Saturday, April 15, 2006

They dared to discipline

I was thinking lately about the things that I was taught to believe about myself--things like being "strong-willed" (in the negative Dobson-esque sense of the word), stubborn, melancholy, lazy, manipulative, wayward, stiff-necked, negative, thick-headed, too smart for my own good, "always trying to get attention," defiant, cold/calculating, and so on.

Sadly, I now realize that many of these messages came from my parents' attempt to parent with inadequate tools and Dr. James Dobson as a guide. He dared my parents to discipline, and boy did they take that challenge and run with it.

I was disciplined and guilted and shamed into submission for many years. It somehow seems appropriate to me that Focus on the Family is such a partner with Exodus. My parent's treatment of me as a child (using Dobson as their guide) no doubt made me all the more vulnerable to the ex-gay message. I was ready and willing to believe myself a damaged and broken person that needed to be fixed, with my sin nature needing to be beaten down and submerged, subdued, and dominated. I was willing to believe that my homosexuality was a part of my own strong-willed defiance gone horribly wrong and satanically out of control.

I can't even look at Dr. Dobson's book Dare to Discipline without wanting to weep. The way he talks about children makes me shudder. He calls them "tyrants" and "dictators" and seems obsessed with defiance. Here's a quote from the first chapter (link):
"I'll never forget a mother...who asked for my help in handling her defiant three-year-old daughter, Sandy. She realized that her tiny little girl had hopelessly beaten her in a contest of wills, and the child had become a tyrant and a dictator. On the afternoon prior to our conversation, an incident occured which was typical of Sandy's way of doing business. The mother (I'll call her Mrs. Nichols) put the youngster down for a nap, but knew it was unlikely she would stay in bed. Sandy was not accustomed to doing anything she didn't fancy, and naptime was not on her list of fun things to do in the afternoon.

On this occasion, however, the child was more interested in antagonizing her mom than in merely having her own way. Sandy began to scream. She yelled loudly enough to upset the whole neighborhood, fraying Mrs. Nichols' jangled nerves...[snip portion]...
The actual meaning behind this conflict and a hundred others was simply this: Sandy was brazenly rejecting the authority of her mother."

He goes on later to state, "When properly applied, loving discipline works! It stimulates tender affection, made possible by mutual respect between a parent and a child."

Does calling a child a "tyrant" or a "dictator" or "brazen" rejector of authority sound like mutual respect?

For parents like mine, who got almost all of their parenting advice from Dr. Dobson, is it any wonder that everything turned into a battle of wills and they saw their child as a "strong-willed tyrant" that needed to be battled into submission? Dr. Dobson is a man who says that "If discipline begins on the second day of life, you're one day too late." What kind of discipline could a one-day old infant possibly need?!?

I have heard of Dobson-style parents commenting on how "manipulative" a four-month old baby is, because the baby will smile when an adult is playing with them, but cry when it is left alone.

There's also the story of how Dobson treated his own dog, Siggie (yes, after Freud) in a battle of wills between man and beast. Dobson relates this story in The Strong-Willed Child:
"I had seen this defiant mood before [defiant mood being indicated by Siggie not wanting to leave a warm spot in the house and go to his kennel, and subsequently growling at Daddy Dobson], 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."
You can read the chilling conclusion here.

This is a book my parents, and many other parents in Christian households, read (and still read to this day) in an attempt to learn how to discipline their defiant, strong-willed children.

Dr. Dobson goes on to say, "Perhaps this tendency toward self-will is the essence of 'original sin' which 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 the seeds of personal disaster."

I wonder what my parents think of their child-rearing methods now? I was their "strong-willed," "rebellious" and "defiant" child. I was the one who was told I was like "Israel--who were a stiff-necked people." I was the one who was harshly disciplined in an effort to break my strong will and subdue my defiant nature.

Interestingly, I have not had problems with bosses or others in authority. I'm well liked at work. I don't recall ever having much problem with teachers at school, either (well, except for that first-grade teacher who wrote "Christine talks too much!" on my report card). I was always well-liked by the parents of other children. In fact, one of the problems I had with my own parents was that I felt like I could never stand up to them. I could never say what I had to say -- what I was feeling or thinking. Does that sound like someone who is pathologically strong-willed or defiant?

And yet I wonder if they now believe that my willful, rebellious defiance during childhood was perhaps not properly weeded out, and the seeds of that led to this "personal disaster" of me becoming a lesbian. And the really convenient part (at least for them) is that no matter what, it can always be blamed on Satan, or on original sin.

This brings me to another thing I've wondered of late. In talking with other ex-ex-gays or those who have survived fundamentalist upbringings, many of us have in common parents who are absolutely unable to love unconditionally. These parents do things and say things that most parents would not utter to their children no matter how upset they were with them. Is it the idea of sin or satan somehow controlling our lives that gives them license to think of us this way, or talk to us this way? Is it a lifetime of thinking of us as "defiant tyrants" that gives parents the idea that their child is in league with the devil himself?

My own mother once looked at a 5-year old boy and said out-loud to him "get thee behind me, Satan!" because she was convinced that he'd looked at her in a defiant manner that gave her chills and that she could only attribute to Satan. She told our family about this later, with an air of pride that she'd had the guts to speak out against Satan in this manner (nevermind the poor child who probably still remembers that church lady calling him "satan"). For those of us whose parents see us in this light...could this be an explanation for why they are so willing to throw us away, to denounce us and reject us? Do they truly still see brazen and defiant tyrants controlled by satan when they look at us?

My parents often say that they did the best that they knew how to do. And you know, in many ways, they are right. They used the Bible as their guide, and spoiled not the rod. They turned to the Christian guru of parenting, Dr. Dobson, and put into practice his words. They saw what they were taught to see, and executed his parenting instructions with zeal.

Unfortunately, I'm thirty-four years old now, and it seems they still view me as a conduit of original sin, a vessel of satan and as a defiant and strong-willed overgrown child (again, not unlike how PFOX or Exodus views "homosexual activists" such as myself).

If I'm strong-willed, it's only in my determination to heal from this Christian-sanctioned abuse and to rebuild my self-esteem and my own sense of self and self-worth. If I'm defiant, it's because I will no longer allow others to define me with their harmful words and negative views. I will defy anyone who tries to do that. I reject my own mother's view of me when she sends me the following excerpt from an article she's written: "Father I repent for looking at our friends and coveting what they have. [Our friends who don't have children] will never have heartache from children hurting them. They will also never understand Your deep pain over Your children who run from you, and don't honor You. In some ways they (our friends) will never know the depths of your great love either. That knowing seems to be born out of deep pain and loss. I am so aware of Your unconditional love and compassion for Your children. I share that unconditional love for my children with You."

With unconditional love like that...

Thanks, Dr. Dobson.
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  1. Dobson's ideas are troubled indeed. How he has remained a psychologist all these years is beyond my comprehension.

    I'm sorry to read about your own struggles with parents who read and did what he suggested. Have they changed throughout the years? Have they acknowledged that at least some of what they did was ill-conceived and poorly done? It's possible that people who continue to believe in God and the Bible this way can recognize their errors or the errors of some of their leaders.

    In any case, I'm happy to read that you recognize this and that you know of others who also recognize this.

    I was thinking about what it must be like to have grown up in a fundamentalist family and have most of the family believing that way. I didn't have that. What would I do, however? It must take a great deal of strength and that (awful) self-will :) to be able to move on and feel good about oneself and one's choices.

    Are you aware of P-FLAG? I mention this because I've known of glbt folks who have gone and been connected to parents and families who are very accepting. Sometimes folks get "adopted" into these families and find it nurturing and healing and fun.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and I'm so happy that you were so strong-willed afterall! :)

  2. I appreciate your ability to look back and describe all of this so poignantly, Christine.

    The site you linked to for the Dobson story has an intriguing page: Flogging For God: Violence toward children under the guise of religion.

    Take care...

  3. Wow. I didn't know that people really raised their children that way. I guess I was brought up differently. Major props to you for sharing it with us, and for having the courage to change.

  4. Christine, thanks for sharing your struggle with growing up under "Dobson-style" parenting. I had a pretty strict upbringing myself, but without so much of the religious overtones. Still, much like you, I feared my parents and never felt like I could really share my thoughts or feelings with them, yet I had no problems with other authority figures. It seems sometimes that our parents are the only ones incapable of seeing us as whole human beings, separate from them, not a reflection of them (or, not just a reflection of them, anyway).

    It's sad when parents see their children as adversaries, when all the children are trying to do is figure out how to live life on their own. Too many parents try to get their kids to be "good little children" instead of growing them into responsible, mature adults, capable of making good decisions. The human will and self-determination are part of that puzzle.

  5. Great story. The more we just tell our story and expose the lies and hypocrisies of those who hate us, the stronger we become in our own path and faith.

  6. I wonder if Mr. Dobson has ever taken a child development class. What he said about the baby being manipulative made my mad! Child development would tell you the baby has not developed object permanance yet and thinks the parent has gone for good!

  7. Dobson himself, in Dare to Discipline, says, "I’m told Dr. Benjamin Spock is loved by millions of kids who are being raised according to his philosophy. I have an entire generation that would like to catch me in a blind alley."

    With that kind of ringing endorsement... (::cough::)

  8. It's funny, as a teacher I often complain that some parents don't discipline their chilren enough, but there is an obvious balance between seeing your children as enemies that must be conquered and catering to their every whim. Children should not run the household, but they also shouldn't have their every action dictated -- they are individuals with their own will and should be respected as such. My goodness, to equate children with an animal as he does here is ridiculous. Not that I agree with how he treated his pet dog, I just think that he needs to recognize that animals are animals and children are people!

    Another thing that struck me while reading this was that the term 'strong-willed' is apparantly supposed to be a negative thing. I've never read any parenting books, not being a parent myself, but I have seen books with titles like "raising a strong willed son" on many a parent's shelf and have always thought that 'strong-willed' was meant as more or less of a compliment. I thought those books would concede that some children have stronger wills than others, and this will (obviously) provide challenges for the parents so these books would give strategies as to how to deal with this while leaving the child's character intact. I didn't realize those books were about removing the 'strong-will' from the child. That's just creepy... a little Orwellian, actually.

    A word on spanking. I know parents who spank and parents who don't. I honestly don't think there is much of a difference in outcome as long as the attitude of the parents who discipline is reasonable. For example, I remember hearing my uncle (who in part raised me) saying that he liked spanking because it 'showed the kid who's boss'. This, to me, is a vastly unreasonable attitude, and I know it was apparant to me at the time. On the other hand, I was also spanked by my mother, and as many issues as I have with her, I never picked this sort of attitude up from her. As a matter of fact, I remember being more upset with the fact that she was upset with me than the fact that she was spanking me.

    All of that having been said, I think that if I ever have children I won't spank, just because as a teacher I've seen too many cases where an otherwise good parent has had a moment of weakness and lost control while spanking their child. If you never hit your child, then you can never hit them in anger, you know?

    Wow, this is a long response. Thanks for this post, really got me thinking. I think I'll stop thinking now.

  9. I'm glad you're overcoming that crap. The bullshit that Dobson pushes is exactly as described, self-justification for seriously emotionally fucked-up people. It's easier for them to see a strong-willed child as "evil" than it is to admit that it may be wrong to put their own convenience above the needs of their child.

    Just for the record, by the way, being strong-willed is a good thing.

  10. Why do these supposedly "pro-family" bleaters hate children so much?

  11. Peg, ah, very good questions. There seems to be a lot of hate and fear in today's conservative Christian faith.

  12. Peg--
    As someone pointed out in some of my classes, a vast majority of the staunch pro-lifers are so focused on the abortion issue, they can't see past it into the education issues etc. Basically, once the kids come, society isn't taking care of them!

  13. That's very scarey reading it through my psychologist's eyes. Its frightening to hear people talk in ways about children that are just plain inappropriate (tyrant, dictator etc.)

    One of the hardest (but by far most rewarding jobs) I have ever done is working with parents to help them see their children in a positive light when their relationship has broken down.

    I've worked with parents who think their 3 year old is calculating and manipulative. They end up really devastated - genuinely believing their little toddler is out to get them. The relationship breaks down, parents start hating their kids and then they feel tremendously guilty.

    The first thing I do in that situation is take the parent into a room, give them a ton of messy toys and coach them in play therapy techniques so they learn to play and build a warm relationship before I even start on discipline methods. Discipline is a lot easier when you see a child as a big character or a cheeky little tyke with a big personality - rather than a little Hitler.

    This kind of thinking damages parents as well as children. Imagine not believing you are loved by your child.

    Parents and kids need to feel secure in their relationship before discipline is possible.


  14. Wow. Well, first I have to say that as a parent of two young ones, I feel like everyday I realize there is so much to parenting I don't really know, but want to learn.

    Also, as Christine's cousin, raised by similarly minded parents, and knowing her family very well, I know there are two sides to every story, and Christine always respectfully leaves room for this.

    And, I have to say that my husband and I started out on a similar path as our parents with our children because, well, we didn't know any different, and we honestly wanted the best for our kids. We ultimately didn't want tyrants and dictators because God knows there are enough of those in the world.

    Our firstborn easily fits into Dobson's "strong-willed" category, which was conveniant for me, because like Christine, I did too. I figured this was God's way of punishing me, and rewarding my parents for sticking it out.

    But, as daughter grew, and things got worse, even after "daring to discipline", I began to make the connection between my view of her as demanding, strong-willed, defiant, purposely trying to make me mad, etc. and her behaviour.

    When I saw her in this way, she knew it. And at the tender age of 3, this hurt her feelings. Being only 3, there are not alot of big words in her vocabulary, like "Mom, we need to discusss my feelings. I'm hurt that you see me this way." It was more like, I'm going to scream and throw things because I'm mad that you think I'm trying to piss you off.

    I saw that when I choose to see her as a little person, seperate from me, who desperately needs to know she is loved 100% of the time in spite of her behaviour, and who also needs help in learning how to express herself, and control her emotions, she becomes a unique little person who tries to find more positive ways to express herself. Yes, at the age of 4, she still fails and will break down into a trantrum, and yes, there are days when I'm at my limit and I respond without much patience.

    There are times in the middle of a heated moment, when I have to step back and think "what's my motivation for saying no to her right now?" is it because I'm being inconvienced, or is it legit? Yesterday, after having all meals screwed up by easter chocolate, she wanted a snack 5 minutes before dinner. Knowing she hadn't eaten anything substantial in 4 hours, but also that dinner would be spoiled by a snack, I said no. She resisted. After a while I realized in her head, she was not resisting me because she is a tyrant or trying to challenge me, she was just very hungry. I realized I was just too lazy to get her the snack. It's not like the snack would be any less healthy than dinner (slice of cheese or pizza?). In the Dobson world, we would never back down at this moment because that is giving in and letting the child win. But in my world, I humbly realized I had made a mistake, so I apologized to her for not understanding how hungry she was, said I changed my mind, and gave her the dang piece of cheese. She ate it AND some pizza, and did not do a tyrant-victory dance, or treat me with any less respect today.

    Kids are people too.

  15. Liz -
    I've often thought that "pro-life" is simply a code word for pro-birth.

  16. Christine, I admire your scruples and congratulate you for standing up as a "defiant tyrant". As a fellow "defiant tyrant" who has had to reenforce my stand within a primarily fundamentalist religious family (with parents who also followed many of the principles of Doctor Dobson)... I can also vouch for the fact that Dr. Dobson's mindset and system of discipline is especially attractive to intolerant, insecure control freaks.

    Regarding that excerpt from the article your mother wrote and chose to send to you... she sounds a bit passive-agressive, eh? I bet it feels good to have blocked the signal, then taken away the remote control and smashed it ;) I feel your pain. She probably feels that you took away her control over you and now she is merely trying to put hooks into you by using the only weapon she has left in her arsenal, guilt trips. Kudos to you for effectively resisting and I hope they eventually come around.

  17. I'm so grateful that you are strong-willed, truly, and I mean that in the *best* possible way. It takes a great deal of strength not to simply go under.

    We all know my Ex-Boy was and is kind of an ass, but I'll tell you something I think he got right. He said he's grateful to have been queer, because it gave him a reason to get away from what he was taught and not turn out the way his parents wanted him to.

    Peg got it right. Exactly right. When they say they're for the children, what they mean is they want to treat fellow adult citizens like children, not that they care a damn for actual kids.

    Rising up whole indeed, honey. *hug*

  18. Wow, everyone, thank you so much for the kind messages, words of support, validation...all of it. It means more than maybe you'll know.

    CA, what a great comment about the professional look at this. Thank you for viewing it through your "psychologist's eyes" and giving some insight.

    Rachel, you're an awesome cousin and a great parent. Thank you for your support, for being true family.

    Thanks everyone. I really appreciate all the feedback, thoughts, ruminations, support, etc.

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  20. Laine, what's truly scary is that even Dr. Dobson finds the Ezzo's method too rigid. Here Dobson is quoted as saying "there is a rigidity to it that worries me about young children. Children differ tremendously in temperament, as you know. They come into the world differently. And some of them are easy to raise and some of them are tougher than nails. And you try to take one of those ADD kids or one of those very aggressive youngsters and try to put them in a box like they recommend, and I think you can create some problems. So I’m not out campaigning against the Ezzos; I’m just not their greatest fan."
    When Dobson doesn't even approve of it...geesh.

    Thanks for your comment and for telling a bit of your story here. I'm so sorry you can relate.

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