This is the second part of a post about the abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl’s book, To Train Up a Child. You can read the first part here.
5.) Faulty Theology – Pearl’s entire “training” system is built on the speculative premise that children must be trained to obey a parent without question until they reach the age of moral accountability. While the age of accountability remains a popular part of Christian mythology, it lacks specific biblical support. If it is true, it is true because of the merciful heart of God and not because a Bible verse explicitly says it is so. But Pearl takes it as a matter of absolute dogma and then constructs his entire system of training on the premise that parents are guardians of a child’s morality until the child reaches the age of accountability—somewhere between the age of five and twenty. Yes, you read that right: according to Pearl, there is a subjective gap of fifteen years during which your child, according to Pearl, might reach the age of moral accountability:
“The child is not a morally viable soul. He is an incomplete moral being. He is not accountable. Morally, the three-year-old is still in the womb. Moral life begins its development sometime after birth, probably in the second or third year, and continues until it matures at about ten to fifteen years of age. Like physical development in the womb, moral development is a slow transition from no moral understanding at birth to complete accountability at some point in the child’s youth. There are vast differences of opinion as to when God holds a child accountable for his own actions and thoughts. From time immemorial, age twelve has been the traditional ‘age of accountability.’ But accountability is not an age; it is a state of consciousness (James 4: 17; Lev. 5: 3). Biblically, it will be sometime before twenty years of age (Deut. 1: 39 with Num. 14: 29-31). Observation seems to suggest that some children may be accountable as early as five, while others may not be fully accountable until nineteen.”
Clear as mud, right? For such a sober responsibility as holding a child’s moral development in your hands, it might be nice to have a clearer biblical standard beyond the so-called wisdom of “time immemorial.” Pearl seems to understand the fuzziness of his argument, so he elaborates:
“God will not condemn a child until he has grown into a state of accountability. However, during this ten or twelve year transition, which generally occurs between the ages of about two and fourteen, the child’s accountability will increase with the growth of his moral awareness. When a child goes against his conscience, however limited and incomplete his understanding may be, he is then guilty. The degree to which his understanding has developed is the degree to which his actions can be called sin. The presence of guilt is a good barometer as to how much his conscience has developed. Again, though the child may feel guilt in some areas, the responsibility for sin is not imputed unto him until his moral soul is fully functional. An unfinished clock, still in the making, may have moving parts, but it will not keep time until every last piece is properly installed.”
This is not biblical theology. It is speculation, based on Pearl’s own personal preferences, suppositions, and biases. But the rest of the book is predicated on its absolute truth:
“Where the child possesses moral understanding, yet disobeys, he should be chastened with the rod. Where he does not understand the moral quality of his actions, he should be trained and conditioned.”
Did you catch that? Either way—whether the child understands or doesn’t understand, you get to beat him. Apparently beating is good for a child’s soul. The reason, Pearl says, is because the parent acts as the “law” for the child in order to bring the child’s flesh into complete subjection:
“Even before a child’s conscience begins to operate, you must train him to practice self-restraint. For if a child is allowed to violate his budding conscience, and continues to do so as he grows to full maturity, he will find himself already fully given over to his flesh long before he begins to develop a sense of duty. Therefore, before moral development even begins (at about two years of age), parents must bring the child’s flesh into complete subjection. By the third year and beyond, that part of the child that is awakened to moral duty should be taught to voluntarily surrender to the rule of law. If you allow the flesh to run its natural course, the child will be possessed of many unruly passions and lusts long before he is cognizant enough to assume responsibility.”
This puts tremendous pressure on the parent who is held responsible for the child’s moral development. Says Pearl: “If God is the potter and your child is the clay, you are the wheel on which the clay is to be turned.” The parent’s role goes even deeper, says Pearl, into the realm of the Holy Spirit: “You can begin the child’s ‘sanctification’ long before his salvation.”
The twisted root of this book is a false theology which puts parents in the sanctifying role of the Holy Spirit, gives their beatings the efficacy of the blood of Christ to remove guilt, and reverses the biblical order of justification and sanctification. Don’t believe me? Read on:
“Christians find release from their guilt through the Savior who suffered the curse of their sins, but their children cannot yet understand that the Creator has been lashed and nailed in their place. Yet, parents need not wait until their children are old enough to understand the vicarious death of Christ to purge their children of guilt. God has provided parents with a tool to cleanse their children of guilt— the rod of correction.”
Just think, parents! You can cleanse your child from guilt by beating them with a wooden rod. This puts you in the role of Jesus Christ, or at least it puts the father in the role of savior:
“Father, as high priest of the family, you can reconcile your child to newness of life. Guilt gives Satan a just calling card and a door of access to your child. In conjunction with teaching, the properly administered spanking is restorative as nothing else can be. A spanking (whipping, paddling, switching, or belting) is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment.”
You read that right. Pearl believes that parents can expiate the guilt of their children by beating them. This helps to explain why he advocates with such aggressive zeal for beating infants and children.
So what are the consequences of disagreeing with Michael Pearl’s misinterpretation of the Bible and his mistaken theology? Why, to make little Hitlers out of your children, of course! Pearl says: “Fail to use the rod on this child, and you are creating a modern-day ‘Nazi.’”
There’s your choice, parents: either beat your children and save them through their own blood, or refrain and turn them into bantam Hitler youth.
But in reality, To Train Up a Child is not biblical and the choice is not binary. It is just rules taught by men.
6.) Destruction of Personhood – One of the greatest abuses of To Train Up a Child is the destruction of a child’s personhood. The Bible says that all people are created in the image of God, the so-called imago Dei, which theologians have traditionally interpreted to mean that we are created as people, separate from the animals.
What defines personhood? Three things: intellect, emotion, and will. In the Pearls’ economy, children should be broken in each of these three areas using the same training techniques one would use with animals. This effectively mars the three-fold personhood of children and reduces them to people-like robots. Here’s why:
a.) Destruction of a child’s intellect – Michael Pearl demands that children give instant, unquestioning obedience to their parents (and to all adults):
“I have taught the children to obey first and ask questions later. When they were small and I would put them through paces, they learned to immediately do what I said. If they ever failed to instantly obey a command, I would ‘drill’ them. ‘Sit down,’ I would say. ‘Don’t speak until I tell you to.’ Understand, I was not taking out my frustrations on them. It was all done with utmost pleasantness. ‘Stand up,’ I would command. ‘Now, come here. Go touch the door.’ And, before they could get there, ‘Sit.’ Plop, down they would go. ‘Now, go to your rooms and clean them up.’ Just like little, proud soldiers, off they would go to the task. They thought it was just a fun game. If one of them should fail in his attitude, he would be spanked—without haste or hostility, mind you…. Even today, without looking at the children, I can snap my finger, pointing to the floor, and they all (including the ones over six-feet) immediately sit. I can point to the door, and they all exit…. Teach your children to ‘snap to it.’ They will be better for it, and it will make them more lovable.”
But does the Bible really teach parents to exact instant, unquestioning obedience from their children? Does God want parents to act like martinets, putting their children through ridiculous games designed to program them into mindless obedience? Doesn’t God invite questions from his children?
b.) Destruction of a child’s emotions – Pearl says that he made a commitment not to raise “sissies” or “crybabies.” Instead, he delights to toughen his children like little soldiers who ignore pain, accept mistreatment, and refuse to tell their parents when they have been abused:
“For your children’s own good, teach them to maintain control of their emotions. If you do not want to produce sissies who use adversity as a chance to get attention, then don’t program them that way…. When I was just a young father, I had already determined that I would rear no sissies. If an infant fell and bumped his head, we pretended to ignore it. In the event one of our toddlers took a spill, we let him lie, whimper a second, and then climb back up for another try. Sometimes a toddler would fall out of the wagon or stumble into the dirt; we let him deal with it. When the young ones wrecked their bicycles and skinned their knees, we paid no attention except to say something like, ‘You shouldn’t go so fast until you learn to ride better.’”
This calcification of emotion—hardening against any response to pain and labeling a whole range of emotion the realm of “sissies” and “crybabies”—makes children less than God intended, not superior. Pearl is greatly mistaken to advocate this approach.
c.) Destruction of a child’s will – According to Pearl, the goal of “training” a child is to completely shatter the child’s will: “The child has just one will, which, when it is surrendered to authority on any point, is always a surrendered will.”
Total compliance is the goal:
“If a child shows the least displeasure in response to a command or duty, you should treat it as disobedience. If a child sticks out his lip, you should focus your training on his bad attitude. A wrong slant of the shoulders can reveal a bad frame of mind. Consider this a sign to instruct, train, or discipline. A cheerful, compliant spirit is the norm. Anything else is a sign of trouble.”
To this end, Pearl tells parents to use whatever force is necessary to break a child’s will. Pearl, himself a hulk of a man, sometimes sat on his children in order to beat them:
“Part of [the child’s] training is to come submissively. However, if you are just beginning to institute training on an already rebellious child who runs from discipline, and he is too disturbed to listen, then you must constrain him. If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing. Hold the resisting child in a helpless position for several minutes, or until he is totally surrendered. Accept no conditions for surrender— no compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final.”
Did you follow all this? In To Train Up a Child, Michael Pearl encourages parents to demand unquestioning obedience (stifling intellect), to toughen them up against pain and abuse (emotionally deadening them), and to completely shatter the child’s will. This effectively removes the personhood of each child and creates impersonal robots who do whatever an adult tells them to do. It effaces the image of God from children. Does this sound like the heart of God?
7.) Encourages Beating Infants and Children – This is the starting point for most of the articles and commentators who have expressed concern about this book. They rightly call such teachings child abuse. But I hope you can see that there is an entire twisted theology that leads up to this point and helps to explain why the Pearls teach people to beat their children.
8.) Examples of Child Abuse by Michael Pearl – While a Christian may come down on a spectrum in terms of whether it is ever appropriate to spank a child, there are several examples of child “training” which Pearl gloatingly gives which are undisputably examples of child endangerment or child abuse.
First, Pearl left unguarded guns in full reach of his infants and children. When they toddled toward the gun, he would say “No” and beat them. He brags: “I didn’t child-proof my guns, I gun-proofed my children.” This is irresponsible by almost anyone’s standard.
Second, he practiced “safety-training” with a hot stove:
“We’ve always had a wood-burning stove for cooking and heating. A red-hot stove can seriously burn toddlers. I have seen some awful scars on other children. But we had no fear, knowing the effectiveness of training. 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. Other than during the training session, where not even one blister was raised, we never had a child get burned. It was so effective that, thereafter, if I wanted to see them do a back flip, all I had to do was say, ‘Hot!!’ They would even turn loose of a glass of iced tea.”
Haha! How jolly it is to burn your children and then use that experience to program fear into them. Sick.
Third, Pearl allowed his infant children [seven months to one-year-old] to play on the edge of a pond on the family property. He would let each child fall in; let them stay underwater until it registered that they couldn’t breathe; and only then rescue them from beneath the water. “It only took one time for each of them to learn respect for the water,” Pearl writes. “And it sure made life easier for us.” The only exception was his highly coordinated seven-month-old daughter Shalom, who just wouldn’t fall into the water on her own. So—you guessed it—Pearl pushed her in with his foot so that she felt that she was drowning. Nothing else would accomplish Pearl’s purposes of instilling terror of the water so Shalom wouldn’t play near the pond. I have included a picture of my almost seven-month-old son, Oliver, so you can see what age Shalom was when Pearl kicked her into the pond. Is this something God would approve of, do you think? Yet Pearl provides it as a shining example of child “training.”
Finally, Pearl wanted his small children to experience the dark side of life: “Expose them to death—the death of a pet or an accident victim… One or two examples to a three-year-old are enough.” Because a three-year-old clearly has the capacity to process carnage in a healthy manner, right?
9.) Fosters an Environment Which Enables Abuse – Besides cultivating child abuse, the Pearls’ system of training children also creates an environment in which children are discouraged from reporting abuse and where parents are told to take the side of the abuser. Mothers who believe that their husbands are too harsh with the children have only one option:
“Mother, if you think your husband is too forceful in his discipline, there is something you can do. While he is away, demand, expect, train for, and discipline the children to give you instant and complete obedience. When Father comes home, the house will be peaceful and well-ordered. The children will always obey their father, giving him no need to discipline them.”
Michael Pearl expresses his disgust with children who “whine” or tell adults when they have been mistreated: “I can still remember when I was young, looking on with disgust as some swaggering brat sneered out of one side of his mouth and threatened to tell his mother [after he had been hurt by a bigger boy].”
Instead of telling adults when you have been hurt or abused, says Pearl, children should keep silent. And parents should not become angry when someone mistreats their child. Instead, parents should believe adults who accuse their children of wrongdoing, considering that children will often use deceit and threats to manipulate any social relationship. This is a perfect recipe to enable child abuse to occur and to re-victimize victims. Lest the reader have any doubt as to Pearl’s position on this, he makes it explicit:
“It is not going to harm your child to be falsely accused a few times (that’s life). He will have to learn to deal with it sooner or later. When he is accused, if you have doubts about his guilt, patiently search out the matter. If you determine that he has been falsely accused, tell him, and then quietly drop the matter. Don’t let him see your defensiveness on his behalf. If he is roughed-up by his peers, rejoice; he is learning early about the real world. Don’t make a sissy out of him. If you jump to his defense every time another child takes away a toy, pushes your child down, or even pops him in the nose, you will rear a social crybaby. When you demand that your child be treated fairly, you are protecting him from reality. The younger they are, the easier it is for them to learn that they deserve no special treatment. Your reactions are not going to make life any less unfair for your child, but there is a danger of stirring up a feel-sorry-for-myself attitude in him. If you are tough, he will be tough.”
This is an abuser’s dream: to encounter children whose parents won’t listen to them, who have told them to suck it up and accept mistreatment, and who themselves have already beaten their children into submission. What a nightmare.
10.) Homeschooling Agenda and Reason for the Book’s Success – The reason the book has enjoyed such disproportionate success is because the Pearls are part of an evangelical subculture known as the Christian Homeschooling Movement. Let me hasten to say that this is not a monolithic entity: its expression varies widely. But there are hundreds of thousands of families (judging from book sales of To Train Up a Child) who fall on the fundamentalist, separatist side of the spectrum. These families eschew modern psychology (Pearl calls folks who believe in modern psychology a coven of “Sodomites” and “socialists”) and often isolate themselves from culture.
Indeed, Michael Pearl says that any school outside of the home will destroy your children:
“Never even consider sending your children to private Christian schools, much less the public, automaton factories. Whether a classroom is based completely on Christian education or on secular principles is not the issue…. God didn’t make teenage boys and girls to sit together in a classroom every day while real life outside passes them by. The world’s system digs a pit and then creates a myriad of industries to reclaim the tragic lives that fall into it. Classroom education for the young is a real pit. The psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, Planned Parenthood, policemen, social manipulators, juvenile courts, drug dealers, penal institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and medical doctors all stand at the edge of the pit competing for the business generated by the shovels of the National Education Association.”
He adds (a little hysterically):
“If you want a child who will easily integrate into the New World Order, waiting his turn in line for condoms, a government-funded abortion, sexually-transmitted disease treatment, psychological evaluation, and a mark on the forehead, then follow the popular guidelines in today’s education, entertainment, and discipline. But if you want a son or daughter of God, you will have to do it God’s way and in God’s choice of location – the home.”
So either you send your child to school and let them get the mark of the Beast, or you home school them and save their souls. This is crucial to Pearl’s whole system of child “training.” He knows that the methods he espouses wouldn’t be accepted for a moment in public schools or any institution with accountability. The only place you can beat an infant without getting put in jail is—where?—that’s right, the home. Pearl makes this clear: “Only in a controlled environment, where the threat of force is real, can a rebel be brought to bay.”
This is why this book has sold over 500,000 copies: because there is a large minority of modern evangelicals who are ready and willing to embrace its principles which seem to guarantee total obedience from their children. And its premise—that beating children is good for the soul—can only express itself in one place: the home.
Pearl has written his book with the sublime self-assurance of a prophet and the calm demeanor of a sociopath. And he has been rewarded with enormous book sales and an adoring group of adherents.
Perhaps he should consider his own favorite line, told again and again to his children when they fought: “If everyone is not having fun,” [he would say], “then it is not fun at all. Son, you know Hitler and his men had fun when others were suffering. They laughed while boys and girls cried in pain. Do you want to grow up to be like Hitler?”
That’s a great question, Michael. What about you? Do you laugh while boys and girls cry in pain?
And for my readers, what about you?
I don’t want to Train Up a Child. Not if it makes me a child abuser.
Let’s all work together to make this book go away. I plan to write to Amazon.com and ask them to stop selling this book which teaches parents to abuse their children. Will you join me?