By Barbara Falconer Newhall
It was a childrearing book. It sat on a bookshelf in our house for months until I couldn't stand the sight of it any more. Finally I got rid of it.
It was James Dobson's The Strong-Willed Child, in which the author describes whipping his pet dachshund into submission. A few paragraphs later, the conservative Christian psychologist recommends that you use corporal punishment on your son or daughter. Do it, he says, for the sake of the child's eternal salvation.
The dog-man confrontation took place years ago as bedtime approached one evening in the Dobson household. Dobson wanted his dog -- a dachshund named Sigmund Freud -- to get into his overnight enclosure in the family room. Siggie didn't want to go; he growled and bared his teeth at his master.
Dobson went for his belt.
"I had seen this defiant mood before," Dobson, a licensed psychologist, wrote in The Strong-Willed Child, "and knew there was only one way to deal with it. The only way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else works. I turned and went to my closet and got a small belt to help me 'reason' with Mr. Freud."
When Dobson gave Mr. Freud a firm swat across the rear end, the dog tried to bite the belt. "I hit him again and he tried to bite me . . . That tiny dog and I had the most
Video screening of James Dobson talk. Photo by Barbara Newhall
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 and swinging the belt."
Finally Siggie backed himself into a corner and snarled at the belt-wielding child psychologist. It was to be the little dog's last stand. "I eventually got him to bed," Dobson writes, "but only because I outweighed him 200 to 12!"
The next night when Dobson ordered the family pet into his nighttime enclosure, Mr. Freud went "in perfect submission."
Two-hundred-pound man with belt wins. Twelve-pound dog loses.
And that is as it should be, according to Dobson's lights. For just as a dog will challenge authority, so too will a small child -- "only more so." Whenever a child resists authority, some physical pain -- a swat or lash with a switch or a belt -- is in order.
The entire human race, you see, is afflicted with a tendency toward willful behavior, Dobson says. Adam and Eve had it. You and I have it. Our children have it.
Which puts our children's very souls at risk. The child who fails to submit to his parents "leadership" will surely fail to yield to God's formidable will as an adult, Dobson reasons.
Make no mistake, he tells his readers, God possesses "majestic authority." God is in charge of the universe, and as such, God, the supreme Lord, requires obedience from his children. Those who do not submit to him will learn to their eternal horror that "the wages of sin is death."
And that is why parents have to spank their children, or hit them with a switch or belt. For the sake of their eternal salvation, children must be brought under parental and, later, divine authority. To that end, Dobson insists, "most of them need to be spanked now and then."
I've owned two copies of The Strong-Willed Child over the years. One, a copy of the 1985 trade paperback edition, sits on my desk right now. I ordered it online the other day to make sure I remembered the dog beating incident correctly. I had.
The first copy of The Strong-Willed Child found its way into our house back in the 1980s when our children were small. As a new parent, I was eager to learn everything I could from the experts, and Dobson's book was a big seller at the time. As I read Chapter One, however, I was stunned by the spectacle of a man -- a psychologist -- beating his dog into submission.
I was just as appalled, then and now, at this popular writer's understanding of the nature of God. The man's overarching goal in rearing his children -- and helping you to rear yours -- is to make sure that as adults they submit to God. Using a switch or a belt on a child is part and parcel of Dobson's theology.
Of course, there was no way I was going to spank, whip or use a belt to terrify my little son or daughter into submission to an all-powerful (and purportedly loving) God who sends the disobedient off to hell.
So I stopped reading and put Dobson's book on a shelf. I eyed it uneasily for some time, then got rid of it. It probably wound up in the garbage, which is where my second copy of The Strong-Willed Child will probably go.
(Readers with qualms about destroying a book that belongs to them are referred to my essay "Do Books Have Rights? This One Didn't. I Threw It in the Trash.")
You'd think that, in the three-plus decades since, Dobson would have toned down his opinions on corporal punishment. He hasn't.
At last month's meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association in Decatur, Georgia, an unrepentant Dobson's PR people screened a video of a child-rearing talk Dobson gave in the early days of Focus on the Family.
The video shows Dobson cheerfully describing what to do when your toddler disobeys. You hook the defiant behavior with consequences, he says. And you do that by making use of a conveniently located muscle, the trapezius.
"You squeeze that little muscle," he tells his live audience, and "he goes down to the ground."
The audience laughs.
I'm not kidding. The audience laughs. Hear the audio of James Dobson for yourself on the Religion Newswriters Association website.
The clip from the decades-old video was being shown at the conference as a promotion for Dobson's latest book -- Your Legacy: The Greatest Gift, which is all about passing on the Dobson values to the next generation and the generation after that. And the one after that.
To be fair to Dobson, I want to point out that there's a lot of insight into child psychology in The Strong-Willed Child. Everything a parent does should be done with love, he urges. That feels right to me.
And so does this advice:
"Ultimately, the key to competent parenthood is in being able to get behind the eyes of your child, seeing what he sees and feeling what he feels. When he is lonely, he needs your company. When he is defiant, he needs your help in controlling his impulses. When he is afraid, he needs the security of your embrace . . . "
"Get behind the eyes of your child." What a beautiful, helpful image for young parents to keep in mind.
Dobson is a smart man and an engaging storyteller. Too bad he thinks that heaven is so tough to get into that it requires him to wield a belt on his dog -- and his kids.
If this story caught your attention, you might enjoy reading "Beauty, What to Do About It."