According to a 2002 ABC News poll, 62 percent of Southern parents, and 41 percent of non-Southern parents, spank their children. In defense of spanking, people sometimes remark they themselves were spanked as children but nevertheless turned out well. Many scientists, however, believe that spanked children who turn out well as adults do so despite the spankings they received as children, not because of them.
One of the foremost researchers on the effects of corporal punishment is Murray Strauss. In various studies, Strauss has found that spanking apparently (1) increases anti-social behaviors such as lying, cheating, disobedience, and bullying; (2) decreases children’s IQs; and (3), increases the risk of sexual problems later on in life. Other researchers have shown that adults spanked as children may experience greater depression and alienation, and that they tend to hold less desirable jobs and have lower earnings. For those and other reasons, many researchers are against spanking.
It seems the researchers differ in that respect from some other folks, notably James Dobson. Just as Murray Strauss is more or less the foremost American scientific authority on corporal punishment, James Dobson is more or less the foremost American advocate for corporal punishment. Perhaps, given Dobson’s prominence these days, it can be fairly said he is “America’s guru on spanking children”.
Among other places, Dobson explains his philosophy of spanking in his book, The Strong Willed Child. In an extraordinary passage, he finds a parallel between spanking children and beating dogs:
“Please don’t misunderstand me. Siggie is a member of our family and we love him dearly. And despite his anarchistic nature, I have finally taught him to obey a few simple commands. However, we had some classic battles before he reluctantly yielded to my authority.
“The greatest confrontation occurred a few years ago when I had been in Miami for a three-day conference. I returned to observe that Siggie had become boss of the house while I was gone. But I didn’t realize until later that evening just how strongly he felt about his new position as Captain.
“At eleven o’clock that night, I told Siggie to go get into his bed, which is a permanent enclosure in the family room. For six years I had given him that order at the end of each day, and for six years Siggie had obeyed.
“On this occasion, however, he refused to budge. You see, he was in the bathroom, seated comfortably on the furry lid of the toilet seat. That is his favorite spot in the house, because it allows him to bask in the warmth of a nearby electric heater. . . “
“When I told Sigmund to leave his warm seat and go to bed, he flattened his ears and slowly turned his head toward me. He deliberately braced himself by placing one paw on the edge of the furry lid, then hunched his shoulders, raised his lips to reveal the molars on both sides, and uttered his most threatening growl. That was Siggie’s way of saying. “Get lost!”
“I had seen this defiant mood before, 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.”
“What developed next is impossible to describe. That tiny dog and I had the most vicious fight ever staged between man and beast. I fought him up one wall and down the other, with both of us scratching and clawing and growling and swinging the belt. I am embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene. Inch by inch I moved him toward the family room and his bed. As a final desperate maneuver, Siggie backed into the corner for one last snarling stand. I eventually got him to bed, only because I outweighed him 200 to 12!”
“But this is not a book about the discipline of dogs; there is an important moral to my story that is highly relevant to the world of children. JUST AS SURELY AS A DOG WILL OCCASIONALLY CHALLENGE THE AUTHORITY OF HIS LEADERS, SO WILL A LITTLE CHILD — ONLY MORE SO.” (emphasis Dobson’s)
“[i]t is possible to create a fussy, demanding baby by rushing to pick him up every time he utters a whimper or sigh. Infants are fully capable of learning to manipulate their parents through a process called reinforcement, whereby any behavior that produces a pleasant result will tend to recur. Thus, a healthy baby can keep his mother hopping around his nursery twelve hours a day (or night) by simply forcing air past his sandpaper larynx.”
“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.”
In telling his sad story of beating Siggie, Dobson clearly believes he is explaining why he feels it is sometimes necessary to spank children. Perhaps one of the most striking things about the passage, however, is that his explanation is more sermon than science.
Dobson has a doctorate in Child Development and was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California until 1977, yet his background in science has not given him a thoroughly scientific worldview. Instead, he often seems to be more of a fundamentalist preacher than a scientist. Perhaps that becomes somewhat less surprising once you understand his upbringing.
In the first place, it seems Dobson had a strict upbringing and was even beaten as a child. According to one source, “His mother routinely beat [her] son with her shoes, her belt, and once, a 16-pound girdle.”
Of course, there is a difference between beating a child and spanking him. Dobson does not advocate beating a child, and he lays out fairly strict limits on how much spanking should be done and who should do it. One wonders, though, whether the childhood beatings had any influence on Dobson’s scientifically unsubstantiated notion that spanking benefits the child?
Perhaps more importantly, Dobson was raised by fundamentalists. His father, for instance, was a preacher, and the religious environment in his home was quite intense:
“His parents somehow instilled so much guilt in young Dobson that he answered his father’s fervent altar-call, weeping at the front of a crowded church service and crying out for God’s forgiveness for all his sins, when he was three years old. ‘It makes no sense, but I know it happened,’ Dobson still says of being born again as a toddler.”
Dobson’s fervently religious upbringing might go far to explain why his writings on so many things — very much including spanking — sometimes reference science, but are almost always more informed by religion than by science.
Another possible influence on Dobson’s views is his membership in the fundamentalist Nazarene Church. Like many other Christians, the Nazarene’s believe their god rewards people who have faith in Him and punishes those who don’t. Assuming Dobson agrees with that notion, he is probably inclined to think spanking children is in some way sanctioned by deity. As a friend of mine once put it:
“In Mr. Dobson’s understanding, God treats him [that] way, doesn’t he? Isn’t Mr. Dobson threatened with eternal destruction should he not behave as God wishes him to? Then what could possibly be wrong with Mr Dobson treating his family the same?”
So, in Dobson’s worldview it might actually be considered self-evident that, “The ONLY way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction. Nothing else works.”
Thus, there seem to be several things in Dobson’s background that might work to explain why he tends to come across as more of a preacher than a scientist on the subject of spanking children, despite his formal training in psychology and child development.
All of this might raise the question of what Dobson hopes will be accomplished by spanking children. In theory — but only in theory — there could be several answers to that question. He might believe, for instance, that spanking children is a means to making them fully functioning adults. Or that spanking children will encourage them to develop their talents and skills as fully as possible. Or that spanking children will make them brighter and more independent thinkers. But while it is technically possible Dobson could offer us those reasons to spank children, it seems highly unlikely he ever would. So what does Dobson hope to accomplish by spanking children?
Apparently, he hopes spanking children will cause them to obey authority. Not just the authority of their parents, however, but all manner of authority. “By learning to yield to the loving authority… of his parents, a child learns to submit to other forms of authority which will confront him later in his life—his teachers, school principal, police, neighbors and employers.” In other words, spanking is necessary to make the child turn into a submissive adult.
It cannot be doubted that a significant portion of Americans embrace the notion they — and others — should be submissive to authority. Robert Altemeyer, for instance, argues that about 20-25% of the American population is comprised of authoritarian followers (p. 103 .pdf). Dobson might very well be preaching to the choir when he calls for spanking children so they will turn into submissive adults, but it is a large choir.
Of course, one can dispute whether a society of free citizens needs more — or rather fewer — submissive adults among its ranks. Dobson appears to be firmly on the side that wants the American people to be more — not less — submissive to authority. His attitude, which some would characterize as “Anti-American”, is unsurprising if various reports of his politics are true.
For instance, Chris Hedges believes Dobson wants to impose a totalitarian system on America, and he has described Dobson as “perhaps the most powerful figure in the Dominionist movement”. Moreover, Discernment Ministries characterized Dobson as belonging to the “Patriotic American” brand of Dominionism, and called him “One of its most powerful leaders”. If these and other reports are true, it is quite obviously to James Dobson’s own political interests to raise a society of submissive adults.
Whether by design or happenstance, Dobson’s worldview is remarkably coherent when it comes to spanking children. Spanking kids not only fits in with the behavior of a judgmental god — and therefore has some kind of metaphysical sanction — but it also seems to fit in with Dobson’s authoritarian politics. However, if something is missing from Dobson’s view of spanking then that might be any science to back up Dobson’s claims that spanking is beneficial to the child.