Between "sexting," cyber bullying, and bikinis with padded tops for 7-year-olds, James Dobson thinks mainstream culture doesn't offer girls a pretty picture. Dobson's Bringing Up Girls (Tyndale) is the sequel to Bringing Up Boys, which has sold more than two million copies to date.
The founder of Focus on the Family says that one of his favorite letters came from a 14-year-old girl. "I hate you dr. dobson," she wrote. "I had to watch the dumbest movie today about sex. You made the movie. HA! Like you'd know anything about it." Parents are producing strong-willed children, Dobson says, and he wants parents to assume responsibility. Dobson spoke with Christianity Today about his vision for shaping the next generation of women and his departure from Focus on the Family.
How have cultural expectations for girls changed since you raised your daughter? Was there advice for raising girls 30 years ago that would be bad advice today?
No, I haven't changed my views because they are rooted in moral principles and in Scripture, so they are eternal. I don't mean to imply I have a corner on God's truth, but I do draw the ideas and principles from that foundation. It's amazing that if you go back 40 years, when I wrote Dare to Discipline, and read those principles today, they are still on target. Dare to Discipline was published in 1970 in the midst of the Vietnam War and a culture of rebellion. The book was written in that context, but the principles of child rearing have not changed.
Has the rise of feminism made it harder for parents to bring up girls?
The culture has totally changed. Girls today are growing up too fast; the influences of the entertainment industry have changed. Girls are experiencing a lot that their mothers and grandmothers never experienced. That age compression thrusts girls into the adolescent experience far too early and gets them thinking about sexuality at an early age and creates pressure. We are dealing with evidences of emotional turmoil, including eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia; 90 percent of those with eating disorders are girls, some of them as young as 5.
Recently a clothing manufacturer finally took this product off the shelves: bikinis with padded bras for 7-year-olds. You also have cutting, piercing, and sexual aggression among elementary-school-age kids and early involvement in drugs and alcohol. Girls have now reached parity with boys in binge drinking, and there's a high level of violence among girls. One out of three boys and girls is either a victim or a perpetrator of bullying. We've seen news recently about girls who hang themselves after being taunted. There has never been an easy time to raise kids, but it's harder today.
Has feminism made anything easier about raising girls?
Feminism certainly addressed problems that needed to be addressed. Before the late 1960s, when the women's movement came into full force, women were treated like sex objects, and there was not equal pay for equal work. There's now a level of respect for women that was not as evident, say, 50 years ago.
In your book you write about famous women who say they struggle with self-esteem. Yet we are in a culture that also promotes self-help material. How do you teach your daughter about healthy self-esteem while not training her to be self-focused?
My concern is the model that the entertainment industry puts forward. It's a one-value system of evaluating human worth, and that one value is beauty. Girls in their adolescent and middle-school years are going through puberty, and that, of course, brings about acne and gangly bodies. Those girls look at role models like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan. If they dare be a little overweight—not even fat, but slightly overweight—they hear about it all day long. It tears into the heart and the worth of a girl who just wants to be a princess, who wants to be loved by somebody.
if the father in that situation is not involved, if he doesn't affirm her, love her, tell her she's pretty, put his arm around her, and give her attention, she often looks for it elsewhere. The only thing she has to bargain with is her sexuality, and she thinks she'll be loved if she gives certain gifts of her sexuality. We know where that leads: He gets what he wants and dumps her, and she doesn't get what she wants, which is love.
You explained some of the stereotypes of young girls—they love flowers and are more easily wounded than boys. Are there stereotypes you think are harmful that shouldn't be reinforced?
Yes. In recent years—this is perhaps a product of the feminist movement—girls feel the need to emulate boys, even predatory boys. They are tough, rough, crude, profane, and sexually aggressive. Girls are often the ones to make advances toward boys, which takes away their need to be the initiators. That grows out of this empowerment movement that is related to some feminist ideals that are harmful to girls. Girls are more vulnerable, more easily wounded, and more sensitive in many ways. That is why it's so important for the parents to affirm them, build their understanding of their identity, and help them cope with the culture.
You also warn about the dangers of technology and entertainment. How do you suggest parents handle their children's activities on websites like Facebook and Twitter?
Parents have to know what technology their kids are using. Sexting is a terrible thing. Pornography is pervasive, and parents need to keep up with changes in technology and protect their kids. That's a tough assignment, because kids are ahead of them. Parents often have extremely demanding careers, and when they come home they have nothing left to give, so the culture will often take your kids to hell.
You mentioned your earlier book Dare to Discipline. Should parents discipline their girls differently from boys?
It depends on the individual. No, you don't follow a formula. You have to understand the temperament of the child and give her what you perceive her needing.
You wrote about your grandmother, who co-pastored a church with your grandfather. If your daughter were to show gifts of leadership and ministry, how would you encourage her to use those gifts as she grows up?
I would encourage her to use whatever gifts God gives her. You can draw the conclusion—which I do not say in this book—that women have to be locked into a narrow role, that they can't be creative and can't be leaders. That's ridiculous and certainly not the point of the book. But it is important that girls know what it means to be a woman. Males and females are unique and different, because their brains are different. There's not a limitation on girls. My grandmother was very strong, and so was my mother. She also knew what it meant to be a woman and wife and was very successful at it.
What do you see as the next area of gender tension in our culture?
I think there's going to be more of the same. Unfortunately, that probably means the continued deterioration of the family. When the family is in disarray, kids suffer. There will probably be more divorce, more single mothers and single fathers. We are not moving in a healthy direction. Our culture is moving toward greater sexual expression. Of course the Internet, with its pornography and influence, is going to be very difficult to counter. We need prayer and dedication to kids to bring them through it.
You said in your book that Karen Santorum would make a wonderful First Lady, and you've made some political endorsements. Do you plan on getting involved in politics?
I certainly plan on being involved in the culture and the moral issues I believe in. The institution of the family has very few friends in Washington. President Obama has already announced he's going to roll back the Bush tax cuts, which means a reinstitution of the marriage penalty tax in 2011. With the tax, married couples actually pay higher taxes than those living together out of wedlock. That's just one example of the disregard for the needs of families. You can be sure I'll do what I can to influence that in the future.
You have left a long legacy for Focus on the Family. Were you ready to leave?
Yes and no. I was there for 33 years; I was the founder and president and chairman, and I poured my life into that ministry. We went from a half-time secretary in 1977 to 1,400 employees and an international ministry that reached 220 million people every day. It's hard to walk away from something like that. We have asked the Lord, Tell us what you want us to do. We're happy to stay here and die on the job if that's what you want. But if it's not, we don't want to stay too long. Founders and presidents have a way of overstaying their welcome and then dying in their desk chair. They leave the organization in disarray because the younger generation has not been trained.
In 2001, I felt the Lord wanted me to step down as president. It was a hard thing to do, but I knew that his hand was at my back. We cried for three or four weeks, and on the last day we cried all day. People were so kind to us, yet it was time to go. But I'm healthy, and I have lots of energy, and I still have a lot I want to say. We started this new ministry called Family Talk, and it's taking off. I'm going back to 1977 and starting over.
Do you see Family Talk as competing at all with Focus on the Family?
It's kind of silly to think that the family, with all its problems across the country and around the world, needs only one ministry whose goal is to reach out to them. There's plenty of work to be done. We're not in competition any more than two Baptist churches in Atlanta are in competition. We're not trying to hurt each other, wound each other, or overtake each other. That's not going to happen.
My legacy doesn't matter. It isn't important that I be remembered. It's important that when I stand before the Lord, he says, "Well done, good and faithful servant." I want to finish strong. I don't want to make a mistake that would hurt the cause of Christ late in my life, so I'm going to do everything I can to bring many people to Christ. If he can use me in that regard through Family Talk, that will be my greatest legacy.
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Bringing Up Girls is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on James Dobson include:
Dobson and Dobson | "Doctor" returns to the radio as his wife's National Day of Prayer takes center stage. (May 7, 2010)
Q & A: James Dobson on the National Day of Prayer | Focus on the Family's founder gives his assessment of a judge's recent ruling that the day is unconstitutional. (May 6, 2010)
Dobson to Start New Nonprofit and Radio Program | Focus on the Family's founder is asking for donations for an organization called James Dobson on the Family. (December 31, 2009)
James Dobson Resigns from Focus on the Family | Dobson will still host the radio show, write a monthly newsletter, and speak on moral issues. (February 27, 2009)
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