“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…

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16 comments

  1. Oh, yea, this is how I was raised. I had a strong willed son with whom I have had a rocky relationship during his teens, because I bought into this crap. I constantly berated him. Thank goodness I realized how wrong I was when I began to question things. Now we have a stable relationship, but I can never get back those lost years. He is so sweet–when I apologized for what I put him through, he forgave me without hesitation. Now he knows that I love him just as he is: a questioner, a sometimes agitator, and a man with critical thinking skills. I am so proud of him.

  2. My kids are a perfect blend of strong willed and compliant…Messy rooms but when I ask them to do something for me they do it–occasionally complaining a little, but hey we are all entitled to bitch about stuff. They question authority, but are gentle and empathetic. They can entertain themselves for hours, in their messy rooms.

    I have begun to think that one of the causes of promiscuity is the very type of parenting Mr. Sobson (that started as a typo, but it seems a propos) advocates. I would have done about anything to get someone to hug me, to treat me as a valuable person, to love me, for however long it might last. I felt very unloved and unlovable as a child, and it is one of the things I am in therapy to try and correct.

    1. Sobson – love it! I’m in complete agreement with you, it’s kind of like a self-fulfilling prophesy tape loop: kid is strong-willed, so kid gets beaten and approval withheld; because kid feels unloved, they have low self-esteem and possibly depression; because of the low self-esteem and depression they may seek unhealthy possibly high risk sex or drugs, and their academics suffer. And then Dobson and his goons and hold this up and go, “See! Strong-willed children are at higher risk for these bad things! See, I told you!” Ugh…..

  3. So far Dobson just seems to be using scare tactics to make sure anyone reading this book understands that any child who doesn’t fit his ideal for a perfect kid needs to be fixed somehow. I don’t see him offering any advice on how to “Deal with” said kids. His advice probably won’t be good anyway. Maybe he already insinuated enough by telling everyone how he beat his dog with a belt earlier. (Seriously, who beats their animals with belts?)

    I’m wondering if Dobson himself was that perfect child he’s describing when he was younger. Somehow I doubt it.

  4. “This hypothetical supercompliant child sounds like robot.”

    If it only sounded like a robot it would be an improvment, there is at least some life in a person who behaves like a robot. This sounds more like the failure-to-thrive infants abandoned in orphanages.

    Or to put it another way: it sounds like an infant who is going to die if things don’t change

    Related to that you may find this to be interesting / enlightening / horrifying: http://ezzo.info/

  5. The really disturbing thing about the shopping cart analogy is he idea that children somehow exist to serve a function for their parents, to fulfill a need of theirs.
    How can anyone have things so backwards?

    Same here:
    “The easygoing child … spends most of his time trying to figure out what his parents want and how he can make them happy”
    If this is how he assumes it should be, he has some serious entitlement issues going on.

  6. Even with the shopping cart metaphore, Dobson’s showing his failure of thought. If you own a grocery store that has a defective cart, and throwing it away is not an option, you don’t kick it and force it forward until it turns into a functioning cart.

    If you want to fix the cart, you look at the wheel in question, maybe there’s a screw that needs tightening, a bent part that needs replacing, etc. At no point is one going to accomplish a functioning cart by shoving and kicking it.

    And, I entirely buy that, being that Dobson’s datapoints are from parents who share their stories with him after buying into his thinking, he would have reason to think that willful children would be at high risk for anti-social bebavior. Of course those designated as “willlful” are at higher risk, they’re the ones more often singled out for physical abuse.

  7. Yuck, this book is disgusting. Thankfully my parents looked for parenting advice in a very different variety of book when it came to raising me. I was a very difficult child I’m told. It’s a wonder I wasn’t spanked considering how ineffective time outs apparently were. Fortunately, they managed not to jump on the abuse bandwagon.

    Actually, looking it up, the title of the one I remember is even a sort of a refutation of this book’s title. “Strong-Willed Child or Dreamer?” by Dr. Danna Spears. Thank god my parents didn’t end up with Dobson’s book instead!

  8. Blah. It is NOT the responsibility of the child to make the parent happy. I believe current research is showing that full personality traits are not set until later in childhood.

  9. As a Christian he would also state that children were created by God. Why in the world would he then compare them to a broken grocery cart. The cigar comparison is ridiculous.

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