“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?



  1. My mother had a habit of asking me to find items for her that she needed in order to carry out a task. Invariably, I couldn’t find the item. My mom would fly into a rage and berate me, as if I intentionally was trying to sabotage her task. To this day, when someone asks me to find something, my stomach goes into knots. I’m 59 years old! It feels as scary as when I was a child. Dobson is a dolt. I’ll probably say it over and over and over again. He ruined so many things in my life.

  2. This part reminds me not of my parents, but of my school. In a public grade school and especially when I was in a Catholic Junior High School, the attitude among teachers was always that any incident was immediately and fully understood. The notion that I might have important information that they don’t, even with regards to my own experience and intentions, just never entered their minds.

    And, I was the one everybody made fun of and called stupid, a practice Dobson defended as natural earlier in the deconstruction. This sometimes happened in front of the teachers. When I went to one for help, I was told I should learn to take constructivre criticism. This was all important info about any incident I got into with the other kids, but never information I was allowed to express, because anything I might say was pre-categorized as excuses.

    I still get shakey with powerless rage about it. I don’t know if any of them had read Dobson’s book, but they certainly shared its attitude, one that garuntees that trust cannot be established.

  3. Yep. My parents were always sure that I had the worst possible motives for everything I did. It’s not possible to think that way about someone you supposedly love. If you love someone you give them the benefit of the doubt.

    1. I agree. I mean, I think it’s fine to tell someone you love that they hurt you, or are bothering you, or whatnot, but imposing a motive onto an irritating or hurtful behavior is just the fastest way to destroy the relationship. And I do think you can address actions/behaviors that bother you while still giving benefit of the doubt.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly that we can judge the intention of a person. A child is a person. They could also react that way because they are tired, hungry, sick and are just having difficulty expressing how they feel. I would caution against an if then situation when discussing the situation with the child. Specifically when you misbehave I feel sad. Over time this could create a situation of codependency, in that the child may begin feeling they are responsible for your feelings. I would say something like, I see that you feel angry because I asked you to pick up your toys.

  5. Another thought….your parents made you responsible for their feelings which gave them permission to behave the way they did.

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