The One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest school of parenting

“Why is it a mistake to adopt the Nurse Ratched approach of the One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest school of parenting? Because to the extent that we do adopt it, we are thereby coercing instead of non-coercively resolving conflicts with our children; we are refusing to take responsibility for the distress and anger that we are causing in the children; and we are giving the children dangerously double-binding mixed messages.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


From the archives: The original post was posted on 5th October 1997

In his 1978 book, Discipline While You Can (the title in the American edition is The Strong-Willed Child) James Dobson argued that parents typically ask a child to do something, such as get ready for bed, then when the child ignores the command, the parent speaks louder and more forcefully, eventually getting very angry, at which point the child obeys just in time to avoid the punitive action the parent was going to take to force the child to obey. Dobson says that it is not the shouting that is making the child obey, but the knowledge that further ignoring the parent’s order will result in punishment. Therefore, he argues, all the shouting was a mistake, and parents should instead just take the punitive action, remaining calm throughout, like a policeman or a court judge are completely in control without any reactive emotional displays or shouting. He suggests subjecting the child to physical pain:

“How much better it is to use action to get action. There are hundreds of tools which will bring the desired response, some of which involve pain while others offer the child a reward…. Minor pain can provide excellent motivation for the child, when appropriate. You see, the parent should have some means of making the child want to co-operate, other than simply obeying because he was told to do so. For those who can think of no such device, I will suggest one: there is a muscle lying snugly against the base of the neck. Anatomy books list it as the trapezius muscle, and when firmly squeezed, it sends little messengers to the brain saying, ‘This hurts: Avoid recurrence at all costs.’ The pain is only temporary; it can cause no damage. When the youngster ignores being told to do something by his parent, he should know that mum has a practical recourse.”

A poster was very taken with this idea of calm authority and punitive action instead of getting frustrated and doing a lot of shouting:

“I got a video of James Dobson speaking about parenting the strong willed child without breaking his spirit, and thought he was a really good speaker (FUN to listen to!) but hated some of his thoughts, such as occasional spankings. ☹️
           However, the last forty five minutes of the tape was verrrrrrrry revealing and helpful to me. I tend to get mad and angry when I’m getting frustrated with the kids’ not listening or talking back at me or the like. I start out being nice and friendly and understanding and often end up yelling. 😢
           Anyway, he was very on-target with this. He said that kids KNOW where that limit line before action is taken is. He said it’s not the anger that motivates, but the action (DUH, right!?). Well, then he put the two together… you have the rising crescendo of anger with action culminating, and how can you help but connect the two facets and assume it was the ANGER that motivated? It ends up being a vicious cycle. The parent ends up saying, ‘Gee, he never does what he’s supposed to until I’m mad or screaming at him! I have to be angry all the time!’
           He used a couple examples. One was of authority. For instance, how would we feel if we were on a highway, speeding over the limit, and a policeman in an unmarked car, not wearing a uniform stood on the side of the road as you passed by screaming and yelling, ‘Stop! You’re speeding! That’s wrong! NO! Stop! You’re not supposed to do that!’ He said, you’d probably pass right by him, maybe even speed up a little and laugh! But then, that same officer, who pulls you over in a calm manner, and asks you to please hand over your driver’s license, etc… and gets out the ticket pad… here you are shaking, beads of sweat forming on your face… and he’s not upset! Not mad! And you’re going nutty over this consequence… you don’t want it to happen again.”

The idea that this is something to aim for with our children is chilling. The police etc. are in fact not involved; they are in fact just carrying out their duties under the law. Turning this into a parenting method is a grave mistake, because in the case of the parent-child conflict, the parent is  involved. The thing to aim for is neither anger nor emotional detachment in the face of a child’s distress and anger, but to solve the problem between parent and child. To solve the problem means resolving the conflict non-coercively, consentually, rather than imposing your will (calmly or otherwise). Children are people. Them being children is no justification for us coercively controlling them. Their lives belong to them, not us.

“He said it’s the same with judges. They sit above us, very calm, somewhat detatched from the whole event going on below them so-to-speak… and they demand respect. Their very way of holding themselves demands it.
           Same with kids.”

I call this the One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest school of parenting, or the Nurse Ratched approach, Nurse Ratched being the nurse played by Louise Fletcher in the brilliant 1975 Jack Nicholson film, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Nurse Ratched was completely calm and non-reactive in her quiet coercive control.

Why is it a mistake to adopt the Nurse Ratched approach advocated by Dobson, and by many other parenting books since? Because to the extent that we do adopt it, we are first, refusing to solve the problem with the child; secondly, refusing to take responsibility for the distress and anger that we are causing in the child; and thirdly, giving the child dangerous mixed messages whose effect is to put the child in a double bind.

In expressing love while refusing to solve a problem, we are teaching the child that love and psychological pain go together, and we are teaching the child, through our own bad example, to lose empathy. If we want children to learn to treat others well, we must start by treating them well. Being callously detached or smilingly calmly quietly tyrannical like Nurse Ratched will not help a child learn empathy or how to interact morally and respectfully.

[Note added 2023: Most recent parenting books advocate the calm coercive control of what I call the Nurse Ratched approach, including several whose authors honestly do not see themselves as advocating coercion. See, for example, Shefali Tsabary, 2016, The Awakened Family. The author talks about the power of parental presence and stillness, and like Dobson, she advocates enforcing whatever limit the parent has decided to impose through calm action not reactiveness, nagging or shouting at the child. On pp. 302-303, for example, she suggests calmly removing the ‘screen’ until the homework is completed (as opposed to reacting emotionally or nagging or shouting at the child). You can find similar advice in most current parenting books. Often, the suggested Dobson approach of “act don’t react” coercive control is veiled with language suggesting having “empathy” and that we are thereby “helping” our children, but this just makes the coercive control even more chillingly Nurse Ratched like in its double binding confusing mixed message of coercive control masquerading as loving, helping, empathy.]

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1997, ‘The One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest school of parenting’,

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