Dr. Dobson Talks about Families

“Dr. Dobson Talks About Families”

By James C. Dobson, Ph.D.

Dr. Dobson, is there a comprehensive Christian formula for solving family problems?

Albert Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life in a gallant attempt to formulate a unifying theory that would explain all dimensions of physics, but he never succeeded. Likewise, I doubt if the human personality will ever be reduced to a single understanding. We are far too complex to be simplified in that way. From another perspective, however, there is one “formula” that applies to all human relationships, and of course I’m referring to the four-letter word called love. Conflicts seem to dissolve themselves when people live according to I Corinthians 13 (avoiding boastfulness, irritability, envy, jealousy, selfishness, impatience, rudeness, etc.). The ultimate prescription for harmonious living is contained in that one chapter, and I doubt if any new “discovery” will ever improve on it.

Practically speaking, what does that mean? For example, how does that formula apply to kids who constantly fight and argue?

I’m convinced that many of the emotional problems suffered by some adults can be traced to the viciousness and brutality of siblings and peers during their early home experiences. Self-esteem is a fragile flower, and can easily be crushed by ridicule and mockery occurring routinely between children. But it need not be so. One of the primary responsibilities of parents and teachers (especially those within the Christian faith) is to teach children to love one another. It can be done. Most boys and girls have a tender spirit beneath the unsympathetic exterior. Adults who take the time to cultivate that
sensitivity can create a genuine empathy for the handicapped child, the overweight child, the unattractive child, the retarded child, or the younger child. But in the absence of that early instruction, a hostile competitiveness often emerges which can become a barrier to serving Christ later in life.

In other words, you see this empathy as an important element in early Christian training?

Yes, Jesus gave the highest priority to the expression of love for God and for our neighbor, yet we often miss this emphasis in Christian education. For example, many Sunday schools diligently teach about Moses and Daniel and Joseph, but permit a chaotic situation to exist, where their cavorting students are busily mutilating one another’s egos. In the absence of strong, adult leadership at this point, Sunday school can become the most “dangerous” place in the child’s week. I would like to see teachers spring to the defense of a harassed underdog, and in so doing, speak volumes about human worth and the love of Jesus.

How about family in-fighting? How can a parent teach the kids to love one another at home?

That is more difficult because of the natural competitiveness and antagonism between siblings. I’ve seen very few parents who were able to eliminate this domestic combat altogether, but it can be maintained at reasonable levels. Let me give a brief (and inadequate) reply to the “how to” question, in the interest of space limitations. Sibling rivalry is most severe when there is a poor system of justice in the home. For example, some parents permit a large child to harass a younger sibling with impunity, or they allow the little fellow to plunder the prized possessions of the older brother or sister. That generates hatred between family members. Just as society needs policemen and courts and judgments and arbitration, so also a family, as a mini-society, has the same requirements. Thus, the more ineffective the parental discipline, the more conflict will abound between children. Parents must take an active role in establishing a “balance of power” between the warring neighbors and exercise strong leadership in mediating the conflict.

There are those who fear you are too authoritarian. They feel that following your principles too closely will create too much dogmatism, and that the world already has too many people who are, in effect, mini-dictators. How do you answer that criticism?

Naturally, I don’t believe that criticism is justified. I have gone to great lengths in all my books to warn parents of the dangers of being harsh and oppressive with their children. One of those books, Hide or Seek, is dedicated in its entirety to the fragile nature of a child’s spirit. Nowhere in my writings will you find a recommendation that mothers and fathers disregard the feelings of their boys and girls, or that they use excessive punishment for childish behavior. What I said is that I believe in parental leadership-that children should be taught to respect the benevolent authority of their parents and teachers. If that makes me authoritarian, then so be it. All I can say in response is that my own children live in an atmosphere of freedom, which is made possible by mutual respect between generations. That two-sided coin is clearly supported in the Scripture, which instructs children to obey their parents and then warns parents not to provoke their children to wrath. I like that combination.

How about husbands and wives? What’s the most common problem that couples bring to you as a counselor, and how does love work it out?

One problem is heard more frequently than all other marital difficulties combined. It is usually expressed by a lonely wife whose husband has become very busy with his profession. Not only is he working long hours, but he now seems to be emotionally “married” to his job. Even when he is home, he’s too tired to communicate or meet his wife’s needs for romantic involvement and companionship. She has tried dozens of times to tell him about the emptiness she feels, but he simply doesn’t comprehend. In fact, he is often bewildered by her complaints. Either he reacts to her “nagging” with anger, or merely sinks further into silence and apathy. Their sex life becomes mechanical for him and abhorrent to her. At that point, both husband and wife are in considerable danger. That precise set of circumstances has led millions of couples into illicit affairs, alcoholism, wife beating, divorce or even suicide. And when that occurs, Satan has finished his cruel assignment.

On the other hand, this breakdown in understanding can nearly always be reversed when the couple is committed to rebuilding their marriage and is willing to submit themselves to a competent Christian
counselor. One of the greatest rewards in my profession is to watch the man and wife progress from hostility and conflict to affection and mutual respect. Again, love (and a little guidance) is the answer.

Back to kids. How much should we trust them? Some parents want to let go too early and others seem to smother them through the teen years. Can you offer some guidelines for avoiding these two extremes?

Someone said that our objective as parents is to “hold our kids close, and then let them go.” In other words, we should give them intensive training during the early years, and then gradually set them free.
Christian parents, I find, handle the first half of the assignment better than the second. Our sinful world poses many threats–drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, marriage outside the faith and so on-that makes us reluctant to grant autonomy to the next generation. However, failure to release them is a certain pathway to rebellion. You can’t play mommy and daddy forever, and it is a great mistake to try. But it is equally risky to remove parental authority too early. The general guideline to follow is to grant our kids more freedom and responsibility each passing year so that when they get beyond our control they will no longer need it. As to how much autonomy is appropriate at each age, that can be determined by the wise parent who is “tuned in” to his child. Errors at either extreme will usually be obvious in the reaction of the son or daughter.

How much of a problem is physical chemistry in the feeling cycles we go through? Do they sometimes affect our moral judgments? How do we reconcile these factors with God’s demands on our lives? Or put it this way: Isn’t it easier to behave better some days than others?

Aren’t you asking, “How can God hold us accountable for obedience and compliance when some individuals are apparently not in control of their actions?” Quite honestly, that question has troubled me until recently. The hyperactive child, for example, is often more rebellious and willful than the boy or girl who is calm and serene. How will his defiant nature affect his future relationship with God? What about the sexual deviate who was warped by emotional turmoil during the formative years? What exceptions does God make for the person whose parents specifically taught him immoral and atheistic concepts at home? How about the woman who abuses her child during the stresses of premenstrual tension? What about the person you’ve described who is possibly driven by chemical forces we don’t even comprehend medically?

These issues defy human interpretation, although they no longer distress me from a theological point of view. I have concluded that an infinite God who rules the universe is capable of judging those exceptional individuals in a way that will be infinitely just. It is not my business to decipher God’s system of evaluation, any more than I can comprehend other aspects of his divine nature. His ways are higher than my ways, and his thoughts are higher than my thoughts. Isn’t that why the Bible commands us not to judge one another? We are obviously not equipped to handle the assignment. All I know is that the Lord has required trust and obedience from me as to the reactions of my fellow man, I hear him saying, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me!”

Do you lend any credence to big-rhythm theories?

We are biochemical beings, and our bodies definitely operate according to regular patterns and rhythms. A woman’s reproductive system functions on a 28-day cycle, for example, and there appear to be less obvious patterns in men. Men and women also experience “circadian” rhythms or 24-hour oscillations that account for the stresses of “jet lag” among travelers which interfere with their internal clocks.
Unfortunately, this chemical understanding has motivated yet another phony theory about the human body and its “fate.” Several books on biorhythms have led to the notion that the date of one’s birth can be used to calculate good days and bad days during adult years. There is not a scrap of evidence to support such a claim.

You don’t quote much from the Bible in your counseling materials. Is there a reason why you don’t cite the Scriptures more frequently?

Many of my books and tapes were prepared while I was on the staff of the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the University of Southern California School of Medicine. This required me to obtain approval from a critical publications committee, which reviews everything written by the professional staff. In order to obtain their sanction, I was obligated to take a very casual approach to the Christian application in my books. I now believe the Lord actually motivated this “soft sell” style, because my writings have found a measure of acceptance among those who would not read a more traditional Christian book. Whether right or wrong, however, I’ve had little choice in the matter. Let me say for the record that all my views are consistent with my understanding of the Scriptures, and whether or not references are provided, the Bible is my standard.

It’s often said that part of the motivation for the study of psychology is that the person wants to know himself or herself. Do you feel you know yourself pretty well? What are the things you need to
keep working on?

I’m still getting acquainted with myself and will probably work on that project until I die. And I endure a generous assortment of flaws and shortcomings that I wish I could correct. For example, there’s an adolescent characteristic called “ego needs” which surfaces every now and then. I also have to struggle with self-control and self-discipline like everyone else. Nevertheless, God accepts my imperfections and is helping me deal with the changes he requires.

Relative to your arguments about lack of self-esteem, don’t you think the Bible, in its teaching on original sin, says we are inferior?

Absolutely not! We are made in the image of God Himself. He said each of us is worth more than the possession of the entire world and because of that significance, Jesus was not embarrassed to refer to his followers as brothers. We are, therefore, members of the family of God, which is exclusive company. I believe the Bible teaches that we are to walk humbly before God, “esteeming others higher than ourselves,” without groveling in self-doubt and despair. Nowhere do I find a commandment that I am to hate myself and live in shame and personal disgust. However, unfortunately I know many Christians who are crushed with feelings of inferiority, and some have been taught this concept of worthlessness by their church.

Do you feel that biblical principles and psychological principles (the latter drawn from experience, empirical data, etc.) can be complementary?

Dr. Gary Collins sees modern psychology based on five suppositions, which are humanistic and atheistic in substance. They are empiricism, reductionism, relativism, determinism and naturalism. If
that statement is accurate, and I agree that it is, then a Christian psychologist must reject a certain portion of the training he or she receives in university programs. I have certainly had to do that. But
in its place has come a wealth of information about human nature, which originated with the Creator of mankind. The Bible offers us a “manufacturer’s manual” which I have found to be absolutely valid in
the psychology it presents. But to answer your question more directly, there are many instances where traditional psychological understandings are perfectly consistent with biblical teaching.

On what key points do Christian psychologists differ today?

Therapists differ regarding methods of treatment, as do specialists on parenting techniques. I would like to point out, however, that every profession is characterized by similar differences in opinion. The Supreme Court often splits 5 to 4 on the issues it considers. And physicians disagree on almost every concept in medicine, although their patients are typically unaware of the conflict. It is reasonable, therefore, that psychologists–even Christian psychologists–would draw different conclusions about the complex human mind. Until our knowledge of behavior is more complete, there will continue to be differences of views among behavioral scientists.

Would you encourage young people to think of psychology as a strategic vocation from a Christian perspective?

Psychology offers a unique opportunity for a person to be of service as a disciple of Christ. Remember that people usually seek professional help at a time of stress when they are looking for answers and when they are open to new solutions and alternatives. They have reached a point of vulnerability where the right advice can be very helpful and the wrong counsel can be devastating. I have found it rewarding in my practice to represent the Christian view of marriage, morality, parenting and honesty while respecting the right of the individual to make his own choice. What I am saying is that Christian psychology is a worthy profession for a young believer to pursue, provided his own faith is strong enough to withstand the humanistic concepts to which he will be exposed in graduate school. If he begins to compromise on his fundamental beliefs he could easily become a liability and hindrance to the Christian faith.