How to Parent
a book by Fitzhugh Dodson
(our site's book review)
Although Dodson recommends books and ideas from Haim Ginott, Rudolf Dreikurs, and Carl Rogers, he cautions that he disagrees with them about spanking kids. He says you need to do it at times, while these others, and the democratic parenting tradition they represent, say that violence towards kids and other authoritarian tactics are a very bad idea. Dodson: “Never strike a child except in anger. . . . Spank your child only when you are furious at him and feel like letting him have it right then. . . . [Too many mothers] try to negotiate with a child. This is a huge mistake because it reduces their authority as parents. . . . tell him once or perhaps twice what you want him to do or to stop doing. Then, if he refuses to obey your reasonable request, and you have become frustrated and angry, let him have it right then and there!” He says the purpose for spanking is “. . . to relieve the parent’s feelings of frustration. All of us need to do this from time to time when our kids get on our nerves.” If you’re wincing while reading this creepy stuff, you’re not alone—we also winced as we read it in his book. Seriously, Dodson??!! Why would this guy want to write a book about his parenting confusion rather than researching good parenting and clearing up his confusion first? Go figure!
Dodson says all of us need to spank our kids from time to time when our kids get on our nerves
If Dodson had to get into rewards, punishments, and obedience, he’d have been better off with something like the Confident Parenting Program. The program was started in the 1970s by Dr. Robert Aitchison as part of a federally-sponsored demonstration project. It relies on conditioning, but at least totally rejects all physical and verbal violence! It’s described in Kerby T. Alvy’s book: Parent Training Today. (There are comments on his book in our website.) We’ve now reached the 21st century; there’s simply no longer any excuse for advocating violence against kids for any reason.
Imagine adults acting towards one another the way Dodson recommends that parents act with their kids
Imagine adults acting towards one another the way Dodson recommends that parents act with their kids: anger leading to instant violence. Imagine countries treating each other that way. That would be totally unacceptable, right? (And lead to constant warfare!) But somehow these beatings are fine because it’s only a child—not a “real person.” The thinking behind this goes back to the days when kids were thought of as mere property to treat as one liked, i.e., chattel. More recently, the behaviorists thought of kids in simple, reductionistic terms, reinforced by their work with rats and such in their laboratories. The goal was to manipulate kids into behaving a certain way, and rewards and punishments turned out to be the way to “motivate” them. The fact that both the goal and the method of achieving it were flawed didn’t seem to bother anyone.
We now know that empowering kids to develop self-control and autonomy is the best and most humanistic goal, and democratic, authoritative parenting accomplishes this best.
Kids raised with punishment are more approval-directed, more reactive as opposed to proactive, more at effect rather than at cause, more narcissistic rather than compassionate, and more striving after indirect self-acceptance. Pictured: a narcissist
Behaviorists and/or developmentalists like Dodson can and do believe that once you’ve taught kids to behave well by firm controls, they’ll mature into self-control and take over this responsibility for themselves. However, do studies show this to be true? Do these people become other-directed (peer-acceptance-motivated conformists) and inner-directed (parental-acceptance-motivated conformists), or do they become autonomous (self-directed)? Kids raised with punishment are more approval-directed, more reactive as opposed to proactive, more at effect rather than at cause, more narcissistic rather than compassionate, and more striving after indirect self-acceptance—à la Putney and Putney (The Adjusted American)—than are nonpunitively raised kids.
Behaviorists thought of kids in simple, reductionistic terms, as if kids were rats to manipulate
So to point out that kids do eventually learn self-control even through such crude methods as punitive discipline wouldn’t mitigate any of the above. Read Gordon’s Discipline That Works, or books by Hart, Dreikurs, Ginott, Dinkmeyer or others and get a more thorough discussion of this matter. Or read Moral Politics by George Lakoff, ignoring the passages about liberalism. The fact turns out to be that the self-control one inspires from punitive parenting is of a lower quality and less likely to be really self-control.
To Freud, in child-rearing it suffices to produce a superego that controls each person—an entity of the psyche that is really parental control by proxy. It is semantic sleight of hand to call this true self-control. One may say that in forming a superego, one adopts parental sanctions as one’s own. But without autonomy—and concomitant transfer of control from superego to self—one is still experiencing parental control, not self-control, if one is inner-directed in the David Riesman (see The Lonely Crowd) sense and thereby superego controlled. Happily, some of Freud's successors realized that the transfer of control from superego to self was a growth step toward maturity. See Ego Autonomy and Overcoming the Superego.
To the popular, over-social, style-minded conformist, it suffices to produce a peer-directed gyroscope in people that keeps them conforming to their peer norms. But this is the 21st century, and a person who will thrive in the Third Wave will need to be armed with real, autonomous self-control if he is to reach for self-actualization and a truly satisfactory, productive life. It isn’t enough to be like and act like one’s friends. If one’s friends get into vandalism or drugs, one will follow their example, if one is other-directed, and this mass-man context is not only obsolete and Second Wave but also amoral—it fails to require good character or judgment but instead requires only conformity.
There's a peer-directed gyroscope in most modern kids that keeps these other-directed people conforming to their peer norms
To his credit, Dodson recommends Hugh Missildine’s Your Inner Child of the Past, which helps adults get in touch with the child within themselves so that they can be more empathetic parents and trip over their emotional baggage less often in their parenting endeavors. John Pollard’s Self-Parenting and Nancy Napier’s Recreating Your Self do this even better, and give more practical ways of accomplishing these goals. (See the comments on Missildine’s Your Inner Conflicts—How to Solve Them in our website, as well as the Napier and Pollard books cited.)
Also in the plus column, he hits one of the key defects of steep-gradient nurturance, although he comes in the back door: “You should never try to show physical affection for your child or say ‘I love you’ when you are not genuinely feeling that way inside.” R.D. Laing (The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness) and others have shown that such counterfeit behavior in parents can create the context for mental illness in children. Kids brought up with this type of mystification (read Laing books to discover the precise meaning of this important word) can end up schizophrenic. But whether or not things get that bad, it is a fact that kids in steep-gradient-nurturance setups often end up in situations where moms are faced with either denying her needful kid or pretending unfelt feelings.
Normal parents are often faced with either denying their needful kid or pretending unfelt feelings
Dodson believes in natural and logical consequences, but since he also promotes punishments, the kid so parented will surely experience all the logical consequences that come his way as punitive, which wrecks their effectiveness, according to all authoritative and democratic parenting experts. He is for parents being examples to emulate, but forgets that when a parent uses violence on his kid during angry outbursts, he will have modeled how to respond to anger and frustration in such a way as to undermine the kid’s future. In his book, he says that he wants kids to be allowed to have all the angry and violent feelings they want, as long as they don’t act them out. This is fine advice, but it’s also naïvely inconsistent of Dodson, considering his advocacy of spanking kids when you’re so angry with them that you lose control. Kids learn, as Thomas Gordon and countless others keep telling us, from what we do, not from what we say. He warns about child abuse, and then teaches us how to create angry, reactive outburst habits that encourage it’s likelihood. This is poorly thought out. Perhaps his parenting methods should be called Foot-In-Mouth Parenting, or How Not to Parent.