Spanking, Fear, and Privileging Obedience

Growing up on Michael Pearl’s discipline teachings, James Dobson always seemed mild in comparison. My impression was always that Pearl was about absolute immediate obedience while Dobson tempered his advice to spank with an emphasis on understanding child psychology. I just came upon a quote from one of Dobson’s books that is making me rethink that – and has emphasized to me once more that the whole point of spanking a child is to make him or her afraid of disobeying.
“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. I knew I had crossed the line and wondered what she would do about it. It didn’t take long to find out. Mom wheeled around to grab something with which to express her displeasure, and her hand landed on a girdle.

“Those were the days when a girdle was lined with rivets and mysterious panels. She drew back and swung the 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 blow! But from that day forward, I measured my words carefully when addressing my mother. I never spoke disrespectfully to her again, even when she was seventy-five years old.”
Dobson prefaces this anecdote by stating that his mother had “an unusually keen understanding of good disciplinary procedures” and follows it up by endorsing the beating his mother gave him, explaining that it was “an act of love.”
Dobson explains in this anecdote that after his mother beat him with his girdle, he never spoke disrespectfully of his mother again. Why? He doesn’t say explicitly, but the answer seems clear. He knew that if he disrespected his mother, she would give him a beating.
Here is what I seriously, seriously don’t understand. What parent wants their child to obey them out of fear? What parent wants their child to do what is right out of fear? And yet, this is what Michael Pearl and James Dobson endorse! I wonder if there is any correlation to their conservative theology. If God demands absolute obedience from his children, and punishes those who step out of line, why not demand the same of your children? Perhaps they feel that demanding absolute obedience will help prepare their children for absolute obedience to God.
But even if that is the case, here is what I also don’t understand. How is a child supposed to go from doing what is right for fear of being hit to, as an adult, choosing voluntarily to do what is right? I mean, if children grow up doing the right thing because they’re afraid of being punished if they don’t, what happens when they grow up and the restraints are off? It strikes me that Pearl and Dobson don’t look at the long term of helping children become mature, independent adults; instead, they look at the short term and focus on having kids who jump when you say jump.
And I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Here is a quote I just found in a book about child rearing in different religious traditions in America:
Conservative Protestant parents are more likely are more apt to value children’s obedience to parental authority, whereas their non-Evangelical counterparts tend to value youngsters’ autonomy and self-direction.
You couldn’t hit the nail on the head more directly. And when you put it in that light, I simply fail to see any real difference between the methods advocated by Michael Pearl and James Dobson. They both amount to the same thing.

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What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • dulce de leche

    I agree! And, as a Christian, my love of God has nothing to do with fear. My view of Hell is far different from the fundie view (I tend to be an annihilationist) but frankly, if there was no such thing as Hell, it would not change my relationship with God in any way. It is about love, not punishment. I John 4:18 :)

  • Janey

    This got me to thinking about my own upbringing, which was not dominated by fear but rather, in the Italian Catholic tradition, guilt. Recent interactions with my family have made me realise just how damaging this was to me. We don't treat each other right out of love and respect, we do it so the other person doesn't get upset. Of all my relatives, I'm probably closest to my mother and grandmother but, ironically, I tend to see them out of obligation rather than a real desire to visit. This is not because I don't want to see them or I don't enjoy their company, but rather, because the first way we think of each other is through obligation and the second is through love. It's all very, very warped.With this in ind, I really do respect your approach to raising Sally. You are giving her the gift of working out what is the right thing to do rather than burdening her with obedience out of fear of punishment or far of upsetting those you love. You're giving her the gift of freedom.

  • Janey

    My spelling was hideous in that last post. Apologies. That'll learn me for not proof reading.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    My boyfriend and I sometimes jockingly comment that parents should need to pass a test before being allowed to have children. It stops being a joke when so many families who don't know how ta bring up a child decide to beat him into obedience…Also, apart from the fact Libby Anne so well expresses about why when reaching adulthood they should keep doing good things out of choice; I find it hard to love my mother after such a type of chilhood… I think fear doens't dissipate so easily.

  • Libby Anne

    Paula – "I think fear doens't dissipate so easily." Paula, you're so right! I'm STILL afraid of my mother, even now! It colors my every reaction with her. A lot of that fear stems from what she did to me when I began questioning her beliefs (psychologically, not physically), but I'm pretty sure at least some of it stems from the fact that even up through high school I still obeyed her out of fear – as in, I knew the consequences that sass or even delayed obedience would have, and I avoided getting caught with them with a vengeance. How do you switch from having a relationship built on hierarchy backed up with a high component of fear to having an adult-adult relationship with your parents? I wish I had an answer. So far, I'm hoping that "ignore the fear and do your best to live your life regardless of what they think" will eventually turn into end in "fear goes bye bye entirely leaving only confidence." Clearly, for Dobson, the fear never went away (the reference to still being respectful when his mom was 75). For how many families is this the reality?

  • Brea

    For me the weirdest thing about that Dobson quote is his apparent assumption that if she hadn't beaten him when he was young, he would have been naturally disrespectful to a 75 year old woman.

  • beguine

    "How is a child supposed to go from doing what is right for fear of being hit to, as an adult, choosing voluntarily to do what is right?"This is what happens when you take some of Paul's teachings and the doctrine of grace to an extreme. All humans are evil unworthy sinners by nature, therefore no human will ever do what is right because it is right, therefore it's better to terrify people into submission because trying to get people to do good for its own sake is a waste of time. There is never a time where you transition to making wise choices on your own. There is only more fear-based obedience. This is also why the idea of a virtuous atheist seems like an oymoron to a certain brand of fundamentalist Protestant. Why would anyone ever try to do good if someone weren't threatening to torture them for eternity unless they toed the line?

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Congratulations for being mentioned on the Friendly Atheist ^__^The link for anyone who wants it:

  • Rosa

    I was raised by Dobson followers, and the value of obedience/not disrespecting/not talking back dogs me. My parents had an interesting dynamic, where they shared the same philosophy but only one had a bad temper – so we got good cop/bad cop. I had actually forgotten mom ever spanked and remembered every over-the-top punishment as being my dad, until she set me straight recently.I have been thinking a lot about my parenting failures, since your last spanking post – I knew, because of how much I hated and feared my dad growing up, that I didn't want to spank, but I didn't know what good, positive parenting looked like. I bought the "manipulative toddler" paradigm completely. My partner was raised the same way.We still sometimes get stuck in the power struggle, the "I will escalate punishments until you submit even though I can see you're way past the point of reasonable choices" that punishes the whole family (on Thanksgiving a nice family walk in the park too close to lunch time turned into a string of timeouts and the loss of basically every privilege my kid has). I can usually cut that off before it gets too bad, but then my partner thinks I'm too inconsistent and kiddo isn't going to learn because I cut him too much slack. It's a huge source of conflict in my family and it's worse when we're around family – when we go to family Christmas this month there will be many moments when my partner feels like a failure because our kid isn't meek and instantly obedient. I stay out of the way so we don't have arguments, but parenting near his own parents makes him feel like a miserable failure, and it poisons all these family gatherings.

  • Meggie

    Rosa – You are not the only one who has trouble when you are around family! My husband & I both approached discipline in the same way and my parents were happy to follow our 'plan' when with our kids. My husbands family however ….. We were the last in the family to have kids so everyone KNEW how to manage children. My little wild child was completely different to all the older (very placid) grandchildren and my husband & I spent years being criticised for his behaviour. We also spent alot of time trying to stand between the wild child and those who tried to scream at him, threaten him or distract him with colouring books. (This might work with placid girls but a wild child will tear the pages out to make paper aeroplanes or use the pencils to draw on walls.)Stand your ground! You are not a failure because your child isn't meek, quiet, obediant (boring?). As a teacher, I run from those little yes-sir-no-sir kids. Give me a child that challenges everything – I can turn that child into something amazing.Oh, and wild child, who was in trouble for not being able to sit still, who was too loud, too active, whatever, is now a sixteen year old, perfectly behaved, straight A student.

  • OneSmallStep

    **If God demands absolute obedience from his children, and punishes those who step out of line, why not demand the same of your children?**Doesn't it really come down to a matter of whether or not it's earned, though? It's not that God earns the right to obedience. It's that he's entitled to it simply because he's God, and thus the absolute power and authority. That seems to carry over to parents like Dobson's mother. She is entitled to respect; she doesn't have to earn it, or treat him as an actual person. She's the mom, aka, she gets perfect obedience, no matter what she says or demands. **How is a child supposed to go from doing what is right for fear of being hit to, as an adult, choosing voluntarily to do what is right?**I'm wondering if parents under this system go with fear of being hit, because this is the same theology that justifies genocide, and a lot of atrocious behavior in the Bible. Voluntarily choosing to do what is right could lead to seeing some Biblical behavior as unethical, whereas fear of being hit means you respect the authority regardless of what the authority does.

  • Libby Anne

    OneSmallStep – "Doesn't it really come down to a matter of whether or not it's earned, though? It's not that God earns the right to obedience. It's that he's entitled to it simply because he's God, and thus the absolute power and authority. That seems to carry over to parents like Dobson's mother. She is entitled to respect; she doesn't have to earn it, or treat him as an actual person. She's the mom, aka, she gets perfect obedience, no matter what she says or demands."But since the Ten Commandments says "Children obey your parents" I think Dobson et al. would hold that parents ARE automatically entitled to obedience, and have absolute power and authority over their children, and don't have to earn it. This is, after all, what Debi Pearl's Created to be His Helpmeet says – that husbands have absolute authority over their wives, and don't have to earn it, and wives have to obey whether their husbands are good husbands or not, because it's the order God established.

  • OneSmallStep

    Libby Anne,So in the case of parents, Dobson would argue that they are automatically entitled to obedience, as God said so. Which is messed up in itself. My brother would often get into fits, and for my mom, she had learned that it was one of those cases where the child was so caught up in the fit that even if s/he had wanted to end it, the child didn't know how. This was based on all sorts of books she read about children.In Dobson's case, the fit is because the child is tainted in sin and wants to be disobedient. A sort of "one size fits all" mentality.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I became a first time mom earlier this year, so I've spent a good deal of time thinking about parenting philosophies. I've come to the conclusion that I want my son to think for himself, to always demand reasons before he follows orders (Milgram's experiment shows the value of that!), and to have the courage to disobey unjust laws.I know that this philosophy will make my job as a parent much more difficult. I'll have to be more patient and always take the time to explain my reasons rather than expect obedience. I'll have to pick my battles. I fully expect that my son will be a complete terror.But my goal is long term. I want to mould a man who is responsible, independent, and conscientious, and who always holds authority figures accountable. I'm willing to deal with "sass" from the boy to get that man.I think that any parent who systematically or philosophically sacrifices that long term view for short term benefit is not only lazy, but also cruel to the minds in her/his charge.

  • Anonymous

    Since Dr. Dobson has a degree in psychology and has written extensively on raising children, perhaps you should actually read one of his books on the subject rather than repeatedly rehashing this one anecdote. I recommend his book "The Strong-Willed Child", released in a new edition in 2005.Dobson notes that habitually disobedient children lack self-control, which is exactly how secular psychologists view the problem. He doesn't recommend corporal punishment for normal childhood mistakes and moral lapses. The oft-repeated anecdote has to do with how Dobson's mother dealt with his full-on in-your-face defiance. If the parent allows that to go unaddressed, he or she begins to lose the authority required to continue in a parenting role. The punishment was not cold and calculated, it was emotional yet controlled: exactly what is required when dealing with defiance. The purpose of corporal punishment should never be fear, but rather, attention: "This is important!" A burned hand teaches you more about the dangers of stoves than a thousand NO!s.Also, what morally-normal adult speaks disrespectfully to his or her 75-year-old mother? Why did some of your commenters focus on his not doing that? Crazy.

  • Anonymous

    (Same anonymous as directly above.)Also, it is clear that Dobson did not fear his mother, rather he loved her and knew she loved him. The incident just taught him that there was a line he couldn't cross. Perhaps you never needed to learn that lesson. Dobson did.

  • ssohara

    I disagree… to some extent. For example, the Pearls teach that wives should submit to their husbands even if the husbands abuse them. Dr. Dobson, however, has advised women to leave abusive husbands. In fact, he advises in one of his books that a woman whose husband is dishonoring her and the family has to create boundaries. He does NOT tell women to be doormats.

    He also does not advise hitting children for things that are accidents, etc., but only for acts of deliberate disobedience. And he differentiates between the strong-willed child vs. the sensitive child – a sensitive child should NOT be spanked.

    I get where he is coming from in that I’ve seen different types of children as well. I have a friend who has told me that she much preferred a quick swat on her butt as discipline vs. time-outs, etc., and I’ve also known kids who would disintegrate at a sharp look.

    I personally prefer a gentler approach – I don’t ever want to spank. However, I still got a lot out of Dobson’s book simply in terms of principles of discipline – being consistent, for example, setting clear rules that are easy for the child to understand, etc. Just good, common sense stuff. I would just try to find other methods of discipline besides spanking. However, when I found very little of value in the Pearls’ book – and a lot that just disgusted me.

    With the case of Dobson and the dog – my instinct would be, if the dog had always been obedient, to first try to find out WHY he was suddenly being disobedient. Maybe he was getting older and dealing with arthritis pain, so he wanted the comfort of a warm place? In that case, why not put a small heater near his bed?

    But, in general, I didn’t have a problem with Dobson’s book, but I had huge issues with the Pearls’.