BOSTON -- The one reality show that I became addicted to was "Supernanny." Week after week, episode after episode, the producers featured children who gave new meaning to the word "brat" and parents who made the doormat look like it had a spine.
Then in stepped Supernanny to perform an extreme family makeover in a week. "Lord of the Flies" meets "Mary Poppins."
The appeal of the show to parents was the voyeuristic certainty that our kids were nowhere nearly that bad, our homes were nowhere nearly that chaotic, and we were nowhere nearly that hapless.
It was months before I wondered how come all these families had only one problem: discipline. How come all the makeovers had the same solution: getting parents in charge and putting kids in the naughty circle.
I was not surprised when Focus on the Family decided to sponsor the last episode. Their ad, a mini-feature of its own, featured sweet little tots announcing: "I'm going to make a scene at the grocery store. Right at the checkout counter." The ad promised to help parents with "family advice and a faith-based perspective."
The ad kicked up a little dust from the folks at the United Church of Christ. ABC let James Dobson's group advertise but rejected a UCC ad welcoming all to their church, including gay couples: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." Why was the religious left too controversial but the right wasn't? I have no doubt why the Christian evangelical group wanted to target the Supernanny market. If there's anything that Dobson's group believes, it's the need for discipline. If there's anything they worry about, it's families, churches, courts and politics out of control. Get thee to a naughty circle.
Dobson, the folksy child psychologist who founded Focus on the Family, is now a political powerhouse. But if you are trying to understand the success of the religious right, you could do a lot worse than read his parenting book: "Dare to Discipline." The book and its update have sold roughly 3.5 million copies by positing the central family drama as a power struggle between parents and children. He asks: "Who is going to win? Who has the most courage? Who is in charge here?"
Unlike Supernanny, Dobson also uses another weapon to wield his authority: spanking. Despite repeated protests against abuse, he preaches chillingly that "nothing brings a parent and child closer together more than for the mother or father to win decisively after being defiantly challenged."
Well, they say in politics that whoever frames the problem has won half the battle. Dobson defines the family problem as a permissive world of children run amok who need the tough love of parents who "dare" to discipline. The success story is that he has followed this authoritarian line directly into conservative politics. Focus on the Family has become one-stop shopping.
George Lakoff, current guru of progressives, has said that if you want to know someone's politics, ask how they raise their children. In Lakoff's vocabulary, Dobson plays the Strict Father to the liberal's Nurturant Parent. He has taken this father from the home to the pulpit to politics where he now blasts judges by saying: "They're out of control. And I think they need to be reined it."
Spare the rod and spoil the country.
It's easy, too easy, to lampoon Dobson as the man who trashed SpongeBob SquarePants as a gay subversive. Instead, progressives ought to be studying him. Focus on the Family takes child-raising seriously. They even got a lock on the domain name, family.org.
Who on the political left is offering help with kids at the checkout counter? Who is parlaying a less-authoritarian way of raising responsible children into a full-blown political movement? As for helping families in a hostile media culture, there hasn't been a strong progressive stance against Hollywood since Bill Clinton faced down Sister Souljah.
I don't believe that the sole problem of family life is a lack of discipline. Relationships are more than power struggles and child-raising is not based on winning. Or hitting. And I assure you, no one in my family has ever called me permissive.
But it's up to progressives now to expand and explain an ideology that leads from our house to the White House, from parenting to foreign policy.
Only then will we get the next political makeover.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist for The Boston Globe email@example.com.
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