Religion Magazine

Dear Dr. Dobson

By Marilyngardner5 @marilyngard


Dear Dr Dobson by Robynn. You can read other pieces by Robynn here and follow her on Twitter at @RobynnBliss.

When I was in my early twenties there was a popular flyer, published by Focus on the Family, which many churches inserted into their Sunday morning bulletin. Readers could write Doctor Dobson their queries—and he would then publish his answers to their questions.

The particular question that I remember went something like this—

Dear Dr Dobson,

   My husband and I feel God calling us into missions but we worry about our children. Schooling options would be either sending them to boarding school or homeschooling them. What do you suggest?


   A Concerned Missionary

Doctor Dobson, once the tallest evangelical, or least the one that cast the longest shadow, kindly, and not without condescension, gave his pronouncement. He recommended that the young family in question ignore the voice of the Divine—or at least put God on hold until such time as the children were finished school and college and were well settled into their adult lives. Homeschooling was socially jeopardizing in the back jungles of South America (if my memory serves) and boarding school would ruin the children.

As a recently released boarding school survivor at that time, I was aghast!  I wrapped up all my fury and frustration and I wrote my own Dear Dr Dobson letter. I wanted to challenge his position on boarding school. I wanted to let him know there are many of us who went to boarding school who came out unruined. Interestingly enough, he never wrote back.

To my knowledge, Dr Dobson never attended boarding school, nor was he homeschooled. He speaks authoritatively from something other than his own experience and in so doing he marches on the countless experiences of others with disregard. It would be insensitive of me to write a piece purely in defense of boarding school. There are too many stories of terror and griefs too deep. It would also be wrong for me to speak out in favour of homeschooling. I attended boarding school from grades three to twelve. We homeschooled one of our children on two different occasions….but even then my experiences are limited.

I suppose on some level it was kind of Dr Dobson to speak into this mother’s angst. However, my point here is that it really was none of his business. Parents need to make these types of decisions themselves, based on the personalities they’ve been entrusted with, based also on their circumstances and capacities.

Modern missionaries are under great strain. The large Ocean liner: The Great Commission Enterprise—crosses new seas, fords new terrain. There are unsuspecting turbulences, unpredictable complications. Things are not as they once were.

When my parents landed in Pakistan there really were no other options for educating my brother and me. We no sooner deplaned in dusty Multan, in the center of the Punjab, then we boarded a northbound train for Rawalpindi and the Himalayan mountains hidden just passed the plains. It’s what one did. It’s what all the other missionaries were doing. My parents knew this as they packed their barrels, crates and suitcases. They knew this as they climbed up the stairs to enter the large Air Canada 747 that would take them from Toronto to Karachi. They knew this as they loaded up all the accompanying baggage on to the Land Rovers of those who had come to meet them. They said hello to their new colleagues. They said goodbye to their children.

With our own children in South Asia we opted to send them to local private schools. This worked reasonably well—most of the time–. When Connor was in grade one it became apparent he wasn’t grasping that letters made sounds and that sounds strung together to make words, and then sentences, and sentences, books. We removed him for four months to school him at home, primarily, in reading (and some writing and ‘rithmetic). At the beginning of one week he was agonizing over S-A-T and M-A-T. By the end of that same week he finished reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (I kid you not!) Soon he was back in school, running around the playground with his friends.

Later the shame-based educational motivational tools of the area began to leak all over our family. Connor’s work was held up and publicly belittled. See this? Don’t do work like this. This is terrible work. This is shameful. Do not be like Connor. On the opposite end of the spectrum, and thankfully in a different classroom, Adelaide’s work was paraded before the class as a positive example. See this? Why can’t you all do work like Adelaide? This is good work. She is very smart.

I shudder now to think what damage both of those comparisons wreaked on Connor and Adelaide’s souls, let alone their academic confidence.

On Tuesday we had lunch with a young family who live and work in South East Asia. Their children are young yet, but you could see the agonies of these types of educational decisions, even now, beginning to paralyze them. As parents they want to do what’s best for their children. Lowell and I could sympathize. We could share stories of the ways we made the decisions we did. We could confide some of our regrets, some of the things we’re pleased about as we look back. But at the end of the day, this young set of parents are the ones that will have to make the decisions that are best for their young children.  I suspect those decisions will change from year to year, for child to child. They’ll have to consider their cultural context, their own values, the personalities of each of their little people, the limitations of their capacities, the resources and technology available to them. It’s daunting. These are decisions that have long-lasting effects and implications (intended and unintended).

And the rest of us…including Dr Dobson…would be a better help if we kept quiet. We can’t completely understand all the complicating details. We best serve this young family, and modern cross cultural expatriates everywhere, if we listen attentively and pray like crazy for wisdom and direction.

Jesus is with them in it. The whole Great Commission thing was his idea to begin with. He’s that committed to communicating love to a hurting world that he’s willing to uproot people from every corner of the world to send them, zigzagging, criss-crossing across the globe to other far off corners to show that love. It’s a crazy inefficient plan….but it was his plan and somehow it brings him glory. Jesus loves the children swept up in this Holy Hair Brained scheme more completely than the parents ever could. He will provide wisdom generously. He will lead them. They will have the resources they need. 

There is this comforting story for mothers everywhere, tucked into the epic tales of the Patriarchs, that I’ve come to love over the years. To make a long complicated story short, Hagar and her son are sent away into the desert. All they had with them was a little food and one container of water.  As the story goes,

   When the water was gone, she left the child under a shrub and went off, fifty yards or so. She said, “I can’t watch my son die.” As she sat, she broke into sobs. Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy and knows the fix he’s in. Up now; go get the boy. Hold him tight. I’m going to make of him a great nation.”

    Just then God opened her eyes. She looked. She saw a well of water. She went to it and filled her canteen and gave the boy a long, cool drink. And God was with the boy as he grew up in the wilderness. He became a skillful archer, and he settled in the wilderness of Paran. His mother arranged for him to marry a woman from the land of Egypt. (Gen 21:15-21 The Message/NLT)

Hagar had nothing, no resources, no community support, no extended family, nothing. She didn’t even have ample food and water. But God heard her cries and he provided for her and her son. I love the ending especially. Hagar’s son didn’t just survive. He grew up and he became an expert at something….he became a skillful archer! This is the story of a child caught up in the lives of unpredictable adults who wander the world and he thrives!

The modern missionary workforce is not left on their own. They are not abandoned to the cause! Their children are not asked to sacrifice all potential and promise. This next generation of expat children will thrive!

And the well-intended aunts and uncles, the kind hearted church people, the ever-present Dr Dobson might consider being very very quiet on these things unless they’re invited into the conversation. Even then they should probably be very very quiet. Rather they might turn their hearts to the God of Hagar and deep water wells and *toxophilites and pray.

* an expert in archery!

Picture Credit: word art by Marilyn R. Gardner

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