Thursday, July 20, 2006

The problem with Dobson

When I posted about "Dogs don't moo" at Democratic Underground, Democrats_Win shared a pertinent detail that makes the web site make a little more sense--explaining that it is in response to pro-gay campaign ad.

The campaign’s star is a puppy named Norman who says “moo” instead of “woof.” Campaign organizers said Norman’s story is a metaphor for gay people.” The Springs are seen nationally as a battleground of social issues,” said Bobby Rauzon, a spokesman for the ad campaign, the Gazette reported. The ads will appear only in Colorado Springs, home to Focus on the Family, an anti-gay conservative Christian group. The idea is to stimulate discussion, said Mary Lou Makepeace, director of the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, which is based in Colorado Springs and funded by the Gill Foundation.

Here's the link to the pro-gay commercial. It may be slow loading but it is neat:

It is a neat ad. But with this new information, I find the ad even more troubling. It fits a larger pattern that I have seen in people like Dobson--if your very existence flies in the face of the world as they want to see it, you are perceived as a threat. You must be dismissed or explained away. You are disposable.

I've written about this before, and this seems like a good time to revisit these issues...

I have some pretty strong feelings about Dobson and his kind of Christianity, but before I'd ever heard of his religious views, I had been put off by his views on parenting.

I first heard about James Dobson when my kids were younger. Actually, on a particularly challenging outing to the grocery store, a smiling woman in front of me in line handed me a small piece of paper with a book suggestion for me: The New Dare to Discipline by Dr. James Dobson. At that point, I knew enough about Dobson to know that this was her way of saying, "Those kids need to be smacked more often!" I am convinced that our nation's overreliance on punitive "teaching" methods is a big part of our problem...but I will need to address that issue in more detail at another time.

There is, by the way, also a "Christian parenting expert" with a very different approach. Click here to see how Dr. William Sears answers questions related to discipline.)

Dobson has written a book specifically addressing how to parent a "strong-willed child", and in it he uses the example of the way he dealt with his dachshund's "willful" behavior.

Please don't misunderstand me. Siggie is a member of our family and we love him dearly. And despite his anarchistic nature, I have finally taught him to obey a few simple commands. However, we had some classic battles before he reluctantly yielded to my authority.

"The greatest confrontation occurred a few years ago when I had been in Miami for a three-day conference. I returned to observe that Siggie had become boss of the house while I was gone. But I didn't realize until later that evening just how strongly he felt about his new position as Captain.

"At eleven o'clock that night, I told Siggie to go get into his bed, which is a permanent enclosure in the family room. For six years I had given him that order at the end of each day, and for six years Siggie had obeyed.

"On this occasion, however, he refused to budge. You see, he was in the bathroom, seated comfortably on the furry lid of the toilet seat. That is his favorite spot in the house, because it allows him to bask in the warmth of a nearby electric heater..."

"When I told Sigmund to leave his warm seat and go to bed, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He deliberately braced himself by placing one paw on the edge of the furry lid, then hunched his shoulders, raised his lips to reveal the molars on both sides, and uttered his most threatening growl. That was Siggie's way of saying. "Get lost!"

"I had seen this defiant mood before, 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."

Nice. I don't know of any dog behavior experts who recommend the belt method. Go here and click "Aversives for Dogs" for a PDF listing more humane suggestions. Neither is physical punishment recommended for improving the behavior of children--sure, you will find some, like Dobson, who maintain that it's a good idea. Me? I think I'll listen to the American Academy of Pediatrics before I take his advice.

I find Dobson's advice especially troubling because I am the parent of a "strong willed child". It is my belief, both from my experience with my child and what I've read about children with similar characteristics, that Dobson's approach would be counterproductive.

Dobson advocates the spanking of children from 15-18 months to eight years old. According to Dobson, "pain is a marvelous purifier" especially for rebellious children. (Dare to Discipline, p.6) He does not advocate harsh spanking, "it is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely." (Ibid., p.7.)

In The Strong-Willed Child (p.73), Dobson writes: "Some strong-willed children absolutely demand to be spanked, and their wishes should be granted." To help determine the amount of punishment, he suggests that "two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, 'You must obey me.'" (The Strong-Willed Child, pp. 53-4.)

Dobson suggests that by correctly portraying authority to a child, the child will understand how to interact with other authority figures. "By learning to yield to the loving authority...of his parents, a child learns to submit to other forms of authority which will confront him later in his life -- his teachers, school principal, police, neighbors and employers." (The Strong-Willed Child, p. 235.)

Dobson stresses that parents must uphold their authority and do so consistently, "When you are defiantly challenged, win decisively." (Dare to Discipline, p. 36.)

For some kids, this is a recipe for escalation of the problem. Ross Green's concept of the explosive child was very helpful for me in understanding kids like this. And Gordon Neufeld's concept of counterwill affirmed something that I had already suspected. What appears to be "willful behavior" in fact, it reflects an absence of a well integrated self and "will" as well as an environmental experience of being overrun by someone else's will.

Kids like this need help learning self-control, coping skills, shifting gears. A while back I watched a video featuring Rick Lavoie, an expert on learning disabled children. He gave an example of a friend of his who has a daughter with a learning disability. When Rick was at the man's house for dinner, the daughter said something inappropriate at the dinner table. After the girl had been sent to her room, he asked (I'm paraphrasing from a sketchy memory here), "If she were doing badly in a sport, would you punish her or coach her?" Rick Lavoie recommends a technique he calls a "social autopsy" as a teaching tool for children with social skills deficits.

Mind you, finding out the root of the problem, and teaching the necessary skills is "hard work", but for some "strong willed" children, it's the only sane, humane solution.

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