By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator
At the end of Michael Farris, Sr.’s recent white paper, he recommended James Dobson’s The New Strong-Willed Child (2003).
Unlike the works of the Ezzos, the Pearls, and Bill Gothard, this Dobson volume was not a foundational piece of my childhood. So I decided it was time to give it a read-through. Saving Victoria Strong has reviewed the beginning of the book in great detail here. This critique is not intended to be comprehensive, rather a cursory look at Dobson’s child-reading philosophies.
I have to admit: I expected better content considering Michael Farris ended his essay by recommending this. I was shocked by the dehumanizing themes of control and projection of power as well as the animal-like dominance by fathers. “Love and control” were Dobson’s guiding principles. Yet there was a disturbing amount of violence justified throughout the volume. Dobson seemed to model his training methods after a wolf-pack and a wolf-pack’s “Alpha Male.”
The introduction set up the book with an analogy about Dobson beating obedience into his “confirmed revolutionary” dachshund. Dobson admitted that “Siggie” wasn’t “vicious or mean,” but Dobson nonetheless demanded absolute obedience from the animal. One night, when Siggie obstinately refused to retire to his doggy-bed, Dobson knew the “only way to make Siggie obey was to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else worked.” He “turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me ‘reason’ with ‘ol Sig.”
While the dog angrily stood its ground, Dobson began beating it with his belt (trigger warning for animal cruelty):
“I gave him a firm swat across the rear end, and he tried to bite the belt. I popped him again and he tried to bite me.”
“What developed next is impossible to describe. The tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling. I am still embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie jumped on the couch and backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him into his bed, but only because I outweighed him two hundred to twelve” (3).
In order to avoid any confusion between people and animals, Dobson explained exactly what he means:
“Just as surely as a dog will occasionally challenge the authority of his leaders, a child is inclined to do the same thing, only more so. This is no minor observation, for it represents a characteristic of human nature that has escaped the awareness of many experts who write books on the subject of discipline.”
Unconcerned by the way he dehumanized children, Dobson offered a quick counter, “perhaps I seem to be humanizing the behavior of a dog, but I think not.”
You read that right: just as he had to have a pitched battle, beating his tiny dog with a belt, you should be prepared to control and exert your dominance over your “strong-willed” children.
Dobson followed his dog-beating story with sage advice on the “Hierarchy of Strength and Courage,” which sounds curiously like something Ron Swanson would invent in an episode of Parks and Recreation. Apparently, the only way for children to sort out their relative social position is to fight:
“Whenever a youngster movies 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. This respect for power and courage also makes children want to know how tough their leaders are… I can guarantee that sooner or later, one of the children under your authority will clench his little fist an take you on. Like Siggie at bedtime, he will say with his manner: ‘I don’t think you are tough enough to make me obey.’ You had better be prepared to prove him wrong in that moment, or the challenge will happen again and again” (4).
What a model of peace-making and cooperation, Dr. Dobson! His explanation of why children defy and look for boundaries sounds like something straight from the Pearls’ toxic teachings:
“Perhaps this tendency toward self-will is the essence of original sin that has infiltrated the human family. It certainly explains why I place such stress on the proper response to willful defiance during childhood, for that rebellion can plant seeds of personal disaster. The weed that grows from it may become a tangled briar patch during the troubled days of adolescence” (5).
At the end of the introduction, Dobson described another dog they owned. “Mindy,” he wrote “[was the] most beautiful, noble dog I’ve ever owned. She simply had no will of her own, except to do the bidding of her masters. Probably because of the unknown horrors of her puppyhood” (11). Oh, you mean like being chased around the room by a man beating you with a belt because you don’t want to go to your doggy-bed? Dobson did explain that his two dogs fell on opposite ends of the compliant-defiant spectrum (just like a minority of children are compliant), but he seems far too happy that Mindy acted like an abused, traumatized animal.
Clearly, it’s vitally important to discipline all the defiance out of your children so they can grow up to well-adjusted members of society. To make this abundantly clear, Dobson described Franklin Roosevelt as a “strong-willed child” who became a “strong-willed man” (8). There is no value judgment of Roosevelt as a person, or President, so one is left to assume that you should dominate your children, lest they become President of the United States. Dobson made it clear that being strong-willed is not a good quality and must be driven out of children (and dogs).
This is virtually identical to the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl, except the Pearls use Amish horse training as a model.
Dobson wanted a compliant, docile dog (child) that obeys his every command without question. Somehow, that will prepare children for adulthood. To get this result, he advocated parents engage in physical violence and wolf-pack domination to prove how Strong and Courageous they are. The fact that he does not recognize that beating your children and animals can eliminate all their internal desires and wishes is a bad thing should alarm everyone reading him.
I personally owned an abused animal. He was a dog named Freddy. Like Mindy, he was traumatized and we got him from someone who found him on the side of the interstate. I was only five years old when we got Freddy, so I didn’t understand why he acted differently from most dogs. He was deathly afraid of water and loud voices. Looking back, he had all the hallmarks of a traumatized puppy. At times, in my frustration I lashed out in physical anger. I can remember being confused and somewhat heart-broken by his reactions.
Ironically, around the same time, my parents began reading James Dobson, Michael Pearl, and other Evangelical/fundamentalist homeschooling child abuse advocates. I distinctly remember my early childhood suddenly punctuated by violence against animals – our cat Puddy was an early victim – and Freddy. I was merely modeling the same behavior my parents were using to train me and I saw the impact my cruelty had on my happy dog.
Modern studies of children and spanking show that young children who are spanked are more likely to lash out physically against animals and people.
I learned my lessons and Freddy and I grew to be fast friends over the next decade. Traumatized kids and traumatized animals have a special connection. Unfortunately, part of that is the shared experience of trying to escape the violence of our masters modeled after James Dobson. It disturbs me greatly that Michael Farris thinks this is a good book to recommend, given the giant controversy and deaths associated with the Pearls’ methods.
Even more disturbing: I hoped, somewhere in The New Strong-Willed Child, I would see Dobson make it clear that spanking infants was a bad idea, but the conclusion to his volume left me almost in tears. A woman, “Mrs. W.W.,” wrote to him complaining about their very young, and very strong-willed child:
“Our third (and last) daughter is “strong-willed!” She is twenty-one months old now, and there have been times I thought she must be abnormal. If she had been my firstborn child there would have been no more in this family. She had colic day and night for six months, then we just quit calling it that. She was simply unhappy all the time. She began walking at eight months and she became a merciless bully with her sisters. She pulled hair, bit, hit, pinched, and pushed with all her might. She yanked out a handful of her sister’s long black hair” (209).
Dobson explained that she “[closed her letter by] advising me to give greater emphasis to the importance of corporeal punishment for this kind of youngster.” His reply consisted of general encouragement and offering hope for the future – nothing of consequence. I can only assume Mrs. W.W. began beating her infant before she was twenty-one months.
Five years later, this mother wrote to Dobson praising his wonderful methods. Mrs. W.W. outlined the two things that improved her daughter: spanking, sometimes creating “an hour of tantrums,” and “allow[ing] her other daughters to fight back with the younger daughter.” Within two days of her older sister “giv[ing] her a good smack on the leg… the attacks ceased.” Mrs. W.W. went on and claimed that “without [the spankings] our Sally would have become at best a holy terror, and at worst, mentally ill. Tell your listeners that discipline does pay off, when administered according to the World of God… I don’t think you went far enough in your book, loving discipline is the key. With perseverance!” (210)
There you have it. I expected, after these letters, James Dobson would offer some sort of “there is a limit to the spankings,” but no. Instead he doubled-down and wrote, “If Mrs. W. reads this revised edition of The New Strong-Willed Child, I want her to know that I had her in mind when I set out to rewrite it.” Because, we must all remember, as Dobson concludes his volume:
“If you fail to understand [your strong-willed child’s] lust for power and independence, you can exhaust your resources and bog down in guilt” (211).