Book Review: Dibs In Search of Self

Embarrassingly, I for the first time in a decade picked up a book to read without it being a requirement for a class or professional development. I have somewhat addictive qualities when it comes to reading books. When I was younger, I would pull all-nighters to devour books. I felt I should not add to my reasons of not sleeping these days.

This book was no exception. I lost sleep on its account, but it was worth it. I had been meaning to read it since about a couple months back when I was having a particularly challenging time with Abe. I Tweeted out, and though I didn’t get many likes, I got great responses!

Thank you, @MemoirUnwritten and @ninjajayy09 for your reach out to help!

I want to talk about the suggestion of reading Dibs In Search of Self by Virginia M. Axline.Not only did I truly enjoy and engage in the story this book told, I had a lot to think about and came out of it with a few more… not tools for parenting, but understandings.

Disclaimer: The product link on this website is an affiliate link which means that in the case of you purchasing a certain product through one of my links, you are supporting me to get a commission from that purchase. This commission is at no additional cost to you.

Dibs in Search of Self ($7.99) is quite as the title suggests- a story about a young child’s, Dib’s that is, development in coping and living life.

As the story of this young boy unravels, many psychology themes and children development ideas emerge that are hard to ignore as a parent and also it turns out, my own ongoing search of self. It is a unique story that Axline pretty ingeniously tells as a pleasure read and documentary style read. Virginia M. Axline was a doctor who specialized in play therapy. She used recordings from her sessions with Dibs and his mother and her observations to write the book. Throughout the book, I was in constant awe to her statement, “no words were used that were not originally those of Dibs and his mother.”

I do not want to give away any of what happened in the book for I do not want to spoil the story. The small script on the front states the following:

“The renowned, deeply moving story of an emotionally lost child who found his way back.”

I will share some of the impactful understandings I dug out in reading this book. I also have some quotes of the book, but I chose bits and pieces that would not be spoilers in any way beyond how the book was advertised.

Theme 1: Pressures and Created Standards; The Negative Impacts of Parental Hopes and Dreams

Page 55- “The purpose of this response, rather than an expression of thank you’s and praise, was to keep our communication open and to slow it down. Then, if he wanted to, he could add more of his thoughts and feelings and not be abruptly cut off by my response and involvement and values or standards of behaviors.”

Sometimes, we as parents, offer absent-minded praise because our children insist on showing us pretty unspectacular things, like a PRETEND back flip, which is really just a jump. Sometimes that absent-minded praise becomes too much and too meaningless. Sometime we also use it to steer our children into certain “values of standards of behaviors” of ours.

It did not occur to me thoughtless praise could limit and “cut off” my child.

When I was young, I enjoyed drawing, and I was okay at it. I had a natural talent you could say. My artistic abilities were something my parents highly praised for good reason. Despite their encouragement, I still felt my art skills were inadequate compared to the “smarts” my sister had. I did not like when they would go to friends and family and say she’s the artistic one, and then they would talk about how good my sister did in academics. I wanted to be recognized how well I did in school too. I think I started rejecting the art in me.

Translating to my parenting today, I need to be very careful with my hopes and dreams/my “values of standards” for my sons. I admit, I have been striving to get my sons ahead and above standards. I have hopes and dreams of having very smart kids. That has always been important for my facade, as I will go into more for “Theme 2: The Walls we Build” next. But, I need to be careful with what is at the heart of my hopes and dreams.

Axline’s methods of not encouraging or praising too much or pushing one way or the other allowed Dibs to decide for himself who he wanted to be. She did not cut his feelings and thoughts off. As a parent, letting your children do this is invaluable.

What other people think of my kids should never be at the core of my praise or direction. I need to give my sons the ability to search. I will not stop exposing them to all that I can. I will also not stop praising them, even for pretend back flips. I do need to be more mindful with my praise and the purpose of the praise. I also need to stop creating standards with the wrong intent behind them. Push back is bound to occur.

Them 2: The Walls We Build… Push Back

Page 61 – ” It seemed to me that whenever he approached any kind of emotional reference he retreated to a demonstration of his ability to read. Perhaps he felt safer in manipulating intellectual concepts about things, rather than probing any deeper into feelings about himself…”

Axline makes many observations of Dibs using his intellect as his go-to, his coping mechanism in discomfort of dealing with feelings. This happens many times, but it was again observed and well put on page 151, “Dibs was off again into the safe world of his intellectualism”

I realized as I read this I also tend to feel safest in my skin behind a facade of intellectualism. Yet, I also feel uncomfortable because though I am smart, I am not a genius like some assume just because my degree is in math. Sophomore year hit me like a $400 college text book in the face. I was a bit dazed and confused. I had a hard semester, where I did not study, and I had my share of test scores coming back as C’s and D’s. There, I said it. Now, please understand this is very hard to admit, because all of my life I grew up with a sister who was very, very smart. With no judgement, my parents identified me as someone who had to work for her grades. I resented that. I think I started building that mask that I wanted to come off as just as smart as my sister. I am someone who indeed has to work hard for my grades.

In front of a math classroom, I am confident and focused. Put me on the spot, I have a shaky voice. I can feel the red heat up my face. I sweat. I’m awkward, which I think means I’m unsure and fearful of the appropriate social conduct.

I have seen some facades Abe has put on too. He acts silly, and honestly, kind of obnoxious. Lately, he has been acting whiney, obnoxious whiney. In one of my other posts, How We Are Learning Letters, I created a letter game. Recently, Abe has been pushing back on his desire to read and play this game. I know I have shown impatience and frustrations. I believe I have pushed reading on him too much. Kids, like my son, Dibs, and me back then, pick up on the steering and pressures our parents put on us, and they have their ways of building walls. Abe has been pretending not to know his letters. I have no doubt he knows them, but he has been purposefully giving me wrong sounds when I ask. Because of this book, I am backing away. We are back to just me reading, and at 4 years of age, that is how it should be if that is what is enjoyable to him.

Many of us have walls as a coping mechanism for discomfort. I think we all have to be aware of the walls we have built, and also we need to be aware of the walls we may be pushing others to build. I am no expert, but walls only probably encourages more walls of similar foundations in those we live with.

Theme 3: Appropriate Bounds and Limitations

Page 115- “That’s right,” Dibs said. “Even if you know I don’t want to go home.”

“Yes. Even if I know you don’t feel like going home, there are times, Dibs when you have to. And this is one of those times.” [Axline]

He stood in front of me, looking steadily into my eyes. He sighed. “Yes,” he said. “I know. So much I can do here, but then, always, I finally must go.” He started out the door.”

This kind of hit me too. Throughout the book Axline provides a safe place for Dibs to do what he wants freely. There was a session where Dibs was throwing water all over the room. She really did not do any discipline or correcting.

In reality, I cannot have the absence of correction and discipline, as I am not just a counselor/psychologist, I am Abe’s and Grant’s mom. They need restrictions and limits so life is not too messy and frankly, so no one gets hurt or dies.

Still, Axline had calm and reason in most of all she did. I strive for that. She also let things be.

I have been more aware of how many times I say, “No” or “Don’t do..” They come out more when I am in a rush or trying to keep things clean and orderly. Kids will start to figure out what is right and wrong with discussion. Simply telling them no or don’t will likely just create push back. I definitely have become more aware of some of my unnecessary battles of control versus needed guidance.

Theme 4: Adequacy

Page 216- “I shall never forget those three lines: As I said I wanted it. As you said you wanted it. As we said we wanted it. I guess Dibs only wanted what we all want on a world-wide scale. A chance to feel worth while. A chance to be a person wanted, respected, accepted as a human being worthy of dignity.”

This was spoken by one of Axline’s former students, who she had shared Dib’s story with in one of her classes. Dibs spoke those three lines, and those three statements did not immediately strike into my memory. But, his overall and absolute need for the safety of the play therapy room he had with Axline and his need to feel adequate just the way he was, did. He did not need to be told how to cope, he had to figure out himself how to cope with his feelings and pressures of life.

I have been frustrated with Abe wanting help with things he knows how to do- put on his shoes or clothes. My reaction has been of impatience and far from ideal. He knows he can do it, and so do I. Yelling at him that he should be doing those things is not giving him what he needs. I am not quite sure the answer to this particular behavior of his because I don’t want to enable his “helplessness”. I do see this as him struggling with feelings about seeing me with his helpless baby brother. I am thinking when his need for nurturing and feeling adequate is met, he will do the things he knows he is capable of doing.

We all need to feel adequate with outside pressures taken out. We need to find our own strengths and what truly makes us feel happy. From that development of our strengths, hopefully we can find confidence in who we are and what we do. I think, we need to start with identifying the walls we have to then feel adequate enough to start taking those walls down. Feeling adequate and loving ourselves enables us to give ourselves freely to others and see that they too are adequate in our love.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear thoughts as always.


  1. Erin, what an absolutely wonderful article. Valuable, well thought out and articulate.

    I wish you the best for the rest of your summer.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Natalie. This book really did make me think about a lot of things. Maybe it is because it was the first book I have read in so long! Haha! It got my brain working a bit. I am glad I was able to get some of those thoughts out and share.

      I return wishes for a wonderful summer to you! I feel like it is already rushing by!


  2. Loved reading this! The part about being more mindful about praise really struck me. Praise is important, but it’s also important to really pay attention and give valuable feedback that fuels kids’ drive and interests. I’ll definitely have to look into this book. It sounds really interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sara! Yes. I have been very aware of my praise these days. The author, though was a doctor and not a nurturing figure really, had kind of a specific way of responding to a lot of what Dibs would do. She would often times just repeat what he said to confirm, or she would say something was right that he did. I have been trying to control my responses and noting Abe’s behaviors more to those responses.

      I get to cuddle and praise though while she did not. At one point, she did state how she wanted to hold and comfort him, but in her role, she had to let him create his own coping mechanisms. It was really interesting!

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Erin! I haven’t read a book in too long either but plan on reading a lot this summer, so don’t be embarrassed! One of the things I look back on that has changed over the years was my constant need to keep things clean and orderly. I wish I could take that back! I went from vacuuming every day to every few days to now once a week with the grandkids! Houses with kids are supposed to be a little messy. Cozy and comfortable is more fun! I, too, believe in boundaries and discipline. Sometimes we can be a little more relaxed than others and so be i
    t, no parent is perfect. I would always apologize if I made a mistake. I do believe in respecting kids because it works all the way around.

    In your last question, with my grandkids, I have learned that I will say “ok, I will help you with that today because you are so cute, but I know you can do it – so tomorrow I want you to show me and maybe you can help me teach your little brother.” I don’t remember what I did with my own kids, but I am learning a lot with these guys. It’s different when you are a grandma. xoxo

    PS: This was a great post and you are a great mom!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s