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Saturday, July 3, 2010

FINALLY the girls get their book! James Dobson's "Bringing Up Girls"

When I was a freshman at Oral Roberts University in the late 1980s, one of the first things I learned was to hold doors open for the young ladies. There was no etiquette class for freshmen, no university-wide rule, no obvious reason for this at all. There was just a culture of the young men taking care of the young ladies. For anyone who wasn't born yet then who might be reading this, let me emphasize: this was the eighties, not the fifties. Holding a door open for a young lady when you weren't on a date (or maybe even when you were on a date) was certainly not the societal norm. But I think I learned more about servanthood and about respect for the opposite sex from that one tiny repeated act than anything else before, or maybe even since. What's more, the young ladies expected that kind of treatment; some would even refuse to go thorough a door with a young man unless he opened and held it for her. Training girls to understand that they deserve dignity and respect and should expect it from the males in their lives is a main focus of James Dobson's new book, Bringing Up Girls. To some the book may seem unforgivably old-fashioned in its treatment of the fair sex. Others will find something to get offended by, and some may even be astonished at some of the ideas expressed (I know I was!) But I think if you open your mind a little bit, forgive Dr. Dobson for some attitudes that may seem at first blush a little too much like something out of Leave It To Beaver for the twenty-first century, and look at the heart of what he is saying, you'll get some valuable insight before you're done.

This book is, for most intents and purposes, a follow-up to Dr. Dobson's 2001 book, Bringing Up Boys. If you've read that book, you will see a lot of similarities, particularly in the early chapters. Dr. Dobson seems to like to break the ice by including a few "lighthearted" letters from "fans" (in this case, some of them were unintentionally funny letters from child "anti-fans" who did not appreciate Dr. Dobson's stance on corporal punishment in previous books!) and telling a few stories about childhood. He has a grandfatherly sentimentality that is pretty hard to resist. But that sentimental side doesn't stop him from being brutally honest about some things, and that made some of the later chapters a tough read for me.

Like Bringing Up Boys, this book contains a lot of statistics about its subject: in this case, females of all kinds (not just little girls, but also teenagers and even grown women.) The basic theme of the second and third chapters, in fact, is that society is a dangerous place for females. There are extensive discussions about such things as the fragility of a girl's ego, the harmful effect of certain things in media, the aggressive marketing of those things to females, the accessibility of materials on the Internet through both computers and portable devices such as cell phones, the moral anti-absolutism of our 21st-century culture, and cultural changes such as the acceptance of public nudity. There was one section I found particularly difficult to get through - it was about "cutting," a practice in which people (often teenagers) will physically cut their skin with a knife or other implement in an attempt to dull emotional pain with physical pain. I've known that cutting existed for some time, but revisiting it in such detail was chilling. I found myself wading through those chapters as though I was hip-deep in toxic water; the information is awful to be exposed to, but you've got to get through it to get where you're going.

Then sometimes I would come to a spot in the book that seemed like a breath of fresh air. When I got to chapter 16 ("Good News About Girls") it was such a relief after spending the two previous chapters wallowing in the filth of media culture. The odd thing is that the whole point of the book is that the danger of a girl falling into those dire straits is greatly reduced by the presence of loving, involved parenting as she grows up. The kind of negative statistics in the "hip-waders" chapters would seem to be the kind of thing you would use to convince someone to read the book. Once I'm reading it, I've already decided that I want some help and advice; I don't need to be convinced. All that to say, I think maybe the book dwells on the negative a little more than is necessary; some parts are wastelands of discouraging numbers and trends. You can go for chapters and chapters and never actually learn anything practical to use in your parenting. Sometimes I felt like saying, "Okay, Dr. Dobson, you made your point twelve pages ago. Growing up is hard for girls. Can we get on to how I can help my girl now, please?"

And of course, the "how can I help" information is there, too. In fact, I would encourage any mother of a girl to at least take a look at chapters 5 and 7, and any father of a girl should at least take a look at chapters 8, 9, and 10. Chapter 8, in particular, is a must-see for dads: it is a series of heart-rending first-person stories, told by young women in college, of the huge effect their fathers have had on their lives. The basic message of the book is that girls need to be endowed with a sense that they are valuable, not commodities, and the girl's parents are in the primary position to do that for her as she is growing up. If we parents can help our daughters understand that they are valuable persons, they will be less likely to do things like using their sexuality to get what they want or trying to hold on to the affection of a boyfriend who is finished with the relationship. The idea is not to exert control over females, but to free them to control themselves as adult women. To empower them to not feel like they have to resort to drastic measures in order to get what they want. To free them to want what they really want, instead of what society all around them screams that they should want.

There are a number of opinions Dr. Dobson expresses in the book that strike me as controversial. He is against mothers of young children working outside of the home unless there is a dire need, for example. He is against same-sex couples raising children. He is against co-ed sports, particularly with teenagers (he believes that having members of the opposite sex on the team changes the dynamics of how the team works together and reduces the value of the whole thing for everybody). He believes in sexual abstinence before marriage for both genders. He says that casual sex with multiple partners physically rewires the brain and makes the eventual relationship with a lifelong partner less satisfying in the end. He seems to believe that body piercing is psychologically related to cutting (really? What about one earring per ear? Is that cutting? What about two? or three? Why is a belly-button different from an earlobe?) I could see many people being turned off by some of those assertions - although presumably, the kind of person who is going to strongly disagree with those kinds of things is probably not going to be reading books by James Dobson anyway. I personally have very little trouble with most of them, and I see at least a grain of truth in each. But if any of those statements bothers you more than a little tiny bit, you might seriously consider whether you want to get into this book.

I found his discussion of what he calls the "princess movement" particularly interesting. This is the same thing that I've referred to for years now as the "pink aisle"... you know, the toy aisle that is almost blindingly pink because it's where all of the "girl toys" are. These days, a lot of the "pink aisle" toys have Ariel, Snow White, Cinderella, Pocahontas, and other "princesses" from the Disney repertoire on them, and little girls eat them up. He characterizes the movement as a (mostly) positive thing, giving girls an outlet for their natural "girliness" and showing them that it's OK to not be the same as the boys. However, he does criticize culture's obsession with "beauty" in a lengthy section that, oddly, turns a very sympathetic eye on celebrities Anna Nicole Smith and Farrah Fawcett, both of whom suffered during their lifetimes because they were physically desirable (he quotes Farrah as saying, "How would you like to be photographed every day of your life?") The general sense is that a girl needs to be taught that she is a princess, yes, but not only because of physical beauty; she is a princess because she is a child of God.

Chapter 11 discusses the Father Daughter Purity Ball movement. This is a kind of formal party, sort of like a prom, to which dads take their daughters. Dads and daughters dress up in formal clothes, they dance, and the daughter pledges to her dad that she will keep her virginity until marriage, and the dad pledges back that he will help her protect her virginity. That probably oversimplifies things a bit, but that's the main gist of it. I had heard of this before, and it has always seemed a bit odd to me, maybe a little bit creepy... and this chapter did not change my mind. The whole thing extends the (perfectly okay) princess fantasy unnaturally from childhood nearly into young adulthood, and uses it to convince a girl to sign a contract that specifies what they will do sexually. But the way I see it, no document is going to change someone's mind in the heat of passion. And honestly, I'm not really sure that it's the father's job to "protect" his daughter's virginity; I think it's the father's job to teach the girl what she needs to know so that she will guard her own virginity. I'm going to teach my daughter what I believe the Word of God says about sexuality, but I'm not going to stand out on my porch with a shotgun waiting for her to come home from a date (I probably will wait up, though!) If she makes the wrong choice and has sex with a boy, what good will a written, signed contract do anyway? It will only make her feel guilty, and she'll hide the whole thing from me. That's not productive. It seems to me that taking your daughter to one of these things amounts to doing something outlandish to make up for years of not properly training her like you should have been doing all along. I'm sure in many or most cases it's not like that, and if one day my daughter asks me to take her to one of these, certainly I'll do it, but it seems over the top to me. Dr. Dobson's take on them is very positive, but personally, the whole idea strikes me as weird.

I had a similar reaction to the charm bracelet story in Chapter 17. Essentially, the story is about parents encouraging their daughter to stay away from any affectionate contact with boys until she is sure of the one she is going to marry. This includes kissing, saying "I love you," and even holding hands with a boy in addition to getting engaged and getting married. Their encouragement is in the form of a charm bracelet, the (rather expensive) charms of which must be given away to the first boy with which she has that sort of contact. The girl in the story, as it turns out, was wise enough to use that gentle pressure put on her by loving parents to keep her out of trouble, and after she was married, she still had the whole charm bracelet. But I have to wonder: is this bribery? Is this replacing a strong moral upbringing with a materialistic love for jewelry? It seems extreme to me, especially penalizing their daughter for even holding a boy's hand. (For that matter, what if she is in a class at school and everybody is holding hands as part of a lesson? What if they are holding hands in Sunday School for a prayer time? In my family, we hold hands to pray over our meals. Would those situations count if she happened to be next to a boy?) It's not my style to manipulate someone by giving them a gift with strings attached. Then again, maybe that's why I'm not a psychologist. Maybe that's the language that a little girl speaks most fluently, and I just don't know it yet.

All in all, though, I enjoyed the book very much. I didn't enjoy the "toxic statistic" parts, but I enjoyed the rest of it, even the parts with which I had a difference of opinion, because I enjoy seeing someone else's perspective. I enjoyed hearing about Dr. Dobson's daughter Danae, in part because her love of dogs reminded me of my little girl. In fact, it wasn't just my daughter that I saw reflected in the pages... I sometimes saw my wife there, too! I came away from the book understanding that for girls and women, relationships are the number one key to everything. If I can maintain a healthy relationship with my girl, she has a way-better-than-average chance at leading a very successful, happy life. If daughters of loving fathers look for a mate who is like their dad, I want to make it next to impossible for my daughter to find a man who will measure up, not because I want her to be alone (I don't) but because I want her to be with someone who loves her, and who loves God, at least as much as I do.

Are Dr. Dobson's perspectives old-fashioned? Sometimes, maybe... or maybe they're not old-fashioned, but a jarring reminder of a higher standard that should be held toward and by women. Girls and women are valuable and precious, and should be treated as such. If we all treated our daughters like princesses (not the spoiled kind, but the kind who know that royalty also comes with responsibility), and they all acted like princesses... wouldn't the world be a great place to be? When my princess grows up, I hope she still has the same attitude she had the other day when she wanted her mama to take her somewhere. "We can't go right now, sweetie," my wife told her. "Daddy has the car." My little girl replied simply, "Okay. I fly!"

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Tyndale Publishing.


Anonymous said...

Apparently Dobson's parenting wisdom does not work. His son is divorced and remarried and his aging, forty-something daughter has never married.

TulsaMJ said...

Actually, I don't know that whether or not a woman gets married is a fair barometer of whether her parents did a good job. In fact, there is Biblical evidence that some people simply aren't interested in getting married at all (Matthew 19:10-12). I can't say that I know what her exact situation is, but I can say that I think equating a successful life as a woman to getting married before a certain age is a little out of line. You and I don't know God's will for Danae Dobson. Besides, I know about long-term bachelorhood first-hand: I was 29 years old before I even ever dated a girl (I married her, and we're still married now 11 years later!)

As to Ryan's divorce - indications on the Web are that his first wife left him, despite his efforts to get her back. I don't know the full story, of course, but assuming that that's it, many would consider abandonment Biblical grounds for divorce. Now, choosing to marry someone who would one day treat him like that was probably a bad decision, but people make mistakes. Ryan is remarried now and heads up a ministry of his own: I know firsthand about people making mistakes, too; my wife was married, abandoned, and divorced before she met me.

If Dr. Dobson's children were Adam Lambert and Lindsay Lohan, I think you would have a pretty good case for "Dobson's parenting advice doesn't work". But they're not. To all appearances, they are clean-cut, respectable people, flawed like me and you but doing their best to make a difference in God's Kingdom.