Michael Farris Recommends Child Training Manual That Promotes Beating Dogs and Spanking Infants

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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.”

dobsonThe 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).

22 comments

  • All of these men are sexually sadist. My father loved James Dobson, my father makes me sick, I think he belongs in prison. Dad, you are a sicko.

  • Is there some sort of limit to the legality of publishing this? Beating your child is definitely illegal, since this would obviously leave marks, which is generally the line for what spankings are legal. He’s inciting illegal behavior… Is there any recourse against this? It just mind boggles me that child abuse is condoned so openly.

  • Because “lashes will not kill your child” as proverbs promises….
    Only to find out that IT IS DEAD WRONG and Lydia Schatz died from being beaten.
    Beating kids breaks up their muscle tissue and putting too much of that into the bloodstream WILL KILL THEM!!!!!

    Its like they would rather have a “”subdued” dead child than a living “strong-willed”….. oh.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      “So what if I rack him ’til he die? For I shall have Saved His Soul.”
      — The Inquisitor, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Apparently, the only way for children to sort out their relative social position is to fight:

    That’s how it’s done among pack and herd animals; the juveniles fight to determine the pecking order, which one will become the Alpha and which the Omega.

    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”

    That indicates Mindy was either born a naturally-submissive Omega or was abused as a pup. The phrase “the unknown horrors of her puppyhood” suggest the latter.

    Dobson wanted a compliant, docile dog (child) that obeys his every command without question.

    In German, this is called Kadavergehorsham, “Corpse Obedience”. (Though “Zombie Obedience” might be a better translation.) It was a favorite goal of the National Socialists.

    “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).

    THAT is viewing/defining EVERYTHING in terms of Power Struggle. And when everything is Power Struggle, there are only two possible end states: My boot stamping on your face or your boot stamping on mine. And the only way to avoid the latter is to make sure of the former.

    P.S. Dobson was the “his shit don’t stink” CHRISTIAN authority on child-rearing when I was listening to Christianese AM radio in the Seventies. (The Pearls of the Seventies?) His “:Focus on the Family” was on ALL the Christianese AM stations. (Or are the Pearls just “Can You Top Dobson” of a later time?)

    P.P.S. I wonder if this “boot stamping on face forever” mentality is also how Dobson views God and Christ? That God just has the biggest boot and the meanest stomp? And salvation means presenting our faces to that biggest boot and praising the biggest boot with each stomp?

    P.P.P.S. Mohammed and his followers also taught utter submission to an Omnipotent-but-Not-Benevolent God. “Islam” is classical Arabic for “submission”, and several of his followers were more Islamic than Mohammed — “Can You Top This?”

    • Miche Campbell

      The whole “wolf pack hierarchy” thing has been shown to be total bullshit.

      The alpha/beta/omega pack dynamics initially reported in wolves were the result of a stressed pack in captivity.

      Wild wolves show no such hierarchy; they do their own thing, sometimes hunting together co-operatively, but there is no rigid dominance/submission behaviour as previously thought.

  • whitechocolatelatte

    Wow. What exactly is the distinction here between Dobson and the others? I don’t see it at all.

    This is horrific.

    Someone teach these people some child development basics, for god’s sake.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Remember, Dobson WAS & IS THE Child Development Expert of Real True Born-Again Bible-Believing Christians for 40 years and counting. He defined himself as The Biblical Child Development Expert in opposition to those Secular HEATHEN Psychobabble Agents of Satan. And if The Strong-Willed Child WASN’T the 67th Book of your Bible, your salvation was in doubt and your kids would turn out raging Heathens burning in Eternal Hell. That was the marketing-thru-fear — God or the Devil, CHOOSE.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    To get this result, he advocated parents engage in physical violence and wolf-pack domination to prove how Strong and Courageous they are.

    Physical violence and Domination — does this remind anyone else of Manly Man Mark Driscoll?

    And it’s not wolf-pack domination, it’s mangy feral dog pack.
    Wolves have more class than that.

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  • I’ve read the strong willed child, and this review really distorts it. The Roosevelt quote, for instance: you’ve given it the most strained interpretation possible. Dobsons point, I’m pretty sure, is to encourage parents: your strong willed child can grow up to do great things!

    The primary point I got from the book was to set reasonable limits–taking into account their age and temperament–for your child and enforce them consistently. At one point he says don’t even bother taking your 2 yo to church. It’s unreasonable — unkind even –to expect a child that age to sit still and be quiet that long. That, I think, contrasts greatly with the pearls or Ezzos or whoever who say to train your young child to sit still for long period of time, or such rot?

    I don’t expect anyone here to agree with me on this. I’ll continue to follow this blog but I take it with a grain (or ten) of salt.

    • “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).

      You think beating a tiny dog with a belt because they do not know English is the way to go?

    • Because you really need to take first hand accounts from people who’ve experienced child abuse with a grain of salt!

      He does recommend spanking children at two, which is not reasonable for them. At that age, they their stress response system is still developing, and you dis-regulate it by using physical force. I highly suggest you read the works of Dr. Bruce Perry: a real expert on child development who’s worked with many traumatized children in his career.

    • You are correct. Dobson is not nearly as extreme as the Pearls. Further he does make quite than a few reasonable observations about raising children.

      However, his books encourage, either directly or indirectly, excessive corporal punishment. My parents followed Dobson’s first book, “Dare to Discipline”. When my father beat me and left bruises, my mother would ask me to be understanding: “If your father doesn’t punish you, God will punish him.” I’m sure Dobson would claim that my father went too far, but I won’t let him off the hook. His books set the stage for abuse to flourish.

      Perhaps more importantly, Dobson’s books directly set the stage for mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse. He turns parents into sin sniffers. Based on his teachings, parents start to see sin in just about any small mistake. I once observed a parent following Dobson’s sort of teaching make the mistake of labeling normal childhood behavior as sin. A 10 month old spilt their milk after being told not to do so. The parent declared this to be strong willed rebellion, and punished the child. In fact, most children can’t consistently drink without spilling until more than 24 months old. From six months of age, this child has repeated been told that she is rebellious and sinning for incidents beyond her control. In most cases, the “sins” are the parent’s – these parents set this child up for failure time and again. Then punish her when she can’t do what is asked.

      Clearly this is mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse. I understand that the child can’t understand all these words being hurled at her now. But she can feel the withdrawal of understanding care and feel the cold disapproval, condemnation, and even physical abandonment as they let her alone to contemplate her “sin”. And as she grows, she will certainly learn what the words mean and the damage will be compounded.

      This sort of thing isn’t an isolated incident. With Dobson and similar teachers, normal mistakes and developmental challenges are turned into sins requiring punishment. In fact, most of the punishment handed out to children in the church I used to attend could be linked to unreasonable parental performance expectations. But, parents could not see the situation clearly because of Dobson-like teachings. Instead of the reality of normal childhood behavior, often, all these parents were able to see was “sin”.

      Dobson and his ilk spread an evil message.

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  • You’ve got to respect a ‘man’ that wins a fight against a 12 lb dog. Here’s a well known secret: you give a dog a biscuit and he’ll do just about anything you want. He could’ve had that dog in its bed in under 5 seconds. Evil and stupid, it’s a really bad combo 😦

    • Dachshunds are known to be opinionated dogs but they’re also VERY easily led by their little stomachs. As evidenced by how many overweight little dachshunds are littering the landscape!

      Takes a real man to beat a 12 lb dog into submission. Whattaguy. I can think of more accurate words but I’ll refrain from using that sort of language.

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