The Strong-Willed Child--Dr. James Dobson

Parent Effectiveness Training??

In 1985, James Dobson, PhD., founder of Focus on Family, wrote a book entitled, The Strong-Willed Child which quickly rose to an authoritative level for Christian parents seeking help with their unruly children.The Strong-Willed Child is two hundred and thirty-seven pages of practical principles and professional insight into the discipline of the strong-willed child. Dr. Dobson writes the book from a Christian perspective which apparently stems from the Integrates model of psychology, meaning it integrates psychology and religion. Also included in this book are Dobson's views of sibling rivalry, hyperactivity, self-esteem, and a general overview of the developmental stages of the child

Dr. Dobson flat-out states his views. He avoids highly technical psychological jargon simply because it is a book written for public consumption. This makes for an enjoyable and interesting text. The book is neither too lengthy nor too concise, but adequately covers his subject and fulfills his purpose.

Regarding the inherent nature of man, Dr. Dobson disregards the concept of the tabula rosa (or blank slate theory) by stating, "I have been watching infants and toddlers during recent years and have become absolutely convinced that at the moment of birth there exists in children an inborn temperament which will play a role throughout life." (pg. 19) He is adamant concerning his opinion of the current trend toward PET (Parent Effectiveness Training) which rejects parental authority and assumes that 1) "Children are basically 'good,' but they are corrupted by bad relationships with parents and others in their society," and 2) "We have no rights or obligations as parents to instill our values, attitudes, and beliefs in our children." (Pgs. 173-175). Needless to say, this view is not Biblical, and therefore Dr. Dobson's opinion is not a favorable one.

Chapter 1

"The Wild and Wooly Will"

Among various humorous anecdotes that describe his experience with strong-willed children, Dobson's view of original sin is presented. Dobson sees the entire human race as having the potential for willful defiance. This is due to their tendency toward rebellion against authority, and Dobson sees this as a result of original sin--Adam and Eve's disobedience to God. Thus, Dobson sees proper discipline as the 'shaping' of a child's will without destroying it. The author also distinguishes between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance. Dobson submits that childish irresponsibility is due to the immaturity of the child--the maturation level to which the child has developed, and which may inhibit him in comprehending what is expected of him. For this reason, Dr. Dobson feels that corporal punishment is reserved strictly for acts of willful defiance, and that no corporal punishment be administered to a child under seven months of age. The procedures involving the shaping of the will are further discussed in Chapter 2.

The final pages of Chapter 1 mention sibling rivalry and guilt feelings of the parents of a strong-willed child. Dobson feels that rivalry results from the conflict between two opposing personalities. This constant struggle for attention is often frustrating to the parents who may experience guilt feelings or anxiety. They may feel they have failed to become model parents and consequently blame themselves. To hopefully avoid this from occurring, Dobson admonishes the parent to begin early in the child's developmental stages, the toddler years, to shape the will in a loving but firm manner.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 essentially provides six guidelines for shaping the will:

  1. Define the boundaries.
  2. Respond with confident decisiveness.
  3. Distinguish between willful defiance and childish irresponsibility.
  4. Reassure and teach after the turmoil is over.
  5. Avoid impossible demands.
  6. Let love be your guide (Pgs.31-33)

You will also find summaries for the developmental stages of the child from birth through adolescence.

Chapter 3

This chapter deals with the aspect of protecting the spirit of the child. As stated earlier, the purpose of discipline is to shape the will without crushing it. Dr. Dobson believes this to be a reasonable and possible task. Children are extremely vulnerable and tender, and it is detrimental to a child's mental health to wound one's spirit. "The spirit," says Dobson, "relates to the self-esteem of the personal worth that a child feels. It is the most fragile characteristic in human nature, being particularly vulnerable to rejection and ridicule and failure." (Pg. 78) Shaping the will properly without damaging the spirit is done by the sixth guideline: "Let love be your guide."

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 lists some common errors made by parents in shaping their child's will. The most common error is believed by Dr. Dobson to be the "inappropriate use of anger in attempting to control boys or girls." (Pg.99).

Chapter 5

Sibling rivalry is the focus of this chapter. Three suggestions are given to the parents.

  1. Don't inflame the natural jealousy of children.
  2. Establish a workable system of justice.
  3. Recognize the target of sibling rivalry is you. (Pgs. 127-133) Direct quotes.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 defines and addresses the problem of hyperactivity among children. Dobson defines hyperactivity as "excessive and uncontrollable movement involving distractibility, restlessness, and a short attention span." (Pg. 146). Dobson suggests the wisdom of seeking medical counsel who may or may not prescribe medication depending on the severity of the problem. He further suggests to be consistent, to lower one's expectations, and to give the child responsibilities.

Chapter 7

This chapter involves an evaluation of Parent Effectiveness Training. Dobson expounds on how PET is ineffective, but that at most, its effective aspects are in learning to listen. (Pg. 168). Other than this, Dr. Dobson does not have much to say promoting this method. He uses scriptures to back up his claim that PET Is unbiblical. Jeremiah 17:9 and Psalm 51:5.

Chapter 8

Chapter 8 discusses the strong-willed adolescent. Dobson emphasizes the adolescent's need for dignity and self-esteem. Conflicts should be brought to light and dealt with accordingly and rationally, and the child must be made aware of both the desirable and undesirable consequences of his actions.

Chapeter 9

Chapter 9 is the final chapter and discusses the source for Dr. Dobson's views, the biblical foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He does not address psychotherapy or pathology in this work with regard to mental health issues other than to say that hyperactivity could be a medical problem involving the destruction of brain cells or the result of poor nutrition. No exact proof of these theories are give, though.


This book is a very practical work that addresses a major problem in society. Dr. Dobson is clearly organized in his writing and takes great care in distinguishing his approach from other non-biblical perspectives. Dr. James Dobson is to be commended in his efforts in writing this book.

** NOTE: In 2004, Dr. Dobson rewrote this popular book and entitled it, The New Strong-willed Child. The straight-talk continues as the expert expounds on this time-worthy subject. Both are available at


The Original and Updated Versions

Comments 1 comment

Cari Jean profile image

Cari Jean 5 years ago from Bismarck, ND

This is a great, thorough review of this book. I haven't read it but I have heard a lot about it. I do agree with Dr. Dobson on many of his teachings and think Focus on the Family is a great organization.

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