Teen Skepchick's Reality Checks

Sex Ed with James Dobson: Feelings, Nothing more than Feelings. With Bonus Rigid Gender Roles

This chapter is “A Notion called Emotion.”  It is very unfocused, and I’m not sure what exactly we learned here. Dobson gives us a story about his childhood dog dying and explains why he was sad, which I’m not sure why he needed to since a normal person would mourn a dog.  It is a little surprising from Dobson, sure, given that in another book he brags about beating his dachsund, but he is trying to convince us, I suppose, that adolescents have stronger emotions than adults.  Or possibly that mourning a dog is supposed to be a childish thing?  That upsets me. Last year, my childhood cat died at age 19.  I haven’t spend 19 years with most humans of my acquantance, why wouldn’t I mourn the death of a close companion of so many years?  I really don’t like that we feel we must give reasons for crying for the animals that we have loved for a long time when they leave us, or that it is discussed in a context of childishness.

Anyway, we are told that ” Your fears will be more frightening, your pleasures will be more exciting, your irritations will be more distressing, and your frustrations will be more intolerable. Every experience will appear king-sized during early adolescence. That’s why teenagers are often so explosive, why they sometimes do things without thinking and then regret their behavior later. You’ll soon learn that feelings run deep and powerful during the adolescent years.”

I’m not sure Dobson is correct.  This article from the BBC says that recent research suggests that teenagers develop emotionally faster than rationally, so impulsive behavior is not due to emotions.  Of course, more research is always needed, but I’m not sure how if at all, one can quantitatively measure intensity of emotions during different developmental periods, and memory of individuals is both anecdata and unreliable.  Personally I might respond to Dobson that I remember being generally more apathetic about everything during early adolescence, which, while memory and anecdata, is a counterpoint to just being told how I feel and experience the world.  I rather resent just being told what my feelings are like.  Anyway, Dobson goes on to reassure us that emotions will never stay very long in any given extreme and we should just accept a cyclical nature of our emotions and we are all quite normal, emotionally.  I would hate to be a teenager with mental problems reading this, because not all of us are quite normal with emotions that never stay in extremes very long.  I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that, as a psychologist, Dobson is kind of terrible.  After an aside telling us our impressions of events are unreliable (actually true, for everyone) and we should not just assume that God is telling us something (is that really a thing?) and we should pray a lot, we get to “talk heart-to-heart” about “the irritation and harsh feelings that are likely to occur between you and your parents during the teenage years.”  Now remember, in Dobson’s world. problems are never real problems.  So parents are never abusive and are always granting their children independence at the pace they know to be best.  Teenagers, meanwhile, still expect everything to be done for them, food to be provided to them, and their clothes ironed for them.   So if you live in the stereotype of the 50s, Dobson might be good reading, short as it is on fact and advice, and long on assumption and anecdotes of Dobson’s own adolescence, in which he was embarrassed to be seen with his parents.  We also get reassurances that what our parents have told us about Christianity is real:

There will probably come a time when you will say, “Hey!  Wait a minute.  Do I really accept what my parents have said?  Can I trust them to tell me the truth?  Let’s think this over before jumping to conclusions!”

This time of questioning is a very important event in your life as a young Christian.  It can be the moment when you develop your own relationship with God instead of riding on the religion of your parents. On the other hand, it can be a distressing time because of the confusion it brings.  That’s why I mention it to you now, so you won’t be too upset during those days when nothing seems certain anymore. If you can keep searching for answers to the major questions of life, you’ll eventually get satisfactory answers and solutions. And the chances are great that you’ll discover that your parents were right in the first place.

Fuck off Dobson.  It would be better if our parents with our best interests at heart hadn’t forced us into a religion before we learned to think critically and ask good questions in the first place.

Moving on, we are told to explore various activities and interests in order to develop our own identity.  We get told the story of a boy who is poor, so both his parents have to work, and he doesn’t have many interests, but he can still do something like join the scouts to develop who he is as a person.  Trying new things isn’t bad advice, but it’s so wrapped in banal descriptions of what Dobson thinks people and poverty are that reading this makes me want to sit sullenly in my room and do nothing.  One has to wonder how much of the stereotype of sullen teenagers comes out of the natural human response to the way adolescents are talked at by people like Dobson and his ilk.

Last, but not least irritating:

One more comment needs to be made in regard to your search for identity, and it has to do with finding the proper masculine o\role.  You see, until now you’ve been a little girl or a little boy, but soon you’re going to be a grown man or woman.  Girls will begin taking on the behavior that is appropriate for women, and boys will adopt the very different style of men. But before these changes occur, you have to know what is masculing and what is feminine.  Those differences are not as clear today as they were when your parents were children, and many young people have a very hazy sexual identity.


There we have it, these are our boxes into which we all must fit, coupled with a complaint that society these days doesn’t necessary agree with fitting into boxes.  After a cutesy story (how amusing and relatable of the good doctor Dobson!) about a girl who doesn’t want to play baseball because it is unfeminine, but wants to play house as the daddy, and so is obviously confused, we receive this final word on how to properly fit into our boxes:

the easiest way to learn how to play the role of your particular sex, whether it be man or woman, is to watch an adult whom you respect. Try to be like him or her.

We are not to look beyond our immediate (and probably parent approved) circle of adult acquaintances who are most likely of our culture, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class, for a role model.  Otherwise differences in attitudes and ideas might enter our communities via our search for identity.  That would be unthinkable. I mean that literally, in that Dobson would never think about people outside of his firm and reductive ideas of what people are like.

Featured image credit: Nic Walker via Flickr

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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