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The Dobson refrigerator and the Skinner box

October 29, 2012

Cool Dobson

After the mush and the thunder, we have the cool Dobson model. Dobson believes in corporal punishment but he doesn’t believe we should discipline in anger. He advises that we cool off first and then administer punishment.

Sounds very balanced, doesn’t it? Get over your anger; then administer the proper and proportionate punishment. If you are dispassionate, you will be just. Certainly it is very important for anyone who advocates or even seems to advocate corporal punishment to be sure that there is nothing intemperate about it, and that it has no possibility of spilling into abusive behavior. So that’s good.

But it’s not enough. Anger that is suppressed is still anger, and only a deep maturity will help you know when you are suppressing your anger and when you are really over it. And what then? Just as your child starts to feel that things have blown over, suddenly you are punishing him. And what if that upsets him and he says something that “makes” you mad again while you are engaged in punishment? Then what? Stop and wait another hour or two before resuming what he knows is coming, now worse than before?

I need to say a word here about a childhood experience. Well, it was just an observation, really, but it was formative for me. I was sitting on my front doorstep in the house where I grew up, and across the street, there were three ugly brick houses where one gracious old house had been torn down when the elderly couple who grew corn and made crabapple jelly finally died. So, three new couples lived there, and a little boy was running around the house in the center, crying desperately, and screaming to be let in. His mother had put him out of the house because he was naughty. This was the event that made me believe in spanking. It’s quick; it’s over.

In the progressive state of Delaware, spanking is now against the law. Fine; maybe their social services directors never saw how exile functions; maybe they are overwhelmed with abuse victims. So don’t spank if it’s illegal and don’t do it if you know it’s edgy for you.

But that’s not the last word. Any form of punishment can become abusive; none are pleasant or what? They wouldn’t be punishments if they were pleasant.

Actually, if there’s anything positive about corporal punishment, it’s that it can be over at once and you can move on. That is the single value that you need to carry into whatever discipline choices you make. Don’t drag it out and make it the center of your family experience.  The danger, always, but a danger that is actually greater when it is delayed, is that the punishment won’t end the episode, but that new anger will spill into the relationship and prevent the kinds of things you most want to see: peace, cooperation, wisdom, love, rational and gracious choices…

The Dobson refrigerator won’t make these things happen, because it’s not over. Punishment administered in cold fury is not nicer than punishment administered in hot fury and if Dobson understood this, he didn’t make it clear to his devotees. He made a point; it is no more than a point.

Behavior Mod

So the simple answers, mushy, thunderous, and refrigerated, are insufficient. Next comes behavior modification, the complex system of rewards and punishments that, like horse training, is sure to have results. We owe it to B.F. Skinner who thought he could get reliable results this way. There are books and books of how to do time-outs and make charts and cookies; and all of the time, we have these admonitions to stick to our discipline no matter what.

  • Really, no matter what? Do any of these behavior mod folks have more than one child? So what if you are gently telling Jimmy he has to pick up his blocks before you count to three and Carla pushes her sister off the couch right into the pile, so Scott attacks Carla with a library book – the closest large thing at hand…? We’ll leave it at that.
  • Behavior modification depends on having one or maybe two children (at least three years apart!) and being able to give your full attention to an offending child every time you think he needs discipline according to your tidy rules all spelled out. It never considers that you might be needing to rethink your priorities, not enforce them; it never considers that your disciplinary priorities are nested in the wild ride called life, or that meantime, you are weathering the storm of your own pursuit of personal maturity.

It’s worse than that. Behavior modification treats children like animals in training. Nice animals, valued animals, but animals. It’s just not personal. You forget that the purpose of the family is to bring new people into the human community and even into the body of Christ. Discipline not about control; that has its place. But it’s about the human person, especially about teaching the most vulnerable new human persons, what it means to love, to make way, to live for each other. That’s just not something that comes by any technique.

I will talk about technique later; I’ll give you an organized seven-step plan that will let you use any technique you like and a few that you don’t. But it’s just a plan. It won’t give you a heart or a motivation; it won’t center your discipline, so let me go on.

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