Doctor's Orders: Revisiting James Dobson's Dare to Discipline

Thomas de Zengotita

To read Dr. James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline (1970) is to be transported, as if by the tang of a Proustian biscuit, back to the ‘60s, back to the lived reality—the very qualia of that era are resurrected in this book.  But the perspective is unfamiliar.  Instead of a Bobo stroll down the lane of memory that leads from Kent State to Joan Baez singing Barbara Allen, we find ourselves among Americans of conventional persuasion threatened by disorder on every hand.  They are horrified and angry—and Dobson writes on their behalf, addressing them and representing them, with just the right message, and in prose pitched perfectly to the needs.  The book provides a vivid picture of a certain frame of mind while it’s under construction.

Dare to Discipline launched Dobson’s career as a political force.  You probably know him as one of several powerful religious conservatives who keep watch on the Bush administration on behalf of the so-called base.  You might also know him as the man who outed Tinky-winky, the gay Teletubby—which is actually more revealing of the particular nature of his enormous influence. No organization on the hard right has more influence than Dobson’s Focus on the Family.  He originally set up shop as the anti-Benjamin Spock, as a pediatrician speaking out for traditional mores.  He now dominates the whole field of ideas that cluster under the rubric “family values” because he embodies the authority of medical science as well as religious fundamentalism.  What The Closing of the American Mind was to secular neo-cons, Dare to Discipline was to Christian fundamentalists.  It is an ur-document of movement conservatism in America that shows us what domestic brands of fundamentalism have in common with their kindred in other lands.

Academic experts on fundamentalism, focused on the Islamic variety, routinely agree on the importance of humiliation as a motivator.  The gist is this: the experience of violation through occupation—literally, in the case of military intrusion, figuratively, in the case of cultural and technological domination—cuts deep and burns steady.  For some, nothing short of terror can purge the shame. 

But the experience of violation also motivates domestic forms of fundamentalism that limit themselves to fantasies of redemptive vengeance, to elaborate visions of Rapture and End Times.  It’s the terror drama—but it’s played out symbolically.  If you happened to see Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson gloating over the carnage that 9/11 inflicted on Sin City, you will know that this is no exaggeration.  In the emotion of that moment, the civil façade they usually manage to maintain slipped a bit, and we caught a glimpse of the abiding longing for apocalypse that shapes their mission in the world. For fundamentalists of all kinds, the threat of violation is diagnostic. That’s why they need an invincible system of doctrine and practice that can bind the totality of life into a single, invulnerable arrangement. 

Take, for example, the commonplace observation that puritans are obsessed with sexual display in popular culture.  The conventional implication is that they wouldn’t be obsessed if they weren’t aroused.  And that’s true but it misses the essential point.  Over and above that, there’s the fact that lust, once stimulated, invades the body whether you like it or not.  For a puritanical man, sexual display—from the ubiquitous ads to the way Western females inclined to bodily candor dress—is experienced as a violation that deprives him of bodily autonomy. Hence the emphasis on family values in all forms of fundamentalism, not just among Americans. The omnipresent forces of sexuality has to be contained in an order of comparable strength. So men must gather here and women there on this occasion, and then in some other fixed place on that occasion, dressing and behaving in just this way and not that. It’s all about boundaries and categories that make it possible to live in one way, and so secure the true believer from pollution in a fallen world.  And nowhere is that security provided by those boundaries and categories more urgently needed than in the domestic realm, the very nursery of society. 

That security is what Dare to Discipline promised its besieged readership back in the 1960’s. 

The book opens with a cleansing gesture.  Right away you know you’re in good hands, the firm hands of a leader willing to draw lines.  He dismisses—casts out—the hippies and radicals on the other side of the “generation gap.”  No point in compromise, he tells the reader, right up front; no point in dialogue—those kids are a lost cause.  Leave them to their miserable fates.

That alone was enough to stiffen parental spines in threatened households across the land.  But the doctor also offered a diagnosis to explain the loss, and a prescription for a brighter future that put the spotlight on those same parents.  It was not to late to save the next generation because the anarchy (one of Dobson’s favorite words) of the 60s was easily explained.  Nothing to do with Jim Crow or Vietnam or one dimensional mass society.  It was the fault of permissive parenting.  And, by extension, of permissive educating and, by further extension, of a permissive “anything goes” culture—but it all begins at home. 

Hence the doctor’s prescription: dare to discipline.  The cure for the 60s was as simple as the diagnosis.  All that was wanting was the will.

Right from the beginning of the book, you notice how much jargon and slang Dobson uses, to peculiar and revealing effect.  He so often misapplies these expressions in ways that show how far removed from what he refers to as the “youth scene” he actually was—as when he calls the “Playboy Philosophy” the banner of this younger generation, as if the Diggers of Haight-Ashbury were hanging out with Hugh Hefner in Vegas when they weren’t holding Be-Ins in Golden Gate Park.  But, however applied, he almost always puts jargon and slang in scare quotes, an expression that might have been coined to explain this little tic in his style.  As you settle into the flow of Dobson’s language, you realize that he experiences slang and jargon as, in their own little way, yet another threat to order.  He needs sometimes to use these expressions, to show an understanding of what’s going on out there, but they have to be set apart somehow, so as not to contaminate the unaffected language of ordinary folk and the official terminologies of medical men.  As when, for example, he describes the lavish Thanksgiving celebration that takes place each year at his home in a “family blessed with several of the greatest cooks who ever ruled a kitchen, and once a year they do their ‘thing’...” 

Women, in their proper place, are both sovereign and happy, you see.  Their “thing” is most truly theirs when they are fulfilling traditional roles. 

Scare quotes like this are surface symptoms of a commitment to order that informs Dare to Discipline at every level.  That explains why Dobson can’t tell the difference between Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, between street crime and campus demonstrations, inner city gangs and rural communards, pot and heroin, Woodstock and Altamont.  To him it’s all the same—one big chaos violating the duly constituted order.

Dobson’s language in general leaves no doubt that he feels personally violated.  It is most evident when he confronts The Filthy Hippie, that walking symbol of all that reactionaries loathed and dreaded in those years.  So, for example, Dobson describes the sad fate of permissive parents Mr. and Mrs. Holloway, who had not dared to discipline their daughter Becky during the critical early years (“Truly, the toddler is a tiger”) and thus the “ticking time-bomb” that is the teenager was set to explode.  Becky’s now got Mom and Dad so buffaloed they’ll agree to anything.  She gets them to throw a party for her and they work “very hard to get the house decorated and the refreshments prepared” but “on the appointed evening” their hospitality is flouted as “a mob of dirty, profane teenagers swarmed into the house, breaking and destroying the furnishings as they came...” 

Decorations and refreshments and appointed evenings—it’s all so fragile, so vulnerable.

That was the gist of the 60s as Dr. Dobson understood the era that shaped him as surely has it shaped his enemies.  Violation of an established order, once underway, will not contain itself.  It won’t stop with dirt and a few ruined “furnishings.”  There’s a very slippery slope.  The Holloway fable ends with Becky beating Mrs. Holloway unconscious in the family bathroom where Mr. Holloway finds her “lying in a pool of blood” when he returns.  Meantime, our undisciplined Becks is out “in the backyard, dancing with her friends.”

Hmmm...let me see. I was around at the time.  I don’t think I remember that happening very often.

But in Dobson’s world there are no gradations.  Gradations are a threat to boundaries.  It’s all or nothing, always.

He does provide his readers with some retribution fantasies, though, as if to right the balance there and then, in anticipation of the generational turning of the tide his system of parenting will bring.  So, for example, Dobson discourses on the kind of teenager who might benefit from discipline of the military variety and it turns out to be—guess who?—the “sullen, filthy, hostile young men” who “come sauntering into the Marine Corps processing station [?] with the same snarl and glare they used for frightening folks back home.” Dobson’s hippies seem to be morphing into 50s delinquents at this point, but, whatever, they morph back soon enough.  After getting off a few remarks like “Hey, man—don’t bug me, man!” they are conducted to the climactic encounter “a few hours later” when “these hairy adolescents” are “shorn absolutely bald—until nothing but ears remain amid all that skin.”

Ah, justice.

Dr. Dobson has a thing about hair.  But so did a lot of people back in the day.  You had to be there.  It is next to impossible to overstate the significance of unruly hair in defining that epoch. Disorder incarnate. Disgust with filthy hippies was as intense and widespread as it was purposefully provoked.  Shaggy hair on boys, hairy legs on girls—hair was the symbolic war toy that perfectly suited both sides, a concrete representation of the kind of violation that was ultimately at stake, the kind Dobson and his people dreaded most, the attitude that was, as they rightly discerned, really driving the counter-culture.


That’s why, when the doctor lays out his program for parenting, the entire system hinges on one issue—authority and its enforcement. Like so many authoritarians, going back to Hobbes himself, Dobson is a behaviorist. He can barely contain his delight as he dotes over the powers that this “magnificent theory for the control of behavior” has placed in the hands of those in charge.  He rhapsodizes on for pages about experiments with animals, descriptions tinged with a certain sadism—a fish that starves to death because it has been conditioned not to lunge for food is comically portrayed, unfortunate frogs that allow themselves to boil to death are referred to as “our little green friends,” that sort of thing.  Dobson is at his creepiest when he thinks he’s being funny. 

The point of this foray into science is to show how malleable living creatures are by nature, to the rule of pain and pleasure.  This is evidence of God’s design, of His provision for authority on earth.  It starts in the home, but the child’s “view of parental authority becomes the cornerstone of his later outlook on school authority, police and law, the people with whom he will eventually live and work, and for society in general.”

So.  A big responsibility for parents.  But once the God-given principles of behaviorism are grasped, there is practically no limit to what can be done to shape a child’s conduct—and attitude.  Indeed, “proper attitudes” are the ultimate point.  Dobson’s goal is not enforced conformity; it is willing, even eager, compliance.  That’s why, in the chapter called “The Miracle Tools” in which the theories of Thorndyke and Skinner are explained and applied, Dobson advocates a regime of mostly positive reinforcement—that is, of rewards.  He dismisses the prevalent opinion that children should not be bribed into doing what they are supposed to do and, typically, he makes his case by invoking the whole social order.  “Rewards,” he informs us, “make responsible effort worthwhile.  The main reason for the overwhelming success of capitalism is that hard work and personal discipline are rewarded materially.”

That’s why parents should preside over the child’s environment in positively reinforcing ways.  They might, for example, draw up a chart called “My Jobs” which lists the things they expect their 4 to 6 year old to do around the house.  Dobson provides a sample chart with 14 sample items like “I emptied the trash without being told,” but also things like “I said thank you and please today” and even “I minded Mommy today.”  So the definition of “jobs” is capacious.  Every behavior imaginable can be governed in this way.  Nothing need be left to chance, or to the influence of the outside world.

The behavioral items are arrayed in a column on the right side of the chart and the days of the month are strung out in a row along the top, creating a grid of little squares.  The doctor then explains:


Immediate reinforcement is the key:  each evening, colored dots (preferably red) or stars should be placed by the behaviors that were done satisfactorily.  If dots are not available, the squares can be colored with a felt tip pen; however, the child should be allowed to chalk up his own successes...a penny should be granted for every behavior done properly in a given day; if more than three items are missed in one day, no pennies should be given.


So much could be said about this fantastical proceeding—and others like it, which Dobson describes in similar detail.  The point system for teenagers (and the thermometer chart that goes with it) gets into numbers as high as 10,000.  It would take a full time chore supervisor and maybe an accountant to maintain it.  But, in this context I want simply to highlight Dobson’s compulsion to oversee everything.  Once he begins to imagine his system implemented, he can’t stop. He hovers over parents like a SuperDad, instructing them with the same relentless consistency he expects of them in relation to their children.  It’s that drive for an all-encompassing structure of doctrine and practice that characterizes fundamentalist religion, but channeled here into an elaborate “scientific” calculus and procedure weirdly reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham at his most utopian. 

But that doesn’t make it secular, not in Dr. Dobson’s hands.  The business of raising children who will respect authority and function appropriately in a capitalist society turns out to be an intricate exercise in behavioral engineering, that’s true, but it’s part of God’s plan.  God was the one who fashioned those pleasure/pain switches, after all—and Dobson is His deputy because Dobson is the one who understands His intelligent design and knows how to make it work. 

Mere selections from the text cannot do justice to Dobson’s confidence in his own judgment, based on this knowledge. There’s a cumulative effect, a rhetorical cadence that never lets up.  Adults inclined to decide things for themselves must eventually recoil from this monotonous pounding, but, for Dobson’s readers, longing for authority, the effect is vastly reassuring.  A fortress is under construction, a fortress that promises to protect their families in the short run and found a kingdom in the long.

What Dobson, credentialed now as The Maker’s Engineer, is essentially doing is deputizing parents in their turn.  He envisions legions of them, doing God’s work in their homes, one by one.  He is quite explicit about his deputizing function.  Responding to a question about the role of fear in the child’s attitude toward parents, he says:


He can enjoy complete security and safety—until he chooses to attack me.  Then I’ll give him reason to fear.  This concept of fear is modeled after God’s relationship with man.  “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” we are taught.  He is a God of awesome wrath as well as a God of infinite love and mercy.  These attributes are complementary, and should be represented in lesser degree in our homes.


A fundamentalist schema is complete.  An architecture is provided that fuses the natural and social orders and subjects every action to prescription.  

This is the proper context for a fair assessment of Dobson’s oft-quoted remarks about spanking.  Awareness of that context does nothing to diminish the severity of his attitude, as evident in his descriptions of the deed as in his visage and manner.  But it does bring out the consistency of Dobson’s thought.  There is only one situation in which spanking is called for, and that’s when a child under ten years of age directly defies a parent. 


When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of them and pain is a marvelous purifier.  When nose-to-nose confrontation occurs between you and your child, it is not the time to have a discussion about the virtues of obedience...You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his big hairy toe across it.  Who is going to win?  Who has the most courage?  Who is in charge here?


Big hairy toe?  On a child under ten?

It’s that hair again.  Images of violation crowd into Dobson’s mind whenever he contemplates defiance of authority.  They can get very explicit, almost pornographic, reflecting his determination to incite the outrage such violations should provoke in any righteous heart.  Take, for example, the case of a tiger toddler who spat in his mother’s face whenever she put him to bed.  Not daring to discipline, she tried discussion instead but “her lecture was interrupted by another moist missile.”  Corrupted by dogmas of permissiveness, impervious to her own humiliation, this poor misguided Mom actually “wiped her face and began again, at which point the youngster hit her with another well-aimed blast.” 

Another student radical in the making.

But the most revealing aspect of the whole spanking business is actually to be found in Dobson’s prescription for presiding over the aftermath.  His programmatic commitment to Pavlovian principles in a God-ordered world never wavers.  After assuring us that “it is not necessary to beat the child into submission,” he explains why.  It seems that a spanking of “sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely” will often lead that child, after a certain “emotional ventilation,” to “crumple to the breast of his parent” and, if he does that, “he should be welcomed with open, warm, loving arms.” 

Negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, God of Wrath, God of Love.

That’ll teach ‘em.

To be fair to Dobson it must be said that he goes to great lengths to condemn arbitrary, impulsive punishment.  He issues a stream of caveats.  He does not want to be misunderstood.  He is not carrying a brief for parental abuse.  He really believes he is talking about what he calls “corrective love.”  The strict guidelines for corporeal punishment (child under 10, in direct defiance etc.) are all the more urgently strict because of the threat of disorder represented by out-of-control parents who are not qualified to be God’s deputies in the home.  Spanking must be performed deliberately, with emotional clarity and restraint. 


Dobson obviously enjoys the power that goes with authority, and, as we have seen, a bit of sadism is evident in his depictions of experiments on animals.  We catch of whiff of it too, in relation to punishing kids, especially when they are teen-agers. His anatomically detailed instructions on how to squeeze a particular muscle in a toddler’s shoulder to administer a bolt of pain is inexplicably decked out with a gratuitous anecdote about how he himself (with his “rather large hands”) used the technique on some rowdy adolescents—this story reads like a soft core Death Wish script.  But Dobson’s top priority is unquestionably order, whatever secondary gains might accrue to the punishing authority.  In the home, in the school, in the state—ultimately in all Creation—order above all. 

And so he insists: the one who dares to discipline must be disciplined.

With one truly bizarre exception. 

This is the only moment in the book that is obviously inconsistent with the rest of it.  Dobson is a smart man; he must have known, at some level, that this anecdote didn’t fit. That can only mean he was so attached to it that he couldn’t bring himself to leave it out.  That happens to writers sometimes.


My own mother had an unusual understanding of good disciplinary procedures.  She was very tolerant of my childishness, and I found her reasonable on most issues...But there was one matter on which she was absolutely rigid: she did not tolerate “sassiness.”  She knew that back talk and “lip” are a child’s most potent weapons of defiance, and they must be discouraged.  I learned very early that if I was going to launch a flippant attack on her, I had better be at least ten or twelve feet away. This distance was necessary to avoid being hit with whatever she could get in her hands.  On one occasion she cracked me with a shoe; at other times she used a handy belt.  The day I learned the importance of staying out of reach shines like a neon light in my mind.  I made the costly mistake of “sassing” her when I was about four feet away,  She wheeled around grab something with which to hit me, and her hand landed on a girdle.  She drew back and swung that abominable garment in my direction, and I can still hear it whistling through the air.  The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles, wrapping themselves around my midsection. She gave me an entire thrashing with one massive blow!


Well, well. 

So much could be said about that one too. 

But let us content ourselves with the realization that Dr. Dobson had his own reasons for craving order.


Thomas de Zengotita is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine. He teaches at The Dalton School and the Draper Graduate Program at New York University. His book Mediated, received the 2006 Marshall McLuhan Award for outstanding work in the field from the Media Ecology Association.