And on the Eighth Day, Dr. Dobson Created Himself

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.

July 2006

“Shirls” didn’t have Siggy’s rebellious temperament and usually deferred to her husband when it came to important decisions. And that’s exactly the way it should be, Dobson writes in Bringing Up Boys. “Because it is the privilege and blessing of women to bear children,” he observes, “they are inclined toward predictability, stability, security, caution, and steadiness. Most of them value friendships and family above accomplishments or opportunities. That is why they often dislike change and resist moving from one city to another. The female temperament lends itself to nurturance, caring, sensitivity, tenderness, and compassion.”

Though friendships and family are enough for women, according to Dobson’s worldview, he wasn’t about to settle for that. He rose through the ranks of academia, joining the staff of Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles in 1966, receiving a Ph.D. in child development from USC in 1967, and landing a prestigious position as an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine in 1969. The hospital and university jobs left him one free day a week, and he began dabbling in the public-speaking field. He talked at church gatherings, PTA meetings, and any other forum that would have him. In his own way, he was following in his father’s footsteps, spreading the gospel not as an ordained minister but as a psychologist.

Shirley and James Dobson found themselves trying to raise a family in the modern-day Gomorrah of Los Angeles. It was the late ’60s and all around them were signs of societal decay: riots, assassinations, mass protest marches, drugs, hippies, free love, and abortion on demand. Dobson was deeply dismayed and vowed to do something about it. “I was watching everything I cared about being mocked and vilified, and it gave me this passion to do something to protect and preserve it. It came right out of that revolutionary period in American history,” he told biographer Dale Buss.

With the ranks of potheads and peaceniks swelling, Dobson declared that it was time to bring back the paddle. In his first book, Dare to Discipline, published in 1970, he tells parents it’s OK to spank their little ones as long as it’s done in a loving, careful environment. The best place to spank a child is on the buttocks, he writes, recommending a “neutral object,” such as a switch or a paddle. The physical discipline can begin with a thump to the fingers “just enough to sting” when the toddler is 18 months old, and it should stop by the time the child is 10 or 12. Teens should never be spanked, he advises, because it provokes great resentment and doesn’t work anyway. The book also contains several important caveats to the would-be spanker: Parents who find that they actually “enjoy” spanking their children should probably not do it, and parents who have been abused themselves should stay away from the practice.

Dobson’s book struck a chord with Americans who longed for stability and order. Dare to Discipline became a bestseller (4.5 million copies have been sold to date) and started Dobson on his road as author. He began cranking out books with the rapidity of a John Updike or a Joyce Carol Oates. Though his books lacked the novelists’ literary flair, they had a sympathetic tone and mixed common-sense advice with personal anecdotes, psychology, and scripture. In 1974, Dobson’s second book, Hide or Seek, was published. What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Women hit the bookstores next. And a few years later, The Strong-Willed Child, which repackaged some of his spanking notions, made its debut.

Some children who were on the receiving end of spankings still resent him. Writing about The Strong-Willed Child on Amazon.com, a Florida woman said that the Dobson-inspired spankings administered by her mother created scars that have lasted a lifetime. “I have spent my entire adulthood attempting to re-parent myself and overcome the psychological damage my mother created,” she writes. “My mother admitted to me several years ago that had she known spanking would have produced the long-term effects I live with and destroyed our relationship, she would not have followed Mr. Dobson’s advice. Unfortunately, her timing was too late.”

James Dobson has always been conscious of his image. He won’t allow photographers to shoot him from the right side—where the hairline is in rapid retreat—and has been known to halt interviews midsentence if a photographer breaks the rule. James Dobson’s official portraits, book jacket photos, and website images all present a similar profile: chin raised and mouth smiling just enough to reveal a nice row of uppers. Only his voice seems to have aged and is filled now with a grandfatherly crackle, but in Dobson’s line of work, that’s a plus. Pitched slightly on the high side, it sounds like a scratchy vinyl record. Audible in the twang are the plains of Oklahoma and the sagebrush country of Texas, and between the words are tiny pauses that suggest humility and vulnerability.

Although the homespun delivery seems completely natural now, Dobson worked hard to perfect his speaking style, learning to keep the pauses and stumbles in so he would appear more spontaneous, listening for an audience’s coughing and restlessness that signaled he hadn’t yet grabbed his listeners. Tears, writes Gil Alexander-Moegerle, were the yardstick by which Dobson judged a speech successful. “Jim would sometimes pray before a speech, ‘Lord, do it again.’ What he meant by this prayer was that the previous time he had given this particular speech a wave of emotion had hit him and his audience, resulting in such deep feelings that tears flowed.”