Dobson Refutation- One

Many of us who have read Dr. Dobson’s books, or have been parented by those who’ve read them feel deeply that his attitude toward discipline is wrong. We are also clearly at a loss to explain or articulate why. I have been making an effort to put into words and down on paper (erm…as it were) what is wrong about Dobson’s stance, and why.


Positive Parenting and Permissiveness Are Not Alike- Positive Parenting and Parental Authority Are Not Opposites


One of the points Dr. D loves to try to make, is that outside of demanding parental control- all parenting must be permissive. He actually says that he promotes an authoritative parental role instead of authoritarian, but I have found his distinction between the two to be so fine as to be no distinction at all.

To illustrate, I will take a quote from his book, The Strong-Willed Child, where after equating the dangerously permissive thoughts of John Caldwell Holt with a Positive Discipline statement from the Oklahoma State DOH web page, he says this;

“Here’s yet another example of bad parental advice, reflecting the positive discipline philosophy. Lina Kabada, writing for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, relayed this advice:

[Karen] Gatewood once spanked and called “time-out.” Now she talks about her children’s feelings. When the girls act up, she sweetly and calmly suggests alternative activities and offers support (“I know you’re sad”) in the midst of tantrums, a touchy-feely technique known as “time-in.”

    Ms. Gatewood. . . allows what positive parenting attitudes call “natural and logical consequences” of behavior to flow. For example, [her daughter] Amanda recently wanted to take a favorite piece of string on an outing. Ms. Gatewood warned that she might lose it, but didn’t argue with the child. She allowed the natural and logical consequences to unfold. Sure enough, Amanda lost the string and she cried.

    Ms Gatewood didn’t ignore Amanda’s feelings, as pediatricians suggest in the face of a tantrum. “I said, ‘That is sad. It’s horrible,’ because to her it was horrible. She said, ‘I won’t bring my toys next time.'”

How simplistic and unworkable! ”


The point the good doctor is apparently trying to make here, is that this situation somehow did not work, and that somehow the fact that ‘it’ didn’t ‘work’ is a direct result of the Mom being ‘permissive’. This is defined by his example as, 1. Not spanking 2. Caring about a child’s emotions 3. Offering support, and 4. Suggesting alternatives.

We’re gonna skip not spanking for the moment. Let’s start with #2. First of all, we all have emotions. Without them we are non-functional in society because we have no empathy, and no remorse. This is why emotionless people are labeled as Psychopathic. I am sure Dr. Dobson’s aim is NOT to turn every child into a psychopath, yet he more than implies that considering a child’s feelings even in a small matter, is wimpy parenting. When exactly then, do your kids’ feelings matter? How do you decide? #3- Offering support for big feelings. Now, who of us, in the depths of sadness and pain does NOT need support? We have a whole culture built up around support groups for adults! It is plain that an adult’s feelings matter enough to create artificial frameworks within which this need is met, yet we aim to teach our children that their emotional needs are insignificant. #4- Um…this should be self explanatory. WHY is it bad to offer an alternative? If punishment is supposed to teach what NOT to do…what are you supposed to do instead? How does a child learn what TO do?

Perhaps Dr. D (as I affectionately call him) would rather the scenario had played out like this…

Momma suggests an outing to the park. Child decides she can’t part with her beloved string even to go the park. Mom says “NO”. Child throws fit. Mom says, “You calm down right now, or I’ll spank your bottom!” Child of course, does not calm down, and gets a spanking. Mom- frustrated and feeling resentful that even something fun has to be made difficult by her child- drags crying child out to the park. Maybe the daughter calms down and even has fun. Momma stays upset, and feels persecuted because she ‘had’ to spank her child to even get her out the door.

Say that the best case scenario is that the child stops crying and they go and have a decent trip to the park. Or worst case, dd doesn’t stop crying even once they get there, necessitating another spanking. Maybe that doesn’t work, and the park trip must be cancelled. What sort of tone has been set for the day?

Whoa, this is getting long! In order for the first mom to agree to the string, she had too- let go of her embarrassment over her DD carrying around a dirty piece of string, evaluate whether the string was valuable enough that it required her protection, and commit to helping her daughter through the consequences of losing something important to her. This is where parental authority comes in. The good Dr. snarkily asks whether Mom would let her daughter wear her wedding ring to the park, and pour orange juice into the VCR. No, of course not. A piece of string is not valuable. In short it makes a perfect object lesson for learning about loss for a little girl. All this Momma did was pick an appropriate circumstance for her daughter to learn this lesson. Then she helped her process it. Simple? Yes! Simplistic? No!

Please note the very last thing the little girl said, “I won’t bring my toys next time!” Hmmmm… Unworkable? Seems like it was pretty effective to me. It seems to me that the first Momma actually accomplished her mission. Did the second Momma?


About greenegem

Wielder of the Pen of Deep Wit.
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14 Responses to Dobson Refutation- One

  1. Jenny Bryant says:

    I could be wrong here… but I get the feeling that the idea is that children’s emotions matter as long as they’re doing what the parent wants and being “obedient.” As soon as they’re disagreeing with the parent or not doing what the parent wants, empathizing with them and reflecting emotions is, inexplicably, suddenly seen as permissive. It’s almost as though empathy, offering alternatives, and even teaching what TO do take a backseat to punishing/making the child feel bad for not happily complying. It is sad, to me, when punishment is confused with discipline, and very effective discipline tools like teaching and empathy are confused with permissiveness. 😦

    • greenegem says:

      Jenny, I know with MY mother I always felt like what I was feeling was ok ONLY if it was what she was feeling or would have felt in the same situation. And her ridicule and punishment over my ‘oversensitivity’ prevented her from getting to know me. If she had taken time when I was a baby to learn me, instead of assigning a defiant motive to my baby behavior, by the time I was a preteen she would have known that my emotions WERE justified- for me.

      That’s why a punishment-based parenting method is harmful- it creates a fearful distance between a parent and child. Those children grow into adults who have a hard time recognising and naming their emotional states, and that I believe is why we have so many people who end up in therapy because they don’t KNOW HOW to have healthy relationships.

  2. Exactly. This kind of parenting sets up an adversarial relationship between the parent and the child. That explains why Dr. Dobson came to the conclusion that the teen years were invariably like river rafting through rapids, the only goal being to get through them alive. 😦

    • greenegem says:

      Yes! And so many teens feel like the entire world is against them- and some do NOT make it through alive. 😦 Parenting is about so much more than teaching ‘correct behavior. Correct behavior changes culturally, after all. Parenting is about scaffolding the development of a Human Being. We were meant to reflect the Glory of our Creator, so our goal as parents should be to help our children become the Creations they were intended to be! ❤

      • Debbie says:

        I was totally tracking with you and LOVING it, even with tears at some points along the way – until you mentioned how “correct behavior” changes culturally. I assume you are speaking of things that are not absolutes. Like many years ago when wrist-watches were new and a man wearing one was akin to when men first started wearing earrings. People were AGHAST because it wasn’t seen as culturally “correct” for that time.

        But I think what you’re saying that regardless of whether it is a cultural thing that can change or just plain old sin which is always wrong, there is a WAY to handle it as parents that allows for teaching and appropriate consequences, but in an atmosphere of unconditional love and grace that sends the message:

        “You are a valued member of our “family team” and even more so, a valued member of my heart. Your thoughts, feelings and “take” on the game will always be welcomed, cared about, discussed and taken into account. And while sometimes you’ll be allowed to play in the game and other times you’ll need to sit on the bench, it will never change your worth or value to this team or to this coach.”

      • greenegem says:

        You and I are in agreement. 🙂 I did mean that correct behavior changes culturally, but Biblical principles do not. A discussion like this could go on for pages, but we do need to be careful to rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance in determining Godly behavior. We teach MORE than Godly behavior to our kids however- modesty comes to mind because it means wildly different things in certain cultures- we also teach certain things that only apply to our respective societies.

  3. Pearl says:

    Thanks so much for putting this into words. I’m one of those who has been at a loss to articulate and it is SO helpful to see it “on paper” like this!

  4. Kristen says:

    It is great to find a blog where some of the ideas that I would like to raise my son with are discussed. Over the years, I have talked with a good friend of mine about raising children (she had kids many years before me) and she often shared with me how some of what she was reading in Dobson books, etc. just didn’t fit her theology. Until I had a son and really was forced to look at how does God parent us and what do we really want our children to learn in the long run, I didn’t see the benefit in what she was doing. I can surely see it now, although sometimes it feels lonely when a lot of the parents around me seem to think I should be more strict. Maybe I put that on them but either way, it is nice to read your thoughts! Keep blogging.

    • greenegem says:

      Thank you Kristen! I like what you said about looking at how God ‘parents’ us, because it contradicts a lot of popular Christian parenting ideas! 😦 we need to be a thinking people, yk? We are respobsible for using the brains god gave us.

      Keep checking back, because I intend to post a few links to resources soon!

  5. Kristy says:

    I have to give you credit for getting through that whole book. I try to start it, but when I get to the part in Chapter 1 where he tells the “funny story” about how he beat a 12 pound dachshund with a belt, I want to vomit.

  6. TealRose says:

    Just … a strange perhaps thought but .. here goes. I was raped at 18yrs old. I don’t want my rapist killed [jailed would be good so he wouldn’t hurt another woman] but I refuse to let that man have any more hold over me, and have forgiven him. [Does that mean I would trust him again? No ! ] It means that I believe that one day he will pay for what he did to me and any others. God will see to that.

    Dr D …. and his like-thinking monsters…. sorry .. but I really feel they are.. will also be called to pay for their horrific treatment of children. I continue to pray that God stops these dreadful ‘child discipline’ books, pamphlets and meetings are stopped, and that a new gentle way is implemented in the churches and homes!

    • greenegem says:

      TR- you are right. We will all eventually be held to account for what we do. THe miracle of Grace though is that the things we have done for which we have repented are forgotten. Praise be to God that he will NOT punish me for those things I have confessed and which he has pardoned! We especially though, will be held accountable for those we have lead astray, and even in some way for the sins they commit because of our counsel. Quite a sobering thought.


  7. Maureen says:

    Oh my Dr. Dobson ( or as i affectionatlry call him, the spanking guru). Yes indeed, if you read his family of origin background he will explain that his mother beat him on a regular basis with any implement that has handy and he is turn has developed a very harsh and legalsitic approach to parenting which seems to essentially go like this, a child by their nature is willful and disobidient and must conform to the will of their parent. The child can not do so in many cases and so willful disobedience must be broken through infliction of pain on the body and after of course is that quaint and cozy time where everyone prays and hugs and the child is right with the parent and of course in good graces with God. Why in the world if the infliction of fear and pain necessary to set healthy and appropriate limits in parenting….we never know because he never explains! There is not a stitch of credible research out there that supports Dobson’s ideology and yet there are hundreds and thousands of christian parents since 1974 ( when he first published) who have never questioned his authority and wisdom. I could go on forever. I am a mother of two daughters ( 10 and 13) and respect my daughters too much to ever use physical forms of discipline. Also, I am a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and have worked with children and families for 25 years. Having worked at a Child Protective Agency for 12 years I have seen the tragedy and heart ache that occurs when the fine line from discipline to abuse occurs. It can and does happen everyday.

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