Today, when so many in the churches seek practical help for their troubled lives, the Christian media are filled with the advice of professional psychologists. James Dobson has become an especially familiar figure as a result of several best-selling books, a radio program, and a successful film series, Focus on the Family. Unquestionably, as a performer on film, Dobson has star quality, and when the series is presented in church to a congregation well nourished on TV, they give it high marks for entertainment value. The typical comment afterward is, "Isn't he funny!" But as a friend of mine put it, "He sounds good while I am listening to him, but in my car on the way home I begin to see problems. For example, it occurs to me then that he has been comparing children to walleyed pike." Dobson's habit of viewing man as an animal is only one problem of many.
Christians should have seen a red flag in who produced the series: Word, Inc. Although at one time a maker of worthwhile records and literature, the company in recent years has become a leader in the field of "Christian" rock. It is not widely known that Word is now a subsidiary of ABC, the TV network, the same media giant that shelters such enterprises as Three's Company and Charlie's Angels. In promoting and showing the Dobson series, the churches have fed profits into a secular business that is a major corrupting influence in our society.
No doubt, there were many fine Christians who saw nothing wrong in the series because, in a spirit of good will, they selectively heard the true and ignored the false, or because they assumed that Dobson was instructing them in verified psychological knowledge. But the films contain little technical psychology. Indeed, psychology as it is usually retailed to the general public is less a body of knowledge than a system of values. Although these values are slanted to represent sin as not so bad and duty as not so demanding as the Bible teaches, they pervade Dobson's thinking and control his discussion of every issue.
The Strong-Willed Child
For generations, psychology has approved the permissive trend in childrearing. Now that bad behavior is epidemic, parents look to psychology for theories that will excuse their failure. The most popular of these says that some children are naughty and unmanageable because of hyperactivity, a disorder supposedly linked to organic or environmental causes. Another theory, furnished by Dobson, is that many refractory children are innately endowed with unusual strength of will.
It is true that children are born with strikingly different temperaments, but no innate difference has extremes that can be accurately described as strong-willed and compliant. The terms are too broad. Much of the behavior they encompass is not innate, but emerges gradually from a background of many causes. Also, the terms carry undesirable connotations. The one is suggestive of admirable strength; the other, of contemptible weakness.
The chief difficulty in Dobson's theory and the theory of hyperactivity is their suggestion that parents can do little to prevent some children from running wild. The effect on parents is to deter them from the hard task of bringing a temperamentally difficult child under control. Although the most determined efforts may sometimes seem fruitless, Scripture commands success (Eph. 6:4) and provides no excuses for failure (Prov. 22:6). Such a child need not fall into chronic unruliness. Reared with unstinting love and control, every unfinished child can become a finished servant of God.
Shaping the Will
To the parent of a difficult child, Dobson offers strategies of coping that require as little unpleasantness as possible. Games are "in." Anger, although it is loving anger, is "out." He gives a parent hope that if he uses a little psychology, he will overcome all problems. The psychology Dobson promotes is built on the behavioristic assumption that man is like an animal in his desire to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. He believes that control of behavior is simply a matter of adjusting the consequences. After describing a nasty, impulse-ridden boy named Billy, Dobson asserts that a brief time under proper management, with proper rewards and punishments, would shape the boy's behavior ("shaping," by the way, is a word that comes from Skinnerian rat psychology) and remake him as a good little citizen.
It is evident that Dobson greatly underestimates the sinfulness of the human heart, and he overlooks completely Satan's constant efforts to entice men down roads of self-destruction. When consistently applied to young children, techniques of reward and punishment are very effective in training character. But resistance to benevolent training increases with age and loss of innocence. I have worked with problem children, and I have learned that many are by no means responsive to rational management. Scripture says that a fool remains a fool, no matter what is done to him (Prov. 27:22).
The Parenting of Older Children
In this film series Dobson rarely relies upon the light of Scripture. One of the few times he uses Scripture for support is in his discussion of wayward children like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable. Upholding the father in this parable as a good example, he advises Christian parents to release their rebellious children and then leave them alone. But contrary to the proper use of parables, he is drawing moral conclusions from his own embellishment of the text. Jesus does not say that when the father divided the inheritance, he foresaw the son's dissolute behavior (youthful folly has often taken parents by surprise). Nor does He say that the father declined to rescue the son from subsequent ruin (Jesus places the son in a distant country, far from possible help). The parable clearly compares the father to God Himself in the matter of forgiveness, and it presents this forgiveness as a model for us. Yet there are other aspects of divine sovereignty that we should not emulate. The Father's temporary sufferance of sin and evil in the world is no warrant for nonaction against sin in our own lives and in the lives of our children.
Continuing parental involvement in the lives of grown-up children has real value if not overdone. A sensitive parent will realize that pecking away at flaws of no spiritual consequence is not helpful. Neither is giving orders, as if to a small child. Neither is tireless harping on the same old preachment, though perfectly true. But if an adult child stumbles into serious sin, his parents should help him regain a right path by providing loving exhortation (Gal. 6:1). If he rejects it, they should back off and say no more. Yet they should preserve as much relationship with the child as he will allow. The worst thing they can do is to give the child an official release, patterned after the letter that Dobson reads as an example of correct procedure in some situations. In most situations, such a letter or gesture will be perceived by the child as surrender to his rebellion—as reluctant permission to do as he pleases. What the child really needs is parents who will remain involved in his life by standing firm in their kind disapproval of his sin.
When Dobson denounces the prevailing body consciousness of our culture as a particular threat to young people, he does not say that this consciousness is wrong and harmful because it is inherently lustful. Rather, he says it is wrong and harmful because it produces feelings of inadequacy. But such feelings are not the characteristic problem of young people today. The majority are well described by 2 Timothy 3:2 as "lovers of their own selves, . . . boasters, proud."
Feelings of inadequacy are not necessarily bad. They give the parent an opportunity to teach the child that his self-worth does not derive from the beauty or prowess of his physical body. Although the body has worth as God's creation (Psa. 139:14), it is to be regarded mainly as a serviceable tool (Rom. 12:1). True self-worth derives from participation in the body of Christ (2 Cor. 10:17).
Dobson's analysis of body consciousness leads to no helpful criticism or advice. The only cultural factor he singles out for blame is the Barbie doll, which represents a minute fraction of the corrupting influence upon young minds. There is no mention of significant sources of evil like TV and bathing beaches.
Dobson tells us that masturbation is a harmless inevitability. He could scarcely do otherwise and avoid being a laughingstock among his professional peers. Yet what does Jesus mean when He says that lust must be overcome, even if by removing an eye or cutting off a hand (Matt. 5:28-30)? Although He may not be alluding primarily to masturbation, the passage as a whole clearly condemns any thought or action proceeding from adultery in the heart. A leading concern of Scripture here and elsewhere (1 Thess. 4:3-8; 1 Cor. 6:13-20) is to defend marriage from all rival uses of male sexuality. Masturbation by unmarried boys is one objectionable use because it may foment desire for sexual experience prior to lawful marriage, or corrupt the patient seeking of God's will concerning a marriage partner, or even produce lifelong habits of fantasy and autoeroticism that to some extent take the place of conjugal love (1 Cor. 7:4). Even if masturbation leads to nothing worse, the practice still must be recognized as a sin disallowed by the Biblical standard of absolute purity (Eph. 5:3; 1 Tim. 5:2).
Dobson is afraid of the destructive consequences of guilt arising from repeated failure in self-control. But any suggestion that a young man should seek freedom from guilt somewhat redirects him from his main goal, according to Scripture, which is freedom from sin (1 John 2:14; Psa. 119:9). It is the destructive consequences of sin that should be feared, and guilt (though sometimes unprofitable) is merely the sign that warns of sin's presence. In minds dulled by modern values, guilt is falsely perceived as the great villain that robs men of easy happiness. But the Christian life does not offer that kind of happiness, always smooth and smiling. Dobson's recall of his own Christian life as an unbroken span of untroubled years is entirely discordant with the experience of others and with the pictures of righteous living found in the Scripture (see Psalms 34 and 73).
The Female Dilemma
To discover what women believe are the chief problems in marriage, Dobson has asked thousands to rank order ten complaints frequently expressed by wives in his own counseling experience. Unfortunately, the procedure forces every woman to identify something as a high-ranking problem in her marriage, when perhaps she has no serious problems at all. There is no way for a woman to express happiness and contentment. Indeed, the procedure tends to arouse feelings of unhappiness and discontent. Dobson aggravates these again when, in his discussion of high-ranking problems, he encourages women to cast blame on their husbands. For example, he tells the woman who complains of overwork that the real problem is her husband's failure to show adequate love and support. So, instead of promoting the self-discipline of contentment in marriage, after the Biblical pattern (Eph. 5:24), Dobson fosters a resentment tending to strife.
If a woman feels unappreciated by her husband, Dobson advises her to find ego support in the company of other women. But gadding about as he advises will provide no satisfying alternative to happiness at home. Indeed, she will spend less time at home and, by neglecting her duties, will lower herself further in her husband's esteem. According to Scripture, the sure way of gaining his respect is through competence as a wife, mother, homemaker, and businesswoman (Prov. 31:10-31). She must fight the social trends that have snuffed out many domestic arts and reduced family size to one or two children. Although women should indeed look for opportunities to interact with each other in a constructive way, they need to lead home-centered lives (Titus 2:3-5).
The Male Dilemma
Dobson believes that a man is biologically programmed to respond with sexual awareness to any visually attractive woman, without regard to her identity. The inverse proposition, which he also states, is that a man will not take a sexual interest in any woman who is not visually attractive.
Both propositions are dangerous in their tendency. The first reinforces the excuse, "I can't help it," when a man faces temptation. He will suppose that his lustful reaction, at whatever level, is simply the outworking of his God-given masculinity. But, in truth, the electrochemical charge Dobson talks about is by no means a simple automatic response. If a man desires to suppress the response, he will in time succeed in significantly reducing it. Through the power of the Spirit, he can live, think, and act like a saint.
For a Christian man following the straight life (in Dobson's terms), the devil's most successful sexual ploy is to offer him a woman who, perhaps with cosmetic sleight-of-hand, appears more attractive than his wife. If the man allows this temptress to capture his interest, he may in self-justification pretend that his declining affection for his wife is the inexorable consequence of her unattractiveness. She does not look good to him, so he cannot love her. Dobson's second proposition unfortunately tends to whitewash this kind of fallacious reasoning. In fact, if a husband loves his wife as a person, he can respond to her sexually whether or not other people see her as visually attractive. In other words, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If, however, he loves her primarily not as a person but as a sex object, he is disobeying the command of Scripture to love his wife as fully as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25). No mortal can approximate the full measure of Christ unless he draws upon the power of the Holy Spirit, but this indispensable power is nowhere mentioned in any of the Dobson films.
During remarks on his own background, Dobson suggests that his work as a counselor is simply one form of gospel ministry. But if the films are a fair sample, he apparently carries on this work almost without mention of Christ, salvation, or the Word of God. He cites Scripture only about once per film, and he completely overlooks the grand truths of the gospel. Although he names Christ, he does not really exalt Him as Lord in every area of life. It is evident that his conception of gospel ministry ignores the true nature of this sacred profession. The church must reject his conception as savoring more of California than of Christ.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.