James Dobson and Adrian Peterson

James Dobson and Adrian Peterson September 18, 2014

Two days ago, Focus on the Family‘s Jared Pingleton condemned Adrian Peterson’s abuse of his son but defended corporal punishment. Yesterday I explained that the words Pingleton used to justify “appropriate” corporal punishment are the same words abusers use to justify their abuse. In the comments on that post, a reader pointed out, using quotes, that in the punishment he delivered Peterson was simply following the advice of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson himself. I looked up the quotes and want to share what I found.

First of all, in justifying his actions Peterson explained that he administered corporal punishment for longer than normal for him because his son refused to cry. Peterson interpreted that as a sign that the message wasn’t getting through, so he simply kept going. Pingleton may have condemned Peterson’s actions as child abuse, but Peterson simply did exactly what Dobson recommends on page 35 of his book, The New Dare to Discipline:

Let me again stress that I am not suggesting that parents use excessive punishment in these encounters. To the contrary, a small amount of discomfort goes a long way toward softening a child’s rebellious spirit. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause genuine tears.

In other words, if there are no genuine tears, the “spanking” is not “of sufficient magnitude.” Pingleton is right to call Peterson’s actions child abuse, but it is surreal that he can do so without recognizing the contradiciton that his organization—Focus on the Family—continues to promote the writings of its founder, who advised parents to act exactly as Peterson did. If he is going to condemn Peterson—and I am glad he has—Pingleton needs to come to grips with the fact that the teachings of his organizations’ founder promote child abuse.

Dobson had more to say about tears on page 158 of his the New Strong-Willed Child:

As long as tears represent a genuine release of emotion, they should be permitted to fall. But crying can quickly change from inner sobbing to an expression of protest aimed at punishing the enemy. Real crying usually lasts two minutes or less but may continue for five. After that point, the child is merely complaining, and the change can be recognized in the tone and intensity of his voice. I would require him to stop the protest crying, usually by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears.

I well remember being raised by parents who followed these teachings. If we children did not cry—if we did not show emotion—we were accused of being rebellious, and the punishment went on. If we did cry but were deemed to be too loud or angry, the punishment would also go on. “Cry quietly,” my mother would tell us, and we children soon learned that the quickest way to bring a spanking to an end was to master the exact kind of crying my mother wanted, and give it to her.

There’s also this on page 34-35 of The New Dare to Discipline:

Nothing brings a parent and child closer together than for a mother or father to win decisively after being defiantly challenged. This is particularly true if the child was “asking for it,” knowing full well he deserved what he got. 

Conquering a child through the administration of corporal punishment is portrayed as positive and necessary throughout Dobson’s writings. In the context of teachings like this, is it any wonder that Adrian Peterson saw nothing wrong with the punishment he administered? What’s odd is not that Peterson did what he did, but that Focus on the Family’s Jared Pingleton can condemn Peterson’s actions as child abuse with so little self reflection regarding the role of his own organization in promoting ideas and practices that will of necessity lead to such abuse.

Perhaps you’ve read these quotes and are now trying to figure out how so many people could think so highly of James Dobson. Dobson gains some sort of immunity to attack (at least within his community) by employing a strange sort of double-speak. On page 12 of The New Dare to Discipline, he wrote the following:

I don’t believe in parental harshness. Period!

Dobson and others like him talk again and again and again of the importance of parental love and tenderness. They simply couple that with language about the importance of defeating children and winning battles and showing them who’s boss. In this way they are able to promote child abuse while claiming they’re not promoting child abuse. What they forget is that it does not matter how many times they tell parents to love their children, if they tell those same parents that they must hit their children until their children surrender and are conquered, they are promoting child abuse. Some children will roll over and admit defeat to avoid further beating, yes, but others will hold out, and some will end up with bruises, welts, or open lacerations—like Adrian Peterson’s son. And some will die.

To be perfectly honest, I was surprised to see Focus on the Family’s Jered Pingleton so soundly condemn Adrian Peterson’s actions as child abuse. I honestly would have expected someone from Focus on the Family to argue that Peterson was trying to administer appropriate discipline, and that while maybe things got out of control at least his heart was in the right place. But that’s not what Pingleton did. Instead, Pingleton minced no words in calling Peterson’s actions child abuse and rushing to argue that what Peterson did has no relation—no relation at all!—to the kind of “appropriate” corporal punishment that Focus on the Family teaches (which is, of course, false).

My impression of Focus on the Family is that they’re currently stuck. They want to present a kinder and gentler face—hence their now talking about the importance of mixing corporal punishment with other parenting techniques—but they don’t understand the actual dynamics of abuse and are tied to the teachings of their founder and their belief that the Bible strongly endorses corporal punishment. The result is sometimes a weirdly contradictory mishmash.

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