To Train Up a Child
by Michael and Debi Pearl
No Great Joy Ministries, 1994
109 pages, nonfiction
*Note: This review contains sensitive and disturbing content.
In recent years the book To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl of No Great Joy Ministries has risen in popularity, especially among conservative-minded homeschooling Christian parents. (I consider myself a conservative-minded Christian parent.) The main reason for this is two-fold: The authors address the age-old parental cry of “How can I do it right?” and accompany their formula with promises of happy, compliant children and a peaceful home.
I first read To Train Up a Child several years before becoming a parent. At the time, I read through it quickly and although some red flags were raised, I gave it an indifferent shrug.
Fast forward to after my son was born. This time I read with new eyes and the chilling awareness of what could happen to our family, were my husband and I to follow the Pearls’ advice.
In my opinion, if taken literally—as the authors obviously intended it to be—this book is nothing more than a child abuse manual cloaked in promises of producing well behaved children. The advice outlined in the book and on the authors’ website is rooted in aspects of secular behaviorism1 and has been connected to the deaths of several children.2 One can only imagine the lasting physical and emotional damage inflicted upon thousands of other children as a result of these teachings.
The authors insist their cruel methods are endorsed by God, yet they have no religious training or credentials. They take liberties in twisting scripture, and claim treating the smallest and weakest among us in a cruel fashion is actually a demonstration of love. There is no mention of Jesus’ command to forgive “seventy times seven” or of showing true compassion and grace.
The authors’ theological reasoning is disturbing and too vast to detail in this review. For an in-depth discussion of the theology presented in the book, see An Examination of the Pearl Method by Rey Reynoso. For a theological review of the authors’ ministry in general, see Parenting in the Name of God by C.L. Dyck and David J. Dyck.
Regardless of one’s theological views about raising children or opinions about spanking, the practical advice in this book is shocking and heartbreaking. Below are specific examples of some of the most egregious directives. Quotes are taken from the seventeenth printing: April 2006 edition, copyright 1994.
- The Pearls admonish parents to “Train Up – Not Beat Up” (p.4), but the book thoroughly extols the value of repeated “switchings.” On page 1 they recommend rewarding a child’s “every transgression with a switching.” A switching is described throughout the book as striking a child on his bare skin with various rod-like objects.
- Child training is compared to training animals such as dogs, mules, and horses. (p.3,4)
- They suggest setting up children—including young babies who aren’t yet walking—to fail, and then switching them in order to “train them” to obey immediately. (p.5-8) They believe God tempted Adam and Eve by placing the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden, so we should do the same to our children. This is despite the fact that the Bible says, “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13).
- They believe a baby’s crying is self-centered and manipulative, and on p. 8 insist newborns need “training”. In Chapter 2 they say an infant’s natural ability to gain attention through crying, kicking, and smiling in order to satisfy his “wants” as opposed to simply his “needs”, is actually the baby telling a lie. Psalm 58:3 is quoted: “[They] go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies” (NKJV), even though in context the verse is speaking about “the wicked”—not infants.
- On p. 9 they describe switching their 5-month-old daughter’s bare legs with a 12-inch long switch from a willow tree, because she was trying to climb up steps. (One must wonder why a baby gate wasn’t simply installed.)
- They believe parents should “not allow the child’s crying to cause them to lighten up on the intensity or duration of the spanking.” (p.46)
- The authors declare that the very nature of a child demands punishment by “whipping, paddling, switching, or belting” (p.46, under “The Power of Absolution”3). Parents who don’t follow their methods are portrayed as indifferent, lazy, careless and neglectful (p.19) and “creating a Nazi” (p.47).
- On p. 49 and 50 they describe the procedure to administering punishment: “If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is 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.” The child is to “bend over on the bed or couch… Slowly begin to spank. If you go too fast, you may not allow time enough for the inner transformation to occur.” In the same section, the author says, “I have found five to ten licks are usually sufficient. As the child gets older, the licks must become more forceful if the experience is going to be effective in purging his rebellion. A general rule is to continue the disciplinary action until the child has surrendered.” (p. 49, 50)
- On p. 50 the authors claim “Any spanking, to effectively reinforce instruction, must cause pain. It is most effective to strike a light rod against bare skin, where nerves are located at the surface. A surface sting will cause sufficient pain, with no injury or bruising. Select your instrument according to the child’s size. For the under one-year-old child, a small, ten- to twelve-inch-long, willowy branch (stripped of any knots that might break the skin), about one-eighth inch in diameter is sufficient. Sometimes alternatives have to be sought. A one-foot ruler, or its equivalent in a paddle, is a suitable substitute. For the larger child, a belt or a three-foot cutting off of a shrub is effective.”
- If a father spanks a child and the child cries for his mother, the mother should hit the child as forcefully as the father did—even if the father was being unduly harsh: “It is better for your child if you support an occasional injustice than to destroy the authority base by your open division.” (p.58)
- They recommend switching a three-year-old who was not acting appropriately (according to their standards) by administering “about ten slow, patient licks on his bare legs. He cries in pain. If he continues to show defiance by jerking around and defending himself, or by expressing anger, then she [the mother] will wait a moment and again lecture him and again spank him.” They recommend this until he is “totally broken.” (p.62)
- The authors recommend switching babies who cannot sleep and are crying, and to never allow them “to get up… To get up is to be on the firing line and get switched back down.” They speak approvingly of a mother who switched her 12-month-old daughter for crying and not wanting to sleep. (p.63, 64)
- On p.67 and 68, co-author Debi Pearl tells how she switched the bare leg of a 15-month-old baby she was babysitting, 10 separate times with a 12-inch long switch, for not playing with something she told him to play with. She believed he had a “selfish and rebellious spirit.”
- The Pearls recommend pulling a nursing infant’s hair if he bites his mother’s breast (p.7).
- Parents who are learning to “train” previously unruly children, are told to “grin” at the thought of hitting them: “Grin, because you have secret weapons: A Plan, Love, Patience, Reproof, THE ROD OF CORRECTION [emphasis in the original], Endurance….” (p.82, 83)
- On p. 83 the authors extol the wisdom of switching a seven-month-old baby boy: “If he is old enough to pitch a fit, he is old enough to be switched.”
If you are reading this, thinking the advice “doesn’t sound so terrible,” please stop and consider several things:
- Is it consistent with the New Testament’s directive to love children and NOT treat them harshly (Colossians 3:21)? If you believe the idea of hurting=love is a Biblical concept, I challenge you to read The History of Spanking by Crystal Lutton.
- Would you like to be treated in this manner? Would you like to receive “ten slow licks” on bare skin with a belt, paddle, or tree branch? Really? Try it on yourself and see how painful and humiliating it is. If you treated your spouse or neighbor this way, you would be arrested. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
- Can physically hurting someone encourage them to love God and want to be a Christian? Romans 2:4 says it is God’s kindness that brings us to repentance.
- Is it our job as parents to literally beat children into blind obedience, or is to show them Christ through a loving example and firm but kind guidance and teaching? Jesus says we should come to Him and learn from Him because He is “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29). Surely that includes learning from Him how to relate to our children. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col. 3:12).
- Is this the way God parents us? “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
After the 2010 death of 7-year-old Lydia Schatz was linked to methods Mr. and Mrs. Pearl espouse, there was a great outcry from non-spankers and spankers alike. Michael Pearl’s response to what was largely thoughtful and concerned criticism, was a blog post where he openly laughed at his critics and posted a photo of the kind of plumbing line Lydia Schatz was killed with. Such insensitivity from a man who claims to be doing the will of God, is disturbing beyond words.
As probably goes without saying, I do not recommend this book.
For Biblical and kind advice on raising children, see Arms of Love Family Fellowship, GOYB Parenting, Gentle Christian Mothers, and AskDr.Sears.com. For a scholarly examination of the Bible’s “rod verses” see Samuel Martin’s book Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me: Christians and the Spanking Controversy.
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. —Matthew 18:6
2 CBS News article: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-6247502-504083.html. Note: The news article mentions beating with plastic tubing. To Train Up a Child does not specifically mention plastic tubing, but it does recommend similar implements and says sometimes alternative ones must be found. The authors’ website does specifically mention plastic tubing in the form of “plumbing supply line” as an acceptable punishment tool. But regardless of what tool is used, both children’s parents were influenced by the overall message of this book. Author’s Note: Since the original publication of this post February 9, 2011, another child has died whose parents were fans of the Pearl method. For more information, see WhyNotTrainAChild.com.
3 The authors view the “rod” or similar implement as not only a punishment tool, but also as something that can “absolve” guilt, and “cleanse” and “preserve” a child’s soul. This is despite the fact that the Bible clearly says we are forgiven, cleansed, and preserved only through Jesus Christ (Titus 3:4-7, Ephesians 2:8-9). To teach otherwise is to promote a works based salvation.Copyright © by Brenda King | 3 comments