Dr. James Dobson (72 years old) announced yesterday that he's stepping down as chairman of Focus on the Family. In an odd twist of fate, my 12 year old daughter asked me about him just yesterday, based on charges made against him in a book she's reading about feminism. To her, his name had become synonymous with repression of women and obstruction of justice for reproductive rights. When I explained that he was the founder of Focus on the Family, she squinted her eyes.
Isn't Focus on the Family that group opposed to gay marriage?
"Yes, it is," I told her.
I saw her wheels turn.
So Dr. Dobson and Focus on the Family go together?
"Yes they do," I said.
She paused and suddenly her eyes lit up in surprise at her own thoughts: Mom, do you mean to say that Dr. Dobson and Focus on the Family are the same people who created the Odyssey tapes?
When I said yes, a look of utter astonishment passed over her face. Caitrin's first brush with complexity. How can the tapes she loved as a child come from a group she's supposed to oppose?
She asked me, "How is that possible?" I was happy to explain. After all, back when Jon and I lived in a tiny condo, having as many kids as the Lord would give us, on one income, while homeschooling, Focus on the Family's daily radio broadcast featuring Dr. Dobson (hosted by Mike Trout) filled the airwaves of my kitchen every single morning with laughter, good advice, companionship in my lonely task. We didn't have the Internet back then. Getting out to a library was a herculean effort for a young mother of three, four, five kids. Radio was a savior - a way to connect to ideas and resources in my own family room.
For ten years, I listened to Dobson's daily program and got much support and help in my tasks as a stay-at-home mom. I heard programs on homeschooling, Creative Memories photo albums, how to handle toddlers, ways to find joy in ordinary life, tips for keeping your marriage healthy, how to live on one income, decorating for Christmas on a budget, dealing with in-laws, recovering from an abusive childhood. I heard lectures given by some of the biggest Christian writers and speakers all without having to leave home to go to a big conference in another city. I felt encouraged in my daily life: I could do this, it wasn't too hard, I could be close to my children and keep my family together.
Despite the controversy over Dr. Dobson's approach to discipline (to spank or not to spank), I found him consistently on the side of the child when he'd unfold his real actions on behalf of children. I remember one time reading that he had hardly ever spanked his own two children at all. His motto that has guided me for my entire 21 years of parenting is to "get behind the eyes of the child" before you make any discipline decisions. He went on to say that if you can see the world the way the child sees it, you'll know whether or not you are dealing with a strong will or simple childishness. So while Dobson is known for the wooden spoon (and believe me, I condemn that thing and all its various incarnations, used by parents with far less compassion, empathic imagination and emotional insight than James Dobson), in my experience, he was the voice that reminded me again and again to understand and know my children, to build their self-esteem.
There was a point at which I remember thinking that if he died, I'd fly to Colorado Springs to be at his funeral. His presence in my life had become so crucial, I knew I'd want to grieve his passing with fellow fans.
I've loved Dr. Dobson.
Unfortunately, that love of the man slowly ebbed over the last decade and has turned to a loss of respect. While doling out distinctly Christian advice about families (and really, I didn't take too well to the messages on submission and headship at all), Dobson became enamored of the political process and the possibility of shaping policy through the muscle he'd developed in the family ministry. I was on board for the anti-abortion agenda, but I've never supported his position on gay marriage or prayer in the schools. Yet the courting of morally questionable Republicans (whose own families were hardly models of the kind of health and spirituality Focus intended to cultivate) and his increasingly shrill reaction to those in opposition made me withdraw support from Focus on the Family.
The nail in the coffin for me came when Mike Trout confessed to an emotional affair. It wasn't his affair that drove me away, but rather how Focus handled it. I have loved Mike Trout's participation on the radio show. It occurred to me that if Mike couldn't be rehabilitated by Focus on the Family, what hope was there for the rest of us? What pathway to healing and restoration is there if failure means being expunged?
So I shared some of this with Caitrin, as she tried to put together the picture she'd gleaned from her book with the one I expressed from my heart. She loved the Odyssey tape series and realized that there is more to the story of Focus on the Family than "Dobson=evil for women and gays." Though admittedly, I oppose their agenda openly now.
It doesn't surprise me that Dr. Dobson is both stepping down as the leader, while continuing the radio program. The trouble is, Dobson doesn't speak at all for the Gen X'ers. He doesn't speak to the Millenials. His fans are my age and older. Focus on the Family, the organization so large with so much mail that it has its own zip code, may be riding off into a Rocky Mountain sunset. It may, in fact, be time.