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Child Abuse, Fundamentalism, Michael and Debi Pearl

Christianity Today’s Take on “To Train Up a Child”

Christianity Today’s Hermeneutics has posted the following article on their website, reviewing the Pearl’s To Train Up a Child.


When Child Discipline Becomes Abuse

Inside the book that has recently been cited in three cases of child murder.

Rachel Stone

October 17, 2011

A Washington couple was recently charged with the death of their 11-year-old daughter, Hana, whom they disciplined by withholding food and shutting out of the house; she died of hypothermia and showed evidence of malnutrition. Last year, 7-year-old Lydia Schatz died after being beaten by her parents for mispronouncing a word during her reading lesson. And five years ago, 4-year-old Sean Paddock suffocated to death when his mother bound him tightly in blankets as a form of discipline.

to-train-up-a-child-2.jpg A common thread linking these cases? All the parents cited as influence the teachings of No Greater Joy  Ministries, founded by Christian couple Michael and Debi Pearl. Michael Pearl has issued statements condemning these parents’ actions and distancing his own teaching on child discipline from them. To understand what the Pearls teach, I decided to read To Train Up a Child, the self-published 1994 book that contains the essence of their teaching on “child training.” Selling over a half-million copies, the book is a “simple, biblical” plan for training children to obey “immediately, without question.”

This training, not to be confused with “discipline,” may be carried out something like this:

Place an appealing object where they can reach it. . . . when they spy it and make a dive for it, in a calm voice say, ‘No, don’t touch that.’ Since they are already familiar with the word ‘No,’ they will likely pause, look at you in wonder, and then turn around grab it. Switch their hand once and simultaneously say, No.

The switching and saying “No” is a technique the Pearls recommend when a baby grabs your glasses, when a nursing child bites his mother (in that instance, pulling the child’s hair is the preferred method of training), and to “gun-proof” children:

With our first toddler, I placed an old, unused and empty, single-shot shotgun in the living room corner. After taking the toddlers through several “No” and hand-switching sessions, they knew that guns were always off limits. . . . I didn’t child-proof my guns, I gun-proofed my children.

Other suggested training sessions involved allowing a child to become deeply engrossed in an activity before calling to him and insisting that he learn “the necessity of immediately coming when called.” (Ephesians 6:4, anyone?) To train a child not to go near a body of water, they suggest allowing the child to fall in, waiting “long enough for her to . . . show some recognition of her inability to breathe.” Michael Pearl describes his own method for training his children not to touch the wood stove:

When the first fires of fall were lit, I would coax the toddlers over to see the fascinating flames. Of course, they always wanted to touch, so I held them off until the stove got hot enough to inflict pain without deep burning — testing it with my own hand. When the heat was just right, I would open the door long enough for them to be attracted by the flames, and then I would close the door and move away. The child would inevitably run to the stove and touch it. Just as his hand touched the stove, I would say, “Hot!” It usually took just one time, sometimes twice, but they all learned their lessons.

93a2c8f0d7.jpgThis, the Pearls write, is what the Bible means by, “Train up a child in the way he should go” (Prov. 22:6). They write, “Train up — not discipline up. Train up — not educate up. Train up — not ‘positive affirmation up.’ ” Yet for people who profess vehement disgust with what they continually call “modern psychology,” they do seem to have placed most of their eggs in the behavioralist basket. They insist that their method of child-rearing (emphasis on the rear) is the biblical method, and grows out of their belief that the inherent sinfulness of babies (who “go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies; Psalm 58:3”) must be restrained. Parents, they write, “can begin the child’s ‘sanctification’ long before his salvation.” In sum, the Pearls’ training consists of using strikes and blows to “help [children] develop a firm commitment to righteousness.”

It’s probably important to emphasize that the physical blows I’ve mentioned so far are not, in the Pearl method, understood as punishment. They are given for the sake of training, and, if a child has been “trained properly,” spankings with “the rod” will not, they promise, happen often. However, if a child does “transgress” — for example, failing to come when called, showing slight hesitation or displeasure, or throwing a tantrum (and the Pearls interpret crying after the age of 7 months as selfishly manipulative) — she must be “admonished” with “the rod,” ideally some kind of smooth stick that increases in diameter as the child ages. The child is to “come submissively” to be spanked; however, the Pearls write, “if you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered.” Likewise, while the Pearls acknowledge that “five to ten licks” are likely sufficient, the “general rule is to continue the disciplinary action until the child has surrendered,” which may take upwards of 40 lashes (which, if we’re being biblical here, exceed the Old Testament’s limit on beatings for adults).

Throughout the book, the Pearls say their method makes for happy, loving, contented children; theirs, they say, is the path to healing and wholeness, citing Proverbs 23:13: “‘Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.’ ” And Michael Pearl insists that the parents who killed their children “twisted” his teaching.

However, after reading To Train Up a Child, I believe that the line between the Pearls’ “child training” and child abuse is blurry at best. Theirs seems anything but biblical child rearing, rather, a program of calculated cruelty in the name of a God who loves kindness and mercy; a God who bears with the weakness and rebellion of stubborn people of all ages, and who became flesh to suffer in our place and for our healing. One child suffering under this training is too many; it’s my hope that the Pearls will be widely discredited, and soon.


Related Posts:

Michael Pearl is no longer laughing

Justice for Hana Williams: Larry and Carri Williams plead not guilty

Hana Williams: “Rebellion” or Reaction to Abuse?



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