Review of James Dobson’s Preparing for Adolescence

I left this review on Amazon after purchasing a 1-cent copy of this book to verify for myself some of the stupid bullshit that made up my ‘sexual education.’  Amazon wants me to rate the book, so here it is.  Note: I don’t tackle the deeper problems of gender essentialism or unhealthy attitudes about sex here since I wanted this review to be palatable to potential buyers.  Most of these potential buyers will be semi-conservative Christians, so I wanted to discuss the book’s shortcomings within that framework.  Besides, the review is already too long!

Rating: 1 star

I understand that many Christian parents will feel themselves in a bind when it comes to educating their students about sex, puberty, anatomy, and influences that a teenager may face at school and in their neighborhood.  They may want to find an education book that reflects their values while still having a straight talk about sex and bodies.  Preparing for Adolescence claims to provide just that, so I can see how it would be attractive.

DO NOT BE FOOLED.  This book is packed with misinformation, shame-inducing language, even outright cruelty, and does very little to enlighten teenagers about their bodies, sex, or even modern challenges facing teens.  I’m going to break this down into a few topics that the book addresses and bring up some of the serious problems.  Full disclosure, I was homeschooled with this book as my only sexual education apart from a few side-discussions added by my mother (which, while limited, were still MUCH more informative than this piece of rubbish).  As a result, I was woefully ignorant about sex, bodies, normal behavior, bodily changes, attraction, STDs, and more until I entered college.  Needless to say, that is NOT a safe situation for any teenager.

PUBERTY:  This is primarily what my mother purchased the book for… to explain my sister’s and my changing bodies, as well as explaining the process that boys go through as well.  I am very glad that she gave us her own personal lecture about menstruation, because Dobson does not even provide the bare minimum of knowledge about these topics.  His discussion of menstruation reads like a weird fairytale, describing it as a miraculous and exciting time when a girl’s body prepares for pregnancy (he calls the uterus as a “special pouch” for holding a baby and the vagina as a “special opening” for the baby to exit).  So much for having a mature discussion.  He spends a couple of pages rambling on about how miraculous and wonderful pregnancy is and how it is the most “amazing thing that ever can happen”, but entirely fails to mention what a tampon is, fails to mention that girls may experience cramping, does not discuss what a normal flow is, does not discuss the emotional changes that can happen, does not discuss any other symptoms a girl or woman might experience during her menstrual cycle (like bloating, discomfort, breast soreness, appetite changes, etc).  He does say that girls should ask their mother if they think their period is abnormal, but since Dobson never explains what is normal, I have no idea how he expects a young woman to know when she has cause to be alarmed!  I know I certainly didn’t!  The ONLY other thing he mentions in the female puberty section is that girls will develop larger breasts.  He fails to explain that women will grow body hair, may get acne, their body fat distribution may change, etc.*  Apparently knowing about the miraculous-special-amazing-super-delight-miracle of menstruation and enlarging of breasts is all women need to know!

*EDIT: I did find in glancing through it a third time that body hair is mentioned (it was easy to miss) and acne is discussed in a different section.  I would say that my initial lack of notice of it is mostly because of Dobson’s incredibly poor organization and his disproportionate focus on certain aspects of development that made it easy to miss other details. He in fact spends a short section discussing acne, but it is placed in between the sections for boys and girls so I missed it when glancing through.

But the section for boys is not any better.  He describes this much more briefly and without all of the fairytale language (which makes me think that “special” is the word Dobson tends to repeat when the conversation he’s having makes him uncomfortable).  He describes growth spurts, growing body hair, and changing voice.  He also says that your “sexual organs will grow to look more like that of an adult man’s”  but he never explains what that actually means or what that will look like.  He also fails to even mention the word TESTICLES anywhere, so presumably a boy will have a startling surprise when those descend.  There are no pictures anywhere in the book, so neither sex will have any idea what the body of the other sex looks like and, in my case, I never really even knew what my own body looked like because I was too nervous and ashamed to look down there.  But we’ll get to that, when Dobson discusses…

SEX:  I think a large reason that Dobson is so attractive to Christian parents is because he holds conservative Christian views, but he actually discusses sex in his book.  Supposedly.  Let’s see what he actually says about it.

He starts with a full paragraph, explaining that many people are shy about the topic of sex or avoid it, but that he’s going to treat his readers like adults and be open with them and withhold no information whatsoever.  He then explains what sex is in two sentences.  And that’s it.  Two sentences.  Those two sentences explain that a penis becomes hard and straight, a man and woman lie together and the penis goes in the vagina, they move some, and then they get a “tingly sensation”.  That’s it.  He does not mention ejaculation.  He does not even have it in him to use the word “orgasm” or explain what that is.  He does not make any allusion to the idea that orgasm may be difficult or easy or that sex should be done carefully to ensure that it is comfortable for both partners, since it can otherwise be painful.  And, fundamentally, his entire 2-sentence description flew over my head when I was a pre-teen reading this book because I still had no idea what a penis really looked like or how it can get “hard and straight” or how to get it “in there” or anything else that might help me understand.  Dobson claims to withhold nothing and treat his readers maturely, but there is nothing here that actually would enlighten a kid that doesn’t already know everything (and thus would have no need for this book).

So, after the first paragraph explaining that he will withhold nothing, and 2 sentences explaining what sex is, what does he spend the rest of this section on?  Misinformation and shaming!  To his credit, he first states that partners may have sex often or not, depending on what works for them, which I think is a good thing to note and is sometimes overlooked.  But then he spends a couple of pages explaining how dangerous and horrible sex is if you have it before marriage.  Now, I’m not going to complain too much about his aversion to premarital sex here, because I am sure many readers would agree due to personal convictions.  Rather, what I take issue with is the WAY that he addresses it and the disproportionate amount of time he spends on it.  Two sentences to explain sex… multiple pages about how terrible premarital sex is.  And Dobson goes to horrifying lengths in his attempt to scare kids away from sex, relying on ignorance, misinformation, and outright lies.   He claims that if you’ve had sex already, you will NEVER appreciate it with your current partner and will never be fulfilled (how horrible must that be for rape or abuse victims to know that they will never be able to enjoy sex with their life-long partner???)  He claims that people who have premarital sex will often experience a change of personality to become cold and bitter and miserable (so having premarital sex is not just bad, it will turn you into a bad person!).  He also warns of STDs that could kill you or make your life miserable (although he goes into very little detail) but never actually explains how to avoid them aside from “you and your partner must never have sex until you marry.”  Well, that’s nice, but you can only control your own behaviors, not your partner’s.  So what if a young man or woman meets a partner that HAS had sex before?  There is no discussion of how to protect yourself, get tested, or anything.  Just “getting an STD could be a DEATH SENTENCE” and then “but you don’t have to worry about it as long as you and your partner both have never had sex.”  How is this remotely safe for a teenager?  And throughout all of this discussion, he never once mentions redemption.  He never mentions forgiveness or renewal or being able to rebuild a happy life even if you “messed up” and had premarital sex.  Nothing.  Just “if you have premarital sex, you will never appreciate sex with your current partner, you will become a cold, miserable person, and you might die.  So don’t do it.”  This is just blatant scare tactics and manipulation based on lies and it is a horrible and unhealthy message for children to absorb.

SEXUALITY:  I am separating this from “sex” because I want to discuss Dobson’s ideas of attraction and sexual interest.  First, Dobson states that boys will start feeling an interest in girls’ bodies.  He says they will become fascinated with “curves, softness, even their feminine feet”.  Honestly, I find his description of what makes women attractive to men very limiting and a little ridiculous (not all women are curvy and soft!), but I’ll give it a pass.  He then says that girls will not find boys’ bodies attractive in the same way, but rather they will be attracted to personalities.  He later repeats this, saying that men are attracted physically while women are attracted emotionally.  This is JUST NOT TRUE.  Books like Dobson’s led me to believe that women do not experience sexual attraction, only emotional attraction.  This is a very confusing and damaging message to internalize.  It taught me that if I wasn’t attracted to my boyfriend, that was normal and good.  It taught me that if he pressured me for sex and I didn’t want it, that was normal.  It taught me that if he wanted to be physical and I didn’t, that was normal.  I did not realize that I was attracted to women until I was in my 20’s, because I had always assumed that my disinterest and revulsion at the idea of physicality with men was NORMAL.

And speaking of homosexuality, he mentions it only once in this book (which is probably good).  He says “homosexuality is a sign of serious problems, but it is rare and it is not very likely that you will be one.”  If your child happens to feel attraction to the same sex, this is a good way to deepen their shame and hopelessness.  They have a rare condition that is ominously described as a “sign of serious problems.”  How is a child supposed to do anything but hide their sexuality in fear if this is the only thing they are told about it?

Oh, and before I leave this section, I should add that Dobson has a list of questions near the end of the sex/puberty chapter that he says are common questions that young teens might have.  One of them is asking if God will punish them for sexual thoughts.  Rather than answering the question, he simply states that “you will likely experience sexual thoughts as you go through adolescence.  You may feel guilt or shame about this.”  That’s it.  No indication that a teenager need not feel guilty for their thoughts and feelings or that sexual attraction is nothing to be ashamed of.  Just a statement that they will feel guilty and ashamed.  I assume this means he thinks the guilt and shame is normal and good.  Ugh.

GENDER:  Dobson believes in gender essentialism, so he thinks that women and men are inherently very different and their “woman-ness” and “man-ness” is an integral part of their being.  I have no interest in arguing with this, as I assume many readers will agree.  However, I will again take issue with the way that he addresses this.  It is confusing and terrifying as heck.

Dobson discusses this as a side-note at the end of one of his chapters.  He states that it is of extreme importance that boys learn to grow up to be men and girls learn to grow up to be women.  He expresses many times how IMPORTANT it is that boys and girls learn the correct way to be masculine and feminine.  But after putting so much enormous weight on this, he then leaves the reader with absolutely no understanding of what that’s supposed to look like.  He suggests only that a child find role models to try to model their behavior after.  This is not a bad idea, except that how is a boy or girl supposed to know which role models are correctly “masculine” or “feminine”?  Dobson does not care to define it, so teens are simply left with a ringing warning about how improper it will be for them to fail to live up to their gender, but no indication of how to go about it.  And, for the record, these sorts of vague admonishments frequently result in girls and boys feeling guilt and shame if they do not fit all of the stereotypical behaviors of “masculine” and “feminine”, even if the parent themselves had no intention of restricting their children to quite such a rigid set of behaviors.

RELATIONSHIPS:  I could not bring myself to re-read ever page of Dobson’s relationship section because I was so turned off at the beginning, so my discussion here is limited.  All I can say is that he opens up the section by painting an imaginary storyline of a couple that falls in love young and marries.  Apart from the couple being young, Dobson seems to paint them as doing everything right.  They meet, they find they share interests, they really enjoy each other’s company, their families like them, they spend time together, they fall in love, they get married (no premarital sex).  And then, for some reason, Dobson states that they start fighting on their honeymoon.  They lash out at each other and then suddenly feel bitter and resentful.  Rather than making up, going to counseling, or improving communication, he says that their life spirals into a hell of fighting and hating and avoiding each other for the rest of their days, wondering what went wrong, and inflicting pain on their child who will forever know that his mommy and daddy don’t love each other and will grow up miserable.  Wow.  That escalated quickly.

This catastrophe is all because… well Dobson doesn’t even really fully explain it, apart from indicating that the couple may have been too young and that their love apparently wasn’t genuine.  But honestly, it just isn’t made clear HOW they could have known that their love wasn’t genuine.  All that is implied is that it was wrong and somehow the couple involved should have just been more godly or something and none of it would have happened.  This is again just blatant scare tactics, trying to frighten teens away from having relationships, without giving them any tools for knowing what actually IS a good relationship.  I can understand if his point is to encourage teens not to rush into marriage or to be selective with their dating partners, but that is not what this story accomplishes.  It simply says “you might feel like you’re doing everything right, you might love and respect your partner, things might seem to be great, but you might be wrong and you will be miserable for the rest of your pathetic lives!” and then leaves it to an emotional, confused and ignorant teenager to try to figure out how to avoid this catastrophe.  Let me tell you from experience: it did not work for me.  What is the point of giving teenagers this horrifying picture of what a failed marriage might look like without explaining to them how to avoid it, besides “don’t marry until you’re in your 20’s?”  Turning 20 does not magically make you know what makes a good marriage partner!!!

DISABILITY:  This part just makes me angry.  Much of the book is devoted to discussing avoiding peer pressure and navigating social aspects of adolescence.  He talks about not being mean to people and trying not to compare yourself to others.  Throughout this discussion, he brings up a couple of children he knew who had disabilities.  I was shocked in re-reading the book at how unkind he is in his discussions of this.  One boy he discusses as having a hearing difficulty, but he felt embarrassed to wear a hearing aid because it made him stand out.  Rather than discussing this dilemma compassionately or actually dealing with the pain and struggle of having people treat you like garbage because of a disability and how horrible that can be, he states that he feels sorry for the boy for being so foolish as to let other people influence his decision to wear a hearing aid.  Yes, he MOCKS a child for feeling shame and pain over the torment that his classmates give him about his disability.  He gets even more cruel when discussing a blind girl who refused to let people lead her from place to place.  He makes a joke of having seen her walk into a pole once, and then again chastises her for being foolish and avoiding assistance because of the way other kids treated her.

THIS IS WRONG.  Look, I agree that a disability is certainly nothing to be ashamed of and that we should encourage children not to feel like there is something wrong with them.  But the way to do this is NOT by making them ashamed of feeling self-conscious or mocking them for wanting to fit in.  Besides, particularly in the blind girl’s story, he makes the assumption that she refused to have people walk her places because she was ashamed.  He does not consider that maybe she had learned her way around well enough that she felt confident and had set a personal goal to travel around school without assistance.  The possibility that she was trying to become more independent, or had been working towards this for a long time, or that her lack of guidance my be an act of bravery rather than cowardice does not seem to even cross his mind.  She is just the butt of his joke to demonstrate that, if you cave in when other kids tease you for being different, you’ll just make a bigger fool of yourself.

Overall, this book is poorly written, woefully unhelpful, full of lies, misinformation, and scare tactics, has cruel and harmful messages for teens, and does not even do a good job of presenting conservative Christian views of sex or adolescence.  PLEASE look elsewhere.  If you have already decided to use this book, PLEASE at least find other resources to supplement it with because your child will not know what he/she needs to know about adolescence just from reading this book!  It is not comprehensive and it is harmful and it is not a good Christian alternative to a proper sex education.

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11 responses

  1. I wanted to chime in on the “sexuality” section as a straight female – I have ALWAYS been sexually attracted to males’ bodies. Although I wasn’t told to read this book specifically, it was communicated to me that women essentially don’t have a sex drive. This concept was foundational to all the pro-abstinence stuff directed specifically at women. (Most of it developed BY women, too!) And when I tried to argue back that, “Ahem – hi! I’m a female, I actually exist, and most days I want to jump the bones of pretty much every guy I see. It’s all I can think about” I was dismissed with a “Oh, well, it’s just not the SAME – guys have a much stronger sex drive.” Really? I have a hard time imagining that.

    This pissed me off because if something so foundational was wrong, how was I supposed to take any of the rest of the sex / pro-abstinence discussion seriously? It also made me feel that there was no interest in rooting anything in reality.

    It would be one thing if they stuck to “Premarital sex is not God’s will, and we believe this because (insert evidence-based academic reasons here). I know it sucks, but there you are.” But no, instead they have to go with “It’s so great that premarital sex is not God’s will, since premarital sex is bad because (insert blatantly false bullshit reasons here).”

    1. Haha, agreed! I presume that these messages are frustrating and damaging in quite a different way for a straight woman. Either way, they are simply straight-up wrong, and I can’t understand why so many people seem to stick to them. I suppose it’s a situation where, if you repeat it often enough, it sort of becomes true, because women will become ashamed of their “abnormal” sex drive and try to suppress it. That would be the best scenario for folks like Dobson.

      I do find very frustrating the modern evangelical desire to back up the shittier religious rules with some sort of “real-life” reason. Like “gay is bad because AIDS” while ignoring the actual origins of AIDS, the straight population with AIDS, or lesbians. Or “premarital sex is bad because single motherhood is ruining America’s economy and family” while ignoring all of the people who do not become single mothers, all of the single mothers who do a great job, and the fact that access to birth control can greatly reduce unintended single motherhood. Amazing how so many of these “for your own good” rules tend to fall right along prejudice lines! 😛

      My mother recently got in an awkward discussion with me and was telling me that she had raised me with the ideas of purity culture because she wanted to save me from “the shame and heartbreak of premarital sex.” Um, sorry, but I had premarital sex, and there was no shame or heartbreak. I’m just fine.

      Long story short, if Christians believe it’s a sin, fine. Believe it’s a sin. But don’t try to come up with some sort of bullshitty reason that you’re making this rule “for our own good.” That’s just a cheap imitation of actual morality that is based on avoiding harm to others, and it’s not going to fly.

      1. “I suppose it’s a situation where, if you repeat it often enough, it sort of becomes true, because women will become ashamed of their “abnormal” sex drive and try to suppress it.”

        I agree. I think the other piece is that if you are successful and (virtually) everyone follows the rules, no one knows it’s bullshit. They assume it’s true because that’s what they were told and no one knows any different.

      2. So true! And if everyone stays silent about it, then all the women that feel a powerful sex drive will just assume “I’m just abnormal; I’ll keep it to myself” and don’t realize that tons of other women around her are saying the exact same thing!

        And so agreed on shaming single mothers. A lot of the reason also that women get abortions is lack of money and society. I’m as pro-choice as they come, but I also firmly believe that as long as we make single motherhood so HARD, then it’s not really a choice. Many women are having abortions because they feel like they have no other viable options, and I find that unacceptable. If we’re really dedicated to both choice AND life, we would make safe abortions available, but also make alternatives to abortions much more viable. I often feel like both movements shoot themselves in the foot as often as they actually help themselves.

      3. Oh – and don’t EVEN get me started on single motherhood. Do they not know their single mom shaming is one of the best incentives for young women in their communities to go have abortions? Is that really the result they want? I’m as pro-life as they come, but I am very aware that not every single, unexpectedly pregnant woman has the backbone to give everyone the finger.

        I really hate how their priorities are shame first, actual lives second (if at all).

    2. Oh my goodness I am exactly the same way. And what a shock it was to discover that my bf who is also younger than me has a lower sex drive than I do. I could have sex every day, him not so much. It really screws with your head when you have these desires and the assumption that ALL men are ravenous sexual beasts.

      1. Good to know I’m not the only one!

  2. As a boy reading the same stuff I also found it pretty useless, but at least it validated sex as a natural, good thing to some extent. I remember that one descriptive scene as being mildly arousing. I think what was more helpful to my education was my mom’s bathroom literature: fiction and confessional essays in Woman’s Day and the underwear section of the Sears catalog.

    1. Haha! Yes, I do think that even a Dobson description of sex might be better than no description, but the book is pretty worthless and does have an awful lot of lies and misinformation, so I don’t know if it’s a net gain. I’m curious what your thoughts of sex must be from Women’s Day magazines! 😀

  3. I can tell you that I read this book when I was a kid and the sex part did a HUGE amount of damage to me. I spent YEARS trying to figure out why I never got a “tingly feeling” and was certain I was doing something wrong or something was wrong with me.

    1. The most ridiculous thing is that he spends so many words beforehand insisting that he’s going to give you a full, unblushing, unabashed account of sex. And then we get… that.

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