A review of James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline from an Objectivist viewpoint.

13 05 2012

Updated March 2014

Recently I read a book called “Dare to Discipline” 1977 by James Dobson, a Christian author.  I
found it very interesting to get inside Dobsen’s Christian mindset and the book actually had some good information in the early chapters.  I mostlydisagree with this book but it wasn’t as bad as you might think and reminded me somewhat of my own upbringing.

In the early chapters, the basic principle is that when a young child challenges the authority of a parent showing defiance and disrespect, this challenge must be decisively “won” by the parent.  He states that the ultimate paradox of raising children is that children want to be controlled but need to be sure their parent is up to the task of controlling them. I think there is some truth to this idea.  Perhaps this idea can be justified in the following manner:
There are certain laws of nature and certain characteristics of a human being that cannot be willed away.  Reality has a certain nature and human beings have certain characteristics.  Therefore reality itself sets limits and demands on our lives at all ages.  In this sense, we must all follow “rules” like those imposed on children.
I think a parent’s discipline can teach a young child that they cannot simply do what they feel like in every waking moment.  The child relies on the parent for their survival.  And parental discipline can ultimately help a child develop their own self control and self discipline.
So a parent or classroom teacher should be on the lookout for when a young child (from the age of 18 months to early teens) “clenches their fist”, “lowers their head” and willfully defies parental or school authority, attempting to impose their will on others via tantrums or name calling and attempts to do what they feel like at the expense of their care takers.  This behaviour should be dealt with promptly and Dobson also recommends spanking for young children.  (I’m not really sure what to think on spanking but I don’t think it’s a major problem for young children – Yes, I was spanked as a young child).

<Update: As a father I have never spanked my child ever and I am against doing this.>

In typical Christian fashion, Dobson often appeals to tradition and the bible as the ultimate explanations for his view point.  He also sometimes justifies his viewpoint by appealing to the will of the majority.  Once again I was disappointed to see how Christians who are opposed to the progressive movement and left wing politics justify their viewpoints in such an intellectually weak manner.  Another instance of this intellectual weakness is observed in Dobsen’s occasional pragmatism.  He often justifies his opinions by appealing to the middle ground and writes off approaches that he sees as being extreme.  For example, rather that viewing A.S Neill’s Summerhill school as being anarchistic, he claims this school encourages an extreme in “freedom”. Admittedly, Dobson isn’t alone here, many researchers in pedagogy talk about a continuum of classroom control ranging from authoritarian to Laissez faire.  They search for the golden mean in between these two extremes, often referred to as democratic.  I don’t think this way of viewing the problem of classroom control gets to the root of the issues.  An anarchistic environment where children can run around chaotically, vandalizing and disrupting learning violates the rights of the teacher and the school to run classes as they see fit.  These children are forcing disruption and time wasting on the teacher and the students who want to learn and behave.  This isn’t an extreme of freedom.  It’s an absence of freedom where property rights are trampled on.
Another example of this pragmatism can be seen when Dobsen says it’s possible for a parent to “love” a child too much.  What he really means is that you shouldn’t spoil children and abdicate on the parental duty to discipline and control certain bad behaviour in children.  A loving parent wants to raise healthy, productive children.  Therefore, once aware of the dangers of constantly bowing to the whims of their children, a loving parent will not spoil their child.

Dobsen believes the very early years of childhood at crucial to developing self discipline and control.  He explicitly recommends indoctrinating young children into one’s religious beliefs.  There is an almost deterministic attitude here, that emphasizes the environmental (particularly parental) influences on young children.  It seems that Dobson holds little hope in a person’s ability to change their personality and morality in late teenage and early adulthood years.  There may be something to this but at least in my experience, I am an exception.  I discovered Objectivism when I was 26 years old and I changed my ideology.  I was indoctrinated into Christianity and survived fairly intact.  I believe many psychologists sweep volition under that carpet.  They are not overly concerned about an individual’s efforts in shaping their personality and the power of free will.

Dobson is a big fan of Behaviourism.  He believes in reward and punishment; in positive and negative conditioning.  It’s easy to see why he can be deterministic.  I like to think about conditioning as a process of induction.  I think human brains are tuned to observe what works and stick to it.  To experience the effects of their experiences and learn from them.  So in this sense there is certainly something to Behaviourism without the need for deterministic beliefs.

He places a large emphasis on self esteem arising from how one is viewed by one’s peers.  Dobson is of course not alone here.  Many psychologists generally emphasize the importance of acceptance, belonging and peer approval.  For example, Alfred Adler states that belonging is the basic motivation. I personally believe living would be the basic motivation.  But I’m confused on this issue.  I suspect peer approval is quite influential on young children (but not in adults).  This is something I need to look into more.

Another thing that struck me was the reversal of cause and effect in the mind of Dobson.  This was especially apparent in the chapters detailing his view on the importance of sex as a driver of morality.  Dobson doesn’t believe humans have instincts and believes that all behaviour is learned (or conditioned more like it).  But his focus on sex as driving morality seems ironically similar to Freud’s views on the importance of sexual instincts.  He thinks that productivity and creativity occur in societies because they have banned premarital sex i.e. Monogomous relationships will lead to a man being productive because he has to provide for his family.  Dobsen also thinks sexual promiscuity has risen because of the “manipulative” media not because the media is responding to the wants of the culture.
In reality, there is a problem with whim-worship in our culture (hedonism).  Many people follow the path of attempting to find happiness through momentary acts of sensory pleasures as opposed to a long term approach to living whereby one attempts to fulfill the ongoing requirements of life.  A productive, long-range focus will lead to a person treating sexual relationships seriously.  Dobson has reversed cause and effect.  He believes attempting to force your kids to remain virgins until they are married will result in them being more productive and sensible.  I say that productive, sensible people can see the value in loving, long term relationships.

The book has several biblical quotes.  The following one really struck me in demonstrating the difference between the Christian view on morality and Objectivist ethics:

In 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (LB) Paul warns, ” You may as well know this too, Timothy, that in the last days it is going to be very difficult to be a Christian. For people will love only themselves and their money; they will be proud and boastful, sneering at God, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful to them, and thoroughly bad. They will be hardheaded and never give in to others; they will be constant liars and troublemakers and will think nothing of immorality. They will be rough and cruel, and sneer at those who try to be good. They will betray their friends; they will be hotheaded, puffed up with pride, and prefer good times to worshiping God. They will go to church, yes, but they won’t really believe anything they hear. Don’t be taken in by people like that .”

Note this line at the start of the verse:

“For people will love only themselves and their money; they will be proud and boastful

For an Objectivist like myself this passage seems so absurd.  How could someone who loves and cares for themselves and their family possibly be rough, cruel, hotheaded, ungrateful, dishonest etc?

Considering that one’s life and happiness requires material possessions in order to be sustained, why is it evil to “love money”?

Why is it evil to by proud?  Should we hate ourselves? What is wrong with feeling happy for one’s achievements?

And why equate being proud with being boastful?  Boasting is generally a sign of a lack of self esteem.  A need for approval from others or an axious desire to always be “one up” on others. This is not at all how I think of pride.

Christianity.  It’s warped.  But it’s still interesting.