off the dining room table. I still think a child would have trouble with a hacksaw – accomplishing much with those takes some strength and precision. I could maybe see a curious child putting a few scratches and nicks on a dining room table with a hacksaw, but like you say, if a small child has been able to completely saw off the leg of a dining room table with a hacksaw, then there’s some fault that needs to lie with the parents, because that is a long time of leaving a kid unsupervised.

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