Dobson’s “Strong-Willed” Children, Broken Spirits

Considering the parental allure of James Dobson’s worldview

Sarah Stankorb

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Photo: Kat Smith

When our son was a newborn, he had a floppy airway. That vital thing was just not yet fully formed and while he was fine and healthy enough to be released home, every once in a while in his sleep, if he inhaled sharply, the change in pressure would collapse the pink tubing of his windpipe enough that our small, entirely dependent boy would make a sharp gasping sound. Euuuhhhhhhhhhhhh.

I’d dart to his bassinette. My own heart was in my mouth, but he was fine. Always fine. His airway would find its shape again, and he’d breathe once more. It didn’t alarm or even wake him if he wasn’t already up. But for me, it underscored just how much this new, small person I loved immediately and with the velocity of a freight train was a creature not yet fully formed. He was a work in progress, and one dependent upon me, and circumstance, and the fortune of a body still coming together. He was so fragile.

I couldn’t imagine consciously choosing to put that at risk at any age.

I can’t imagine hurting him or our daughter (or any child) on purpose.

Yet I’ve interviewed too many people subjected to raised hands, belts, switches, tubing, wooden spoons — you pick — whose parents too could not imagine hurting their precious children. They thought they were saving them from greater, spiritual harm with a physical blow from those raised implements. Disciplining minor infractions to prevent lifelong bad behavior.

It’s probably wise here to be clear about language. Whatever some (including me) may feel about physical forms of discipline for children, spanking is still legal in all 50 states in the US. (Here’s a pretty useful page differentiating discipline from abuse.) And to be clear, abuse is not confined to hitting. Children can be abused physically, but also emotionally, sexually, through neglect, or a combination of any of it.

I grew up with a father who oscillated between unpredictable rages and neglect. His rage was not meant to improve me and had no logic. It was not premeditated parenting or disciplinary; it just was. Its echoes still sneak up on me most days. I make conscious decisions to reject that path.

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Sarah Stankorb

Sarah Stankorb has published with The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic (among others). @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com