James Dobson launched his evangelical empire, Focus on the Family, and became the most influencial Christian in America. He's lectured millions of parents on how to spank their children and advised President George W. Bush on how to spank the Supreme Court. How did the once lonely son of a preacher man rise to such heights? It's no miracle.
In the Dobson household there were “a million rules,” the son would later write, “regulations and prohibitions for almost every imaginable situation.” He was chewed out for using the expression “Hot dog!” and forbidden from uttering “darn,” “geez,” or “dad-gummit” because they were considered shorthand swear words. Yet Dobson was a rambunctious and mischievous kid. He loved roughhousing with his father; one of their favorite games was kick fighting. The elder Dobson would encourage the boy to kick him in the shins, blocking the blows with the bottom of his feet. “Jimbo,” or “Bo,” as his father called him, would fight back like a tiger, prompting his dad to “tap” him on the shins with his toe. “We would end up laughing hysterically, despite the bumps and bruises on my legs,” Dobson writes in Bringing Up Boys.
Once, as Dobson writes in The New Strong-Willed Child, Jimbo provoked a fight between a pug bulldog and a “sweet, passive Scottie named Baby” by throwing a tennis ball toward Baby: “The bulldog went straight for Baby’s throat and hung on. It was an awful scene. Neighbors came running from everywhere as the Scottie screamed in terror. It took ten minutes and a garden hose for the adults to pry loose the bulldog’s grip. By then Baby was almost dead. He spent two weeks in the animal hospital, and I spent two weeks in the doghouse. I was hated by the entire town.”
Myrtle Dobson was an amiable and social woman, but she didn’t hesitate to whack her son with a shoe or belt when she felt it was required. Consequently, Dobson writes, he learned at an early age to stay out of striking distance when he back-talked to his mother. One day he made the mistake of mouthing off when she was only four feet away and heard a 16-pound girdle whistling through the air. “The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles wrapping themselves around my midsection.” The girdle incident did not dampen his defiance, however. One evening, after Dobson’s mother forbid him from going to a dance, the recalcitrant teenager told her that he was going anyway; she picked up the telephone and called her husband. “I need you,” she said.
“What happened in the next few days shocked me down to my toes,” writes Dobson. His father canceled the next four years’ worth of speaking engagements, put the Oklahoma house up for sale, and took a pastor’s job in San Benito, Texas, a small town near the Mexican border. Dobson had two years of high school left, and when he started classes he found himself the target of a couple of bullies. Rather than turn the other cheek, Dobson wheeled around and threw his schoolbooks in the face of one annoying youth. “By the time he could see me again I was on top of him,” Dobson writes. Dobson also tried a little bullying himself, targeting a boy whom he sized up as a “sissy.” But the boy gave him such a thrashing that Dobson concluded bullying wasn’t for him.
In the fall of 1954, Dobson entered Pasadena College, a Christian liberal arts school in California now known as Point Loma Nazarene University. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall, with blond hair and a crew cut, and a formidable tennis player. Dobson’s classmates would remember him having a sharp tongue and a short temper. He hung out with the “in crowd,” writes one biographer, ignoring minor rules and regulations. Then he met Shirley Deere, a lovely woman with Jackie Kennedy’s poise and the first lady’s taste for beautiful clothes. Dobson was smitten and they began a courtship that included church service and dinner on the first date. There was no goodnight kiss at the end of the evening. Dobson didn’t even try to hold Shirley’s hand until the third date.
When he graduated from college, Uncle Sam was ready to shape him into a soldier and ship him off to a Cold War outpost. Instead, Dobson joined the National Guard and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Southern California. In August of 1960, he married Shirley. His father, a little stooped and heavier now, presided over the ceremony. James and Shirley Dobson set up house in a cramped apartment. To pay the bills, both husband and wife taught elementary school, with Dobson devoting weekends to working on his master’s degree. Their first child, a daughter, Danae, was born in the mid-’60s. Less than six years later, they adopted an infant son, whom they named Ryan.
Shirley, who loved flowers, candlelight, and family life, worked hard to make holidays special. On Valentine’s Day, she wrapped her gifts in red paper, spread a red tablecloth over the dinner table, and served spaghetti with red meat sauce, red Jell-O, and pink cupcakes. Dobson scarfed down whatever Shirley cooked, but other aspects of family life left him queasy. While changing Danae’s diapers, he stuffed cotton balls in his nostrils. After a hard day at the office, he didn’t like the kids crawling all over him when he walked through the door, so the family instituted a rule, giving Dad 30 minutes to unwind, read the paper, or watch the news before the fun could begin. Ryan was a handful. He couldn’t seem to concentrate, did poorly in school, and was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. A fifth member of the household, a stubborn little dachshund named Sigmund Freud, added to the chaos. When “Siggie” refused to go to bed one night, Dobson got out a belt and whacked him. The dog bared its teeth and Dobson gave it a second whack. “What developed next is impossible to describe,” writes Dobson in The New Strong-Willed Child. “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. I am still embarrassed by the memory of the entire scene.”