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James Dobson: Bully Your Pet, Hit Your Kid, Make Them Obey You–And God

Recent photo of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson at a podium, talking.

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson today

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

In Chapter One of his 1978 book, The Strong-Willed Child, James Dobson beats the crap out of his dog.

I was hoping to avoid that word crap. It’s a generational thing with me. But nothing else quite describes what transpired between the evangelical Christian psychologist and his pet dog one evening years ago as bedtime approached  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.

(Why would a dog snarl at its master? I wondered.)

Dobson went for his belt.

(That might explain things.)

“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 vicious fight ever staged

Head and shoulders photo of James Dobson that appeared on the cov of the 1985 paperback edition of his book "The Strong-Willed Child."

James Dobson, from the cover of the 1985 paperback edition of The Strong-Willed Child

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 my 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 who think it’s not OK to destroy a book that you own are referred to my essay “Do Books Have Rights? This One Didn’t. I Threw It in the Trash.”)

Cover of 1985 trade paperback edition of James Dobson's "The Strong-Willed Child" and cover of his 2014 book "Your Legacy."

Photo by Barbara Newhall

Dobson began writing his childrearing books back in the 1970s. Around that same time he also founded the socially and politically powerful–and very conservative–Christian media ministry Focus on the Family.

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 wisdom 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.

Normally I pass along the publication information of the books I write about. But I can’t recommend books by James Dobson. They aren’t good for your children, or you for that matter.

If this story caught your attention, you might enjoy reading “The Writing Room: To Niche or Not to Niche” or “Beauty, What to Do About It.”

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  1. Anonymous says:

    When I recall my childhood, I remember seeing a copy of The Strong Willed Child on the shelf. No matter where we moved, that book was there, unpacked and displayed alongside my mom’s theology books. I remember when my mom made a “spanking chart,” listing offenses (ranging from “using a snotty tone” to “refusing to come when called” and beyond) and the number of spankings they’d warrant. I remember when my dad called something my mom said “prophetic,” and I, being an eight-year-old child with no idea what that word meant, jokingly asked if ‘prophetic’ was anything like ‘pathetic,’ and was forced to stay in my room with a dictionary, watching my friends play outside, until I could explain the difference between those words. I remember my parents convincing me that my best friend was a bad influence on me and forcing me to dump her at her birthday party. I remember being forced to play softball, even though I hated it, and being berated for not being any good.

    This book taught my parents how to abuse their kids.

    • This is heart-breaking. I can’t fathom why parents would behave this way — is it because they believe deep down that they and, as a result, their children are intrinsically bad and not worthy of God’s love? Thank you for sharing your story. Hope all is well with you these days; it sounds like you have gained a lot of helpful perspective on your childhood.

      • ron savage says:

        I just have one question. What on Earth does This Guy being a Trump supporter have even the slightest relevance to this subject? Please I would like an honest straightforward answer. My Parents spanked (with open hand on the bottom) and I know for a fact that I turned out the better for it. Some of my friends whose parents didn’t grew up thinking they could get away with most anything and as a result several, actually more than several, are or have been in prison. So, again, what the heck does Trump have to do with it? Just a way of getting attention to sell a book or something? BTW I AM against bullying your pet though. Discipline is different from bullying.

        • I got some spankings as a kid, too. But my sense of James Dobson’s corporal punishment of kids is that it is more than a flat hand on the bottom. He describes pinching the shoulder muscles of his kids painfully when they disobeyed. As for his dog, he thrashed him and thrashed him with a belt until the dog finally submitted to his master’s will. Dobson uses his success in disciplining his dog as an example of how parents should discipline their children. So — I think the line between bullying and disciplining gets lost with Dobson.

          Part of my problem with Dobson is that he uses whipping and pinching children as a way — not to help that child understand how to behave — but to force the child into submission. He advocates submission for its own sake. Submission is the goal for Dobson, not moral behavior. Submission to the parent. Submission to God. (Isn’t that bullying?) And I worry that the resulting emotion in the child is fear — not love and the sense of responsibility and ethical behavior that is the natural outcome of love.

          What does all this have to do with Donald Trump? If a politician is defined by his supporters and their values, what does Donald Trump’s soliciting and accepting the support of a man like Dobson say about Trump?

          These are great questions, Ron.Thanks!

  2. I’m a Christian and find him digusting. Some people who claim to be Christians are arrogant and self-righteous and have no idea who the real Jesus is. Because all they do is try to dominate and control others. And then when you try to tell them you are wrong, they label you as a sinner, or a liberal or whatever excuse they use not to look at their prideful arrogance. Their idea of “submission” is actually repression. Then when their kids leave or have problems as adults they take no responsibility for their parenting and label their kids the same as “lost” or whatever stupid thing they used their entire lives in their self delusional psyches.

    • Thank you for weighing in. Submission is a really interesting topic — I take it up in my book: The idea of submitting to God’s will is big in Christianity, but I wonder if it isn’t a cop out, a way of not taking responsibility.

  3. IS BAPTISM JUST AN ACT OF OBEDIENCE? BY STEVE FINNELL

    The prevailing view among faith only advocates is that water baptism is just an “act of obedience” and is not a prerequisite for salvation.

    Acts 5:32 We are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.

    It is apparent that by obeying God we receive the Holy Spirit. Obedience to God is more than just an unrewarded act.

    Hebrews 5:8-9 Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. 9 And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.

    Jesus is the source of salvation to all who obey Him. What did Jesus say? He said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved…..(Mark 16:16)

    Baptism is not just an act of obedience. It is a prerequisite for salvation.

    Believing in Jesus is an act of obedience, but is not just an act of obedience. Believing is essential for salvation. (John 3:16)

    Repenting is an act of obedience, but it is not just an act of obedience. Repentance is essential to have your sins forgiven. (Acts 2:38)

    Confession is an act of obedience, but it is not just an act of obedience. Confession is essential for salvation. (Romans 10:9-10)

    Water baptism is an act of obedience, but it is not just an act of obedience. Baptism is essential to the forgiveness of sins. (1 Peter 3:21, Mark 16:16, Acts 22:16, Acts 2:38, Titus 3:5, John 3:5, Ephesians 5:23-27, Colossians 2:12-13, Romans 6:3-7)

    FAITH+OBEDIENCE SAVES.

    Hebrews 11:7……became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

    Noah became an heir of righteousness after he obeyed God. FAITH+OBEDIENCE.

    Hebrews 11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.

    The walls did not fall down by faith only, they fell down after seven days of obedience. FAITH+OBEDIENCE.

    The Scriptures do NOT teach that water baptism is just an act of obedience.

    There is no scripture that states men are saved by “faith alone.”

    (All Scriptures from: New American Standard Bible)

    You are invited to follow my blog. http://steve-finnell.blogspot.com

    • Steve, Thanks so much for this. It’s a wonderful description of how important “obedience” is to some Christians as well as to some believers of other faiths. Two things . . .
      First, What do we mean by obedience? My sense of it as a progressive Christian is that it is the decision to align ourselves with God and God’s desire for goodness to prevail on Earth. It doesn’t mean to do things just because someone/something tells me it’s God’s will that I do such things. I take even the Bible’s dictates with a grain of salt because the Bible so often reflects the culture, traditions and values of another long-gone era.
      And second — I can’t imagine that beating your child with a belt or stick so that he or she cowers and obeys you (like the dog Siggie) the next time you command that child to do something — I can’t imagine that that kind of abuse actually produces the kind of obedience that you (or I) think God desires.

      • E Farleigh says:

        Wow, I had forgotten the days of “The Strong-willed Child”. Probably because I couldn’t finish the book and it ended up in my trash too. This man had some very strange ideas I came to realize. He would rail against moms who worked outside of the home as if our children would become axe murderers because we wanted to pay the bills. My husband was self-employed for years which meant that we had to pay for all of our health insurance. That was no small sum of money. So before becoming parents I put my husband on my insurance through my job. When we became parents, I went back to work part-time only but we still kept our insurance with my employer even though we paid a larger amount by far, yet still cheaper than obtaining our own. But every time I heard Dr Dobson ridicule working moms, I would feel very guilty. He would say that women should stay at home with the children rather than hold a job just to be able to pay for the family boat, fancy vacations, etc. That was not why I worked. My pay after the insurance deduction meant that we could make our bills. I could not relate to him at all. He was very biased in favor of the upper middle class. I finally decided that I was not learning anything from him that common sense hadn’t taught me, so I stopped listening. I had actually forgotten about him until I saw this article.
        I can proudly say that our daughter is very well adjusted and is raising a beautiful family of her own. And yes, she is a working mom.

        • My son, who spent plenty of time in various child care settings, turned out to be a wonderful, loving husband and father. And, like your daughter, he and his wife both hold full time jobs. I wish they could cut back on their hours so that their lives could be a little less hectic. But their baby seems to be doing beautifully in child care.

  4. Cheryl McLaughlin says:

    Oh Barbara,
    Reading about James Dobson and his philosophy and parenting advice then and NOW just makes me cringe! But the PR people with their video promo and the reaction of the attendees at the conference, ooh, that disturbs me even more. Thanks for sharing the then and now story!

    • Just to be clear — it was NOT the people at the Religion Newswriters Conference who were laughing along with Dobson. It was his videotaped audience of followers at the time he gave that talk back in the early days of Focus on the Family. I suspect that most all of my RNA colleagues would not favor corporal punishment. Indeed, the first question asked of Dobson’s representative at the conference was whether Dobson really and truly still advocated corporal punishment in the year 2014. The RNA, btw, is a organization of journalists — newspaper, radio, TV — who report on religion for the mainstream media as well as religious publications.

  5. Treacy Coates says:

    Right on. Thanks Barbara!

  6. George M. Alvarez-Bouse says:

    [That Dobson] is a religious figure has little or nothing to do with his outlook on this question; nor with the religion of anyone else who chooses to read his book, including those among us who choose to believe in no religion at all. What it does have to do with is how to raise a child. For some, hitting a child is an unsettled issue, but if they do it today, they know how varied the consequences might be: none, a school warning, loss of employment, or even probation or jail time . . . I don’t really know what people in general think about hitting pets to ‘tame’ them, but I suspect polls would show . . . that kindness toward pets moves forward as well . . . If you understand children better, you will likely find fewer thoughts popping up that might lead you to hit a child. Like Dobson’s dachshund’s namesake, his daughter Anna, and those who followed their lead especially, many advances were made toward a child psychology, its ‘normality and pathology’ and a gentle means of helping children arrive safely at adulthood.

    • But George, that’s partly what disturbs me so much about Dobson’s outlook. Throughout this book, he emphasizes the importance of bringing the strong-willed child into submission (like the dog) to his parents so that later as an adult that child will submit to God’s will. That’s the goal, to train the child to believe in a God who will send you to hell if you son’t obey him . . . Dobson argues that getting the child to submit to the parent’s authority is often best achieved by hitting the child with a belt or a switch. Dobson’s not even advocating spanking, which is done — much less painfully — with the flat of the hand on the child’s buttocks. Dobson’s is a theology combined with a childrearing practice that troubles me deeply.

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