James Dobson champions family health through programs of disciplined child rearing.

Tell us something about your background. Were you raised a Christian?

My father was a minister and I have never known any other way of life. In fact, they tell me that I learned to make the sounds of prayer before I learned to talk. I imitated my parents’ sounds before I knew the meaning of their words. I have never felt separate from God. He has been very much a part of my entire life.

Would you describe some of the books that have influenced you and your writings. Who were your mentors?

Without question, the greatest influence on my professional life was my own father. He died December 4, 1977, and the void has never been filled. He was a tremendous reader and did much of my research for me. He would go to the library, check out eight or ten books and consume them in a weekend, then send me the concepts he had read. His personal philosophy is also represented throughout my writings.

More important, I see everything that has happened to me as an extension of my father’s ministry. That is the only way I can explain the explosion that has occurred. Dad came home one day in 1941 and told my mother that God had been talking to him and had revealed some incredible things about his ministry. He said that the Lord had shown him that his message was going to reach literally millions of people, that it would expand beyond every expectation.

Although he had a very successful ministry in his denomination, Dad never realized that promise, and went to his grave not fully understanding it. But I believe I do. I see all that’s happened to me having very little to do with my own talent or ability or dedication. I see it as a continuation of my father’s ministry and a fulfillment of the promise God made to him over 40 years ago.

Your writings don’t seem explicitly Christocentric. There are many mentions of God the Father but very rarely Jesus the Son.

Some of my earlier writings were perhaps as you described, because everything I wrote had to be approved by a medical school publications committee at the University of Southern California. If I wanted to write as a faculty member, I had to submit to the guidelines I was given. Therefore, I was required to take a soft-sell approach to my Christian faith. Fortunately, the Lord used that conservative approach to get my books accepted in places where more traditional books would not have been permitted. But I certainly intended no compromise, I can tell you that. Nothing—nothing—matters to me more than my relationship with Jesus Christ. And if you read my later books (Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives; Emotions: Can You Trust Them), you will see my love for the Lord.

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Speaking more generally about your books and films, tapes and radio programs, did you ever expect this popularity, this kind of significance in your work?

No, certainly not. Take the film series, for example. Ten million people have now seen these seven films. Rather than expecting this response, I sat in my living room with five members of Word Publishers executive staff and argued with them about that project. [Word, Inc., produced and distributed Focus on the Family; see also p. 27 of this issue.] They wanted to videotape one of the final city-wide seminars I conducted, but I didn’t believe that people would sit for seven hours and listen to one man projected on a screen speaking. I was also wary of the great expense of the project. But they won the argument and I agreed to face the cameras. So the film series resulted from no great wisdom or forethought on my part.

The popularity I enjoy is a product of the difficulties facing the family today. The principles that I believe in work, and God has given me an open door to many of his people. I’m merely attempting to go through that door while it remains accessible to me.

Does the impact that you’re having begin to compare with the impact of Benjamin Spock, whose books on child care have sold 28 million copies?

I doubt it. I wouldn’t know how to evaluate that. Dr. Spock has been around for 35 years, his name is on every lip. There are still people who have never heard of me, or never will know my name. I don’t think we’re in the same league. My impact has been primarily on people within the Christian community, and there are millions of others who are outside that spectrum.

What is the specific goal of your books and the other parts of your ministry?

My specific goal in life is to bring as many people to Jesus Christ as possible. My assignment in that overall objective is to help hold the family together. The family is the best vehicle for bringing children up to serve God and to live according to his precepts and to make it to heaven. So my assignment is to try to preserve the individual family unit and teach parents how to teach the Christian value system to their children.

Getting into the substance of your books, do you think it is harder to raise children now than before industrialization, urbanization, and all the other factors of mass society in America? Is it more difficult now than 50 or 100 years ago?

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I think it is, primarily because of the isolation of family members today. A hundred years ago, for example, women had babies together, they cooked together, sewed together, washed clothes down at the creek together, went through menopause together, and died together. Aunts, mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and neighbors were always ready, comforting and supporting one another. A natural camaraderie developed between women that provided emotional support and instruction in family living—including a kind of folk wisdom. When a new baby was born, there was somebody there to tell the mother how to raise it. Today, however, homemakers are isolated, not only from their busy husbands, but also from one another. Their relatives are spread across the country and their neighbors have gone back to work. This loneliness is distressing and frightening, and it undermines confidence in child rearing. It also places great stress on the marital relationship, focusing all emotional needs on that one significant partner.

As for fathers, there is tremendous pressure on men today to be successful, to reach a financial goal, to be respected in the community. As a result, a man’s ego support is obtained primarily outside the home. That means his preoccupation is also outside the home. That further isolates his wife and fractures the family. It is a vicious cycle that destroys many marriages.

In Dare to Discipline you write that you would like to see the mothers at home with children at least up through their preschool years. Did your wife do that?

Yes, she did. My wife was a school teacher for five years before Danae was born; we postponed birth of this first child until I could get through USC’S doctoral program. After our daughter came, Shirley tried substitute teaching and saw that it was disruptive to our daughter and home. It was her decision to stay home thereafter, which she has done since that time. She’s there today.

Do you feel all women should stay at home as full-time homemakers?

I don’t feel I have the right to tell women what they should do. Nobody has that right; it’s an individual matter. Furthermore, there are inflationary pressures today that force many mothers to accept full-time employment. But I can tell you that little children cannot raise themselves, and the notion that we can just ship them off to a baby sitter and that they will do about as well as they would with a full-time mother is nonsense. No one is likely to do the job of raising children as well as their own mothers, whose commitment is often stronger than the love of life itself.

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Can a day-care center provide that?

Never! Because a day-care center is designed to handle groups of children, and a mother relates to a child one-on-one during the most vulnerable years. Children need that kind of individual attention and care.

How about the father staying home and the mother going out and earning the income?

As far as the welfare of the child is concerned, if a father was motivated properly, I think he could be very successful as a full-time parent. But most men are not inclined to do that. I don’t believe full-time homemaking is wired into the masculine brain. Perhaps this is an inflammatory viewpoint in the present political climate, but I believe the assertiveness and aggression of masculinity is more than a cultural phenomenon; it is a function of maleness and the neurology of the masculine brain. By contrast, women, being procreative, are much more inclined to make that full-time commitment to children. What I’m saying is that some men will undoubtedly accept a role as a homemaker-father, but when you talk about mass movements in that direction, it is never going to happen.

Are you at all apprehensive about your kids getting older? As they become teen-agers, do you ever think, “What if one of my children gets involved in drugs? All these books I’ve written, and so on—what if one of my children goes bad?”

First of all, my kids are doing well, and I thank the Lord for that. But naturally I’m apprehensive of that possibility and have been from the early days. We live in an evil world and children do, in fact, have a free will. God was not to blame for the sin of his first two children, nor was the father of the Prodigal Son responsible for his son’s rebellion. Parents can do what they can to teach their kids and train them and love them, but ultimately they will make their own decisions. But the point I want to make is that the principles I have tried to write and talk about were here before I came on the scene, and they will exist after I’m gone. They came from the Creator of children, the Creator of families, the Creator of marriage. And the wisdom of those principles will continue, even if I am unsuccessful in implementing them. God does not need me to validate his Word.

In Dare to Discipline you speak highly of using behavioral conditioning to discipline and direct children. You write that behavioral conditioning can provide the “miracle tools.” How does that line up with biblical teaching?

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Dare to Discipline was written 12 years ago, and the section you refer to was a single chapter which I have not discussed since. Even then, I was not referring to “behavioral conditioning” as much as the judicious use of reward and punishment in helping motivate children. This system fits perfectly with my own theology. Jesus instructs us to deny ourselves and follow him, but in the long run, it is certainly to our advantage to walk the Christian path. Not only are there rewards and punishments for obedience in this life, but ultimately, we have heaven to gain and hell to lose. Furthermore, Jesus said when he returns his “rewards” would be in his hand.

Now, from a parental point of view, the use of rewards for responsible behavior helps acquaint children with an important aspect of the adult world. When we go to work and do a good job, we receive a salary (reward) for our effort. When we drive too fast on the freeway, we are given a traffic violation or may even get in an accident (punishment). Successful living depends on an understanding and acceptance of that reality.

Therefore, I find it difficult to see how the careful use of rewards and punishment with children is so harmful. But some parents see it as bribery, and to them I say, “Follow your own consciences.”

You apparently agree with some of the contentions of the behavioral psychologists. Do you have any criticism of the behaviorists—B. F. Skinner and company?

I certainly do. As I recall, Jay Adams called me a behaviorist. If he knew me personally, he would know how utterly ridiculous that accusation is. Behaviorism says there is no mind, there is no God, that the brain is a switchboard mechanism and responsive only to the environment, and so on. And this is atheistic nonsense. Just because I believe in putting stars on a chart when a child finishes his homework does not put me in the camp of behaviorism.

You criticize materialism, but at one point you suggest giving monetary rewards for good behavior. Is that defeating your purpose? Is that leading to later materialistic attitudes?

Again, I think it’s leading to an understanding of how the adult world operates. We must use common sense, however. If you pay your kids too much, that can be materialistic. But when my 11-year-old cleans the garage and washes my car, he can expect to be paid for his effort. I don’t feel that’s materialistic. That’s the same world I live in. If anything, it’s realistic.

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What is your reaction to the trend of young couples deciding they don’t want the added expense and responsibility of having children, and therefore deciding to forgo that?

I don’t think anyone should try to tell anyone else whether or not they should bring a child into the world. That is another individual matter for a family to decide. But I think most men and women will eventually regret the decision not to have children. In fact, the decision to remain childless is often a casual attitude taken when people are in their twenties. But as a woman goes into the thirties a kind of biological panic often occurs. She suddenly realizes that child bearing will not be an option for more than a few years. As she reaches 33, 34, and 35, and time is running out, she often experiences a great rush to have a baby, but by that time it may be more difficult to get pregnant. Years of taking the pill reduces fertility, as do abortions and venereal diseases. One in six couples now wanting to conceive is unable to do so, and the incidence is rising.

Returning to your question, I think for most people there is no more rewarding, exciting, shared activity and responsibility than the thrill of bringing a child into the world, then raising him to serve God and his fellow man. That is the highest calling I can imagine.

It’s also interesting to me that we say—and I agree—that it’s a woman’s right not to have a baby. Yet there’s something a bit ambiguous about calling something a right which, if exercised by everybody, would be the end of the human race in about 35 years (the remaining years of fertility of females now living).

You want teen-agers to respect authority, society’s authority as well as parental authority. What about the teen-agers of this generation, who have seen a government that got into an unpopular war, a Watergate scandal, and know much cynicism about the government. Can we expect teenagers today to respect authority?

I would tell the teen-ager of today that his government is not perfect, and there is wickedness everywhere. But rebellion and violence will not make it better. He should get involved in the process, participate in government, and work to make the system what he thinks it should be. This advice goes counter to traditional Christian teaching. I think Christians of all ages have been taught to stay out of government and keep their mouths shut. But I disagree. America is a democracy in which individuals can exercise their influence. If only secular humanists accept that challenge, then we have no one to blame but ourselves for the outcome. That’s what I would say to the teen-ager—not to throw up his hands in despair. The Constitution has given us a mechanism for making our wishes known. Use it.

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We have seen one or two generations raised relatively permissively. Is that going to continue on into the next century because those people who were raised permissively may in turn do the same thing with their children, and so on?

I think we’re seeing a kind of blind date between mother and baby right now. Many of today’s mothers did not have good role models as children, and are unsure about the task of raising their kids. That’s why there’s such confusion over how children are to be raised. I conducted a poll of our radio audience last year and found that the most common frustration in parenthood was fear of doing the job poorly and making unseen mistakes. I suppose this is why my books continue to sell year after year. People really do want to know how to be good parents, but they perceive themselves as lacking the knowledge to do it properly.

Is the chain going to be broken, or will it continue? Will permissively raised parents raise their children permissively?

I see a swing back to conservative views today, more than at any time in my professional life. How far it will go or how soon it will turn around, I don’t know. But the pendulum is coming back, and I believe we’re in much better shape now than we were 10 years ago.

You’re concerned about discipline in Sunday schools. I wonder if very many people share that concern. Can we expect much discipline in Sunday schools when the whole church seems to be pretty soft on discipline? An adult offender, for instance, isn’t very likely to be spoken to by the deacons or someone.

A great deal depends on whether or not we want to teach anything in the Sunday schools. If we’re not trying to accomplish much in Sunday school, then it doesn’t matter how children behave. But if we want to introduce boys and girls to Jesus Christ and the Word of God, there had better be enough order in the classroom for the teacher to be heard. I see Sunday schools as a rule being much too chaotic and confused and ineffective in what they do.

I’d like to see a church environment where each child knows, “Boy, Mr. Johnson sure likes me. He listens when I talk, and he came to see me on my birthday. But you had better not be too noisy in Sunday school, because he’s not going to put up with that. This is God’s house and we must have reverence for the Lord here.” Any educational program needs a strong, loving leader, who is in charge—but one who also loves his job and loves his kids.

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In one of your books you write that you are “absolutely and unequivocally opposed to abortion on demand. That is, abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or factors relating to the health of the mother and child.” Do you favor “therapeutic” abortion, as when the mother’s emotional health might be in question?

Certainly not. The latter part of that quotation implied something I didn’t mean, and has been changed in all but the first few editions of The Strong-Willed Child.

What about when the child is believed to have Down’s Syndrome or some other crippling deformity?

There is only one occasion where I feel abortion is acceptable, and that’s where an absolute choice must be made between the life of the mother and the life of the child. I would personally opt for the life of my wife over the life of an unborn child. I also would like to say that even though I would not favor abortion in instances of rape, let’s say, I think it would be naïve of me not to acknowledge the difficulty posed by that issue. I wouldn’t want to make that decision sound easy. And I realize the delicate nature of telling a mother who might be carrying a Down’s child that she must bear and devote the rest of her life to that retarded individual. That is hard, and I understand; but morally I can find no justification for doing anything else.

I see abortion as the most significant moral issue of our time. In fact, I feel that the ministers of this country—of the world—are someday going to have to answer for their unwillingness to confront this issue head-on. It cannot be right to take an innocent little child whom God is forming in his mother’s womb; and leave him to die on a porcelain table.

You also favor sex education in the schools but you want it taught along with sexual responsibility. That would seem to contradict the idea the public schools have that sex education should be value free, not influenced by religion or philosophy or anything else. In light of that, as the schools try to teach a value-free sex education without necessarily promoting sexual responsibility that would seemingly bring in a philosophy or religion, do you think it’s best not to have sex education in the schools?

Yes. I’d rather my child would not be taught anything about sex by his teacher if he or she is not free to discuss the dangers of promiscuous sexuality. More directly in answer to your question, there’s no such thing as “value-free sex education.” It’s impossible to introduce the topic of sex without raising related moral issues. You cannot discuss how babies are conceived and how contraceptives work without someone saying, “But Mr. Smith, what do you think about sex before marriage?”

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In that instance, a teacher may stand there with all the dignity or authority granted by the state and community, teaching kids the opposite of what Christians know to be right and moral. To repeat, I would rather the school would not touch the subject than to promote ungodly attitudes and values.

More specifically, are you happy with sex education programs in schools that you know of, with programs that you are familiar with?

No. I’m dissatisfied with them on several levels. The first is that they are usually coeducational. I’m going to sound tremendously archaic here, but I feel I must express my honest opinions on the matter. When you convene high school boys and girls together in explicit sex education classes, especially those that skirt all references to morality or values, this experience tends to break down the inhibitions between sexes. That natural shyness or uneasiness is designed (I feel) to serve as a barrier or restraint on sexual experimentation among the young. In its absence, it becomes much easier for young men and women to be intimate with one another in the future. Again, the problem is not with the subject of sex, but rather with the way it is taught. When you provide detailed information in a mixed group and then do not offer guidance on how to use that knowledge, it’s like giving kids loaded guns and not telling them where to point them.


It was a dark

and unexpected Goliath wind

that ominously roared

and challenged me to combat.

I knew its name was crisis,

knew it could shake sanity

and wisdom from my mind.

For a staggering moment

fear was thunder

beating in my throat.

Then, instinctively, quickly,

I swerved from panic’s path

To His safety zone of love.

Standing there, I hurled

faith’s mighty David stone

with unerring accuracy.


Would you like to see sex education taken out of the public schools, then?

If it must continue to be done this way, yes, I’d rather it would be eliminated.

You were a consultant to the 1980 White House Conference on the Family. How did you feel about that conference?

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The White House Conference was a disaster. The best thing about it was that most of its recommendations were not accepted or applied. Massive governmental programs were requested, costing untold billions of dollars and affecting every area of our lives. Most important, those programs would have brought the federal government into the family through the front door, which is what we least need at this time. I was able to coauthor a minority report in which I expressed this dissenting viewpoint during the final Task Force meetings.

What is the biggest obstacle facing the family right now?

It is overcommitment; time pressure. There is nothing that will destroy family life more insidiously than hectic schedules and busy lives, where spouses are too exhausted to communicate, too worn out to have sex, too fatigued to talk to the kids. That frantic lifestyle is just as destructive as one involving outbroken sin. If Satan can’t make you sin, he’ll make you busy, and that’s just about the same thing.

What is the future of the family—the mother and father and children—the traditional understanding of what constitutes a family? Will it survive?

I think it will survive. It will depend on several factors. I have stated that the continuation of the family depends largely on the attitudes of husbands and fathers. Women, for the most part, are already committed to holding it together; they often know more about the man’s role than he does. And women will follow the leadership of their husbands in this regard if we can get the attention of the men. I might add that this leadership is occurring all across America today, and I am very encouraged by the dedication I see among husbands and fathers who care very deeply for their families. This trend must continue if we are to get through the present crises.

Second, America is desperately in need of a spiritual revival that would sweep the country. I become emotional when talking about it, because I really believe this is a desperate need. The “born-again” phenomenon of about four or five years ago is passing, leaving in its wake a vacuum. Now our greatest need is for men and women to fall on their faces before the Lord, repenting of their sins and asking for forgiveness and renewal. Every area of our lives, including relationships within the family, would become healthier if that kind of obedience and devotion to the Word of God were evident in every home. Unless this spiritual renewal occurs, I’m afraid we’re going to face some hard times ahead.

Is there hope for a genuine revival?

I really don’t know. Historically, the only thing that turns nations around is serious national trouble of some variety. But we’re holding a full cup. We do a lot of moaning and groaning about unemployment and hunger and sacrifice, but we’re still better off than almost any country in the world. Until the majority of Americans have reason to turn to God, I question whether they’ll make that commitment and pay the price of repentance.

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