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To Train Up A Child… Abuser (Part 1)

michael and debi pearl

Michael and Debi Pearl. Photo from “No Greater Joy Ministries” website.

Michael and Debi Pearl are the authors of To Train Up a Child: Turning the Hearts of the Fathers to the Children. The title of the book comes from Proverbs 22:6, which says “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

The book has raised considerable controversy in recent years, especially after the deaths of several children were linked to its teachings. The New York Times covered the story, as did Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans, among others.

However, most articles have stopped short of describing the full extent of the abuse taught by this book, instead focusing mostly on the aspect of physical abuse. News outlets have also failed to identify the faulty theology and flawed biblical interpretation which provide the foundation for this book’s methods.

After reading this book, I believe there has been an inadequate response by evangelical leaders to the damage caused by it. I’m not sure why this is so. Perhaps folks don’t want to believe it is as bad as it is. Maybe they think the authors are misquoted. Maybe they think the negative reaction to the book has been led by bleeding heart liberals who want to eliminate any and all means of parental discipline. For this reason, I have included numerous quotes from the book to illustrate its problems. This has lengthened the post considerably, so I’ve split it into two parts. I also used a Kindle edition, so I have not included page numbers for the quotes.

So what? you might say. There’s a book which is a little harsh and which some parents might take out of context in order to abuse their kids. But the authors are sincere and the book is based on the Bible, so what’s the big deal?

to train up a child

From Amazon.com website.

First this: the principles in this book are not just open to abuse; they are abuse. Follow the guidelines in this book and they will train you up to be a child abuser.

The second big deal is this: according to the Pearls’ website the book has sold over 550,000 copies, with 625,000 in print. The same website claims that the Pearls’ 18 books have sold millions of copies. Since all of the Pearls’ books are aimed at families (and usually large families), it is reasonable to estimate that the Pearls’ teachings have influenced several million people, many of them in the Christian Homeschooling Movement.

Let me say that again: the Pearls’ teachings have influenced several million people. This should scare the bejeezus out of you.

Here’s why.

10 Major Problems with To Train Up a Child:

1.) Disregards Child Development: The Pearls lack any formal training in child development and their book goes against the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics which says that children under six months of age cannot understand discipline. The AAP also discourages corporal punishment for children, though many Christians may question that advice. My wife is an Occupational Therapist who has worked for years with children from infants to teenagers. She must always bear in mind age-appropriate activities and instruction, with a broad base of clinical instruction and experience backing up her decisions. The Pearls possess no such training. Nevertheless, out of their own sense of order, they disregard the aggregate counsel of tens of thousands of medical professionals and instead say that parents should inflict pain on their infants in order to “train” them:

“There are many things you can teach the small child at this young age [infant]. You can stop him from assaulting his mother with a bottle held by the nipple. The same holds true for hair and beard pulling. You name it; the infant can be trained to obey… One particularly painful experience of nursing mothers is the biting baby. My wife did not waste time finding a cure. When the baby bit, she pulled its hair (an alternative has to be sought for bald-headed babies). Understand, the baby is not being punished, just conditioned. A baby learns not to stick his finger in his eyes or bite his tongue through the negative associations that accompany it. It requires no understanding or reasoning. Somewhere in the brain that information is unconsciously stored. After biting two or three times, and experiencing pain in association with each bite, the child programs that information away for his own comfort. The biting ‘habit’ is cured before it starts. This is not discipline. It is obedience training.”

six-month-old

This is my son at six months, in case anyone needs a visual reminder of what an infant looks like.

Elsewhere, Pearl [all singular references refer to Michael Pearl, the primary author] says of a seven-month-old infant: “If he is old enough to pitch a fit, he is old enough to be switched [struck with a rod].”

How should you beat an infant? Pearl has specific advice:

“Switch him [the crying infant] eight or ten times on his bare legs or bottom. Then while waiting for the pain to subside, speak calm words of rebuke. If his crying turns to a true, wounded, submissive whimper, you have conquered; he has submitted his will. But if his crying is still defiant, protesting, and other than a response to pain, spank him again. And if this is the first time he has come up against someone tougher than he is, it may take a while…. If you stop before your child is voluntarily submissive, you have confirmed to him the value and effectiveness of a screaming protest… Once he learns that the reward of a tantrum is a swift, forceful spanking, he will NEVER throw another fit… If a parent starts at infancy, discouraging the first crying demands, the child will never develop the habit.”

Does an infant really need to be trained through beatings? Pearl says he must:

“A newborn soon needs training. Parents who put off training until their child is old enough to discuss issues or receive explanations will find he has become a terror long before he can tie his shoes.”

The Pearls seem to recognize the social stigma against beating infants, and they offer a solution:

“Except where the very smallest children are concerned, training at home almost entirely eliminates the need for public discipline. Yet, should the need arise in public, be discreet with your discipline, and then go home and re-train in that area of behavior so that you and the child will not be placed in that difficult situation again.”

Hitler Youth

Hitler Youth. IMLS Digital Collection, Creative Commons.

2.) Dislike of Children – One might think that the author of a book about child-rearing would love children, but Michael Pearl seems offended by their existence. He calls children whom he considers to be misbehaving “tyrants,” “brats,” “bullies,” “criminals,” “Nazis”—I am not making this up—and describes them as irritating, impudent, and rebellious. He warns them against becoming like Hitler. What he loves is not children but child-aged robots who act like miniature adults and conform exactly to his every wish. Compare this to the attitude of Jesus who welcomed children despite his culture’s demand that children be seen and not heard.

3.) Image Control, Convenience, and Child Labor – The Pearls talk often about the inconvenience of having children. The terms “convenient” and “inconvenient” appear seven times in the book. Here’s an example:

“Just think of it, children who never beg, whine, or cry for anything! We have raised five whineless children. Think of the convenience of being able to lay your children down and say, ‘Nap time,’ and then lie down yourself, knowing that they will all be lying quietly in bed when you awake.”

Yes, because parental convenience is the purpose of child-rearing, right? While most parents would love to have their children lie quietly in bed for hours—sign me up—the ends don’t justify the means if the means involve beating your children into terrified docility.

Pearl believes that children are socially embarrassing because of their emotional unpredictability. They cause a parent to lose face if they whine or call attention to themselves. Pearl gives several examples of neighbors whose children he despises and wants to beat into submission:

“Just last night while sitting in a meeting, I looked over to see a young mother struggling with her small child. He seemed determined to make her life as miserable as possible— and to destroy her reputation in the process. It was enough to make you believe the Devil started out as an infant. I am just thankful that one-year-olds don’t weigh two hundred pounds, or a lot more mothers would be victims of infant ‘momicide.’ It causes one to understand where the concept of a ‘sinful nature’ originated. The mother knew that the child shouldn’t be acting like this, but due to his limited intellectual development, she felt helpless. Older children and adults are constrained from such embarrassing public displays by public opinion, but children are not affected by peer-pressure, threat of embarrassment, or rejection. This little fellow’s life was one of unlimited, unrestrained self-indulgence.”

Pearl’s ideal is a totally controlled family order, from infant to adult:

“When an Amish family comes over to visit, bringing their twelve children, they are as quiet and orderly as a Japanese delegation visiting the Capitol building for the first time. They teach their children to maintain control of their emotions, always respectful of our property and presence. When in the presence of adults, the children don’t talk or play loudly. If hurt, they don’t cry excessively. The children learn to ‘give-over’ when another child tramples on their rights. Consistent training and discipline is the key to this kind of order.”

This should raise a question in the reader’s mind: Is this how God relates to children, or is it just Michael Pearl legislating his own preferences and calling them God’s principles?

amish family

Amish Family by johnny_appleseed1774, Creative Commons.

Later in the book, in a chapter entitled “Child Labor,” Pearl calls young children a liability in terms of time and money—a liability, that is, until they become seven and can pay their own way in the family economy:

“My Amish neighbors say that before seven the children are a drain on the family—costing money and time. Between seven and fourteen, they pay their way. After fourteen, they become an asset, bringing in profit. Certainly by the time a child reaches seven, he should be making your life easier. A houseful of seven-year-olds would easily be self-sustaining.”

Yes, parents. If you have a couple of children between seven and fourteen, your financial worries should be over. Start reaping the reward of their labor and your life will overflow with joy and disposable income.

4.) Misinterpretation of the Bible – Don’t let the biblical-sounding title fool you, To Train Up a Child is built on faulty handling of the Bible.

a.) Universalizing particulars – Pearl has created an entire system of child-rearing based on his interpretation of a single verse, Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Pearl says of this verse, “Proper training always works with every child.” But Bible scholars understand that proverbs are principles of what is generally true, not promises guaranteeing an absolute.

b.) Selective semantics – And what does the word “train” mean? Pearl thinks it means behavior modification based on inflicted pain. He also believes that the same technique works for training a human child as for training a dog, a horse, a mule, or a rat:

“Most parents don’t think they can train their little children. Training doesn’t necessarily require that the trainee be capable of reason; even mice and rats can be trained to respond to stimuli. Careful training can make a dog perfectly obedient. If a seeing-eye dog can be trained to reliably lead a blind man through the dangers of city streets, shouldn’t a parent expect more out of an intelligent child? A dog can be trained not to touch a tasty morsel laid in front of him. Can’t a child be trained not to touch? A dog can be trained to come, stay, sit, be quiet, or fetch upon command. You may not have trained your dog that well, yet every day someone accomplishes it on the dumbest of mutts. Even a clumsy teenager can be trained to be an effective trainer in an obedience school for dogs. If you wait until your dog is displaying unacceptable behavior before you rebuke (or kick) him, you will have a foot-shy mutt that is always skulking around to see what he can get away with before being screamed at…. To neglect training is to create miserable circumstances for you and your children… If parents carefully and consistently train up their children, their performance will be superior to that of a well-trained, seeing-eye dog.”

Does this sound like what God had in mind when he talked about “training” a child? To treat your child using the same behavioral modification techniques used to train a dog, a mule, or a rat? Or did God mean to “train” a child by educating them, teaching them godly principles, modeling godly behavior, and yes, disciplining when necessary?

c.) Literal or Metaphorical? – Does “train” mean you have to beat your child with rods? Other Bible verses do say to use the rod in child-rearing, but they do not describe how to do so, at what age, or to what extent. They also don’t say whether this has to be a literal physical rod, or if “rod” simply refers to corrective discipline. The Bible is full of examples of God using the word “rod” in metaphorical terms: he disciplines his children through circumstances, consequences, and other people. All of these are described as God’s “rod” of correction.

A hairbrush is off limits. Only a wooden rod will do for the Pearls. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Creative Commons.

A hairbrush is off limits. Only a wooden rod will do for the Pearls. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Creative Commons.

But Pearl is a literalist and requires that parents only use wooden rods to beat their children. In fact, he outlaws hand-spanking because the Bible uses the word “rod.” Instead, he gives recommendations for the length and girth of wood switches, including a 12” long, 1/8” thick dowel to beat infants on the bare legs or bare bottom. This is simplistic at best, certainly legalistic, and abusive at worst.

d.) Mischaracterization of God – Pearl’s “training” concept is actually enforced temptation. For example, he says that God “trained” Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by putting a tree in the middle to tempt them:

“When God wanted to ‘train’ his first two children not to touch, He did not place the forbidden object out of their reach. Instead, He placed the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ in the ‘midst of the garden’ (Gen. 3: 3). Since it was readily accessible in the middle of the garden, they would be exposed to its temptation more often. God’s purpose was not to save the tree, but rather, to train the couple. Note that the name of the tree was not just ‘knowledge of evil,’ but, ‘knowledge of good and evil.’ By exercising their wills not to eat, they would have learned the meaning of ‘good’ as well as ‘evil.’ Eating the tree’s fruit was not the only way in which they could come to knowledge of good and evil, but it was a forbidden shortcut. By placing a forbidden object within reach of the children, and then enforcing your command to not touch it, every time the children pass the ‘No-No’ object (their ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’), they are gaining knowledge of good and evil from the standpoint of an overcomer. As with Adam and Eve in the garden, the object and the touching of it is, in itself, of no consequence; but the attachment of a command to it makes it a moral ‘factory’ where character is produced. By your enforcement, your children are learning about moral government, duty, responsibility, and, in the event of failure, accountability, rewards, and punishment. In the here and now, they are also learning not to touch, which makes a child a much more pleasant member of the social group.”

From this, we see that Pearl’s view of God is of a divine being who delights in finding the quickest way to imperil, tempt, and defeat his own children. This sounds more like Satan than God, doesn’t it? Later, Pearl says explicitly that God “tempted” Adam and Eve, which the Bible equally explicitly says God cannot do (James 1:13). But because God supposedly did it, Pearl thinks, a Christian parent should create artificial situations to tempt a child in order to beat them when they succumb and thus “train” them:

“My wife immediately set up a training session. She took the forbidden object and placed it back on the floor in front of the [two-year-old] child. ‘But that is tempting the child!’ you say. Did not God do the same for Adam and Eve?”

Such artificial scenarios provide a real kick for a parent, Pearl says:

“There is a lot of satisfaction to be gained in training up a child. It is easy, yet challenging. When my children were able to crawl (in the case of one, roll) around the room, I set up training sessions. Try it yourself. Place an appealing object where they can reach it, maybe in a ‘No-No’ corner or on the apple juice table (another name for the coffee table). 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 and grab it. Switch their hand once and simultaneously say, ‘No.’ Remember, now, you are not disciplining, you are training. One spat with a little switch is enough. They will again pull back their hand and consider the relationship between the object, their desire, the command, and the little reinforcing pain. It may take several times, but if you are consistent, they will learn to consistently obey, even in your absence.”

Does God really ask parents to tempt their infant children in order to force them to disobey commands they cannot truly understand? Is this “training,” or is it a diabolical strategy to confuse, injure, and abuse your child?

[For part two of this post, click here.]

5 comments on “To Train Up A Child… Abuser (Part 1)

  1. Hi,

    I see the link to part 2 and will not click it; I could not read more than a few lines of part 1. Reading about the manner in which beatings should be administered on a bare bottom or legs filled me with strong feelings of revulsion. The author of this book is not merely misguided, he (they?) are emotionally or psychologically damaged themselves. My own life history looks like this:

    My adoptive father beat me often. It was an organized, if not ritualized, event. Wrongdoings on my part were punished by me being made to lie on the floor with my trousers (pants) and underpants removed, at which point my father would lash my bare bottom with his thin rattan (bamboo?) cane that had been his Army officer swagger stick. The pain and the humiliation were overwhelming for me, a child of five or so years old. A child already struggling with fear and self-doubt, pretty much traumatised by being taken away from my birth mother and placed into an institution at two years old, before being placed with this adoptive family who reinforced all my senses of being in some way evil, unwanted, flawed.

    Oh, now I can see that these beatings were not gentle, corrective lessons in obedience from a loving parent. They were administered by an angry, confused and frustrated man who had run out of any ideas about how to cope with me – a deeply troubled little boy who wet his bed and soiled his underpants. Dad didn’t quote Bible verses at me as he performed these acts of a possibly homo-erotic nature, thankfully. Mother did the Bible quoting in a different context of emotional rather than physical abuse.

    I know without any shadow of a doubt that physical beating or pain handed out by a parent to their child is incredibly damaging. Slaps, punches, beatings, these are all physical evidence to the child that he is in some way defective, unpleasant, unworthy or disgusting to the people he most needs. What I needed (still need?) was a constant reassurance that I was loved unconditionally by the most important people in my life. Instead, I walked around with purple, red and blue weals across my backside that caused consternation to my teachers when I got changed for swimming lessons at school. Every smack, every swipe, every punch or kick, every screamed insult or snide reminder about how lucky I was to have been adopted, about how much their two birth daughters had given up…

    This has been painful to write, and I only do so in the hope that it may help anybody reading this who is still undecided about whether physical punishment is an option when raising their children.

    Clumsily written, too, for which I apologise, but from the heart. I hope it makes sense to you, dear reader, but I have to stop. If you have children, bless them, claim upon them the protection and blessing of God, demonstrate to them that they are lovely and lovable. I don’t want to address any questions about how to discipline or guide or teach your children…I am not qualified. But a parent using their own superior strength to hit them, or their own superior intellect or knowledge to cow them is not discipline. It is bullying, and it can mar their lives for many years to come.

    Every penny (cent) that these people have earned from writing this stuff should be taken away from them and given to charities that support children or adults damaged as children.

    On a positive note, when I was fumbling my own way through being a father to my two (fantastic, adorable, wonderful) children, I read a great book. “The Sixty Minute Father” by Rob Parsons. If you can get hold of a copy over on your side of the pond, do give it a glance.

    Thanks for reading this somewhat meandering post.

    • Jon, thanks for your courageous and articulate comment. I am so sorry for what happened to you. I know there are thousands and thousands of survivors of abuse, each with his or her own compelling and heart-breaking story to tell. Each story is important. Each provides evidence for what doesn’t work; for how broken people act; and for how hurt people hurt people. But your story also reminds me of the marvelous and supernatural work of God’s redemption. How he can take a nightmare upbringing like yours and transform you into an agent of grace, an advocate for the oppressed, and a voice for the voiceless. Please continue to tell your story when appropriate. Anyone who knows you will be amazed.

  2. These people are sick! Saddest thing I have read in awhile. May God have mercy on their souls!

  3. I was just talking over with my family about this abusive situation that happened to Hannah the other day because partly from the harmful teachings of the Pearls . I still keep thinking about it; my own daughter is named Hanna.
    Hannah meaning “full of grace” and I named her that becauseI loved the story of Hannahs (in the Bible) beautiful relationship with her son and God. I knew I wanted her to know Gods grace. – How in the world did these so-called parents not express grace to this beautiful child? And not only that they blamed each other when they were in court hearings and not expressing any grief on what they did to all of their children.
    JW I am so sorry about your abuse. The fact that you had the courage to share with us here, we are privileged to hear from one who is so articulate and on a journey of knowing Christ for who He really is. You will go far my friend and the Lord Jesus will use you to be an encouragement and blessing to others. We are your sisters and brothers here. 🙂

  4. Thank you for your kind and considerate comments. I am such a mess, such a mess…

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