As promised, here's my review of "To Train Up a Child" by Michael and Debi Pearl. I was challenged by a Facebook friend/former co-worker to read the entire book after my earlier indictment of the Pearls' role in the death of Lydia Schatz.
If you're not familiar with this book, it's a "child-training manual" by Pastor Michael Pearl and his wife. I don't know if Pearl is actually an ordained minister -- I'd be shocked if he was -- but he presents an ostensibly Christian viewpoint throughout the book. The book's primary purpose, according to the authors, is to help you have a more joyful home and more obedient children. If you strictly implement their methods starting your child's infancy (it involves a LOT of "switching" children for any disobedience whatsoever), you'll have happy, godly, loving, obedient kids, according to the Pearls.
First, let me address the argument I've often heard about this book -- "you have to eat the meat and spit out the bones." Many parents have said, both online and in person, that they don't agree with everything in here, but there are parts worth reading.
To my way of thinking, that's like saying, "These brownies are really good -- you just have to eat around that dog poop that got mixed in." The bad parts of this book are SO bad, so destructive, so misleading, that the "good parts" pale by comparison. Sure there are a couple of good pieces of advice: Consistency is essential. Parents should present a united front. Play with your children often. Even Michael Pearl's letter to his sons at the end isn't too bad, at least not till he starts ranting about "Sesame Street" and other programs produced by "sex perverts and socialists." But, frankly, most of that is advice you could find in just about ANY decent parenting book. And mixed in is some truly appalling stuff. At the end of this post, I'll put some of the quotes that really made my jaw drop and wonder what the appeal of this book is.
In my reading, I immediately noticed a few things things throughout the book:
- The absolute and complete lack of grace, mercy and forgiveness expressed toward children.
- The repeated comparisons to children with animals.
- The straw-man argument of "if you don't spank your child you're letting them get away with murder."
- The reliance on "the rod" and the assumption that the Old Testament verses relating to it meant "a giant stick for beating kids."
The Pearls really don't seem to, well, like children. Michael Pearl repeatedly refers to very young kids as manipulative, self-centered and tyrannical. The book barely betrays any understanding of child development. But more grievously, it barely betrays any understanding of Christian forgiveness or patience.
God doesn't lash out at us when we mess up; he lets us try again ... and again ... and again. And aren't we told to forgive "seventy times seven"? Why does this not apply to our children? Why are they held to a higher standard than any adult? I know I don't always obey the first time I'm told -- not God, not my husband (insofar as I could be said to "obey" him! but that's another post), not my boss. I screw up again, and again, and I can't expect better than my children than I do of myself. Does the parable of the unforgiving servant come to mind for anyone else?
The Pearls emphasize repeatedly the success of their own family and the promise of peace and joy in YOUR home if you'll just follow their methods ... and of course they dangle that most precious of goals in front of Christian parents -- the salvation of their children. In fact, on their Web site, they have an article titled "Spank and Save a Child."
But, as katiekind writes on her excellent blog, "If it were possible to raise children to perfection, then God would have sent a parenting method, not Jesus."
They're kids, not pets
In numerous places in the book, Michael Pearl uses comparisons of stubborn mules, dogs and other trainable animals. I disagree with these examples strongly -- after all, people have free will, and faith, among many other things dogs and other domesticated animals lack.
But for the moment, let's play along. Let's assume that raising kids is NO different than training animals. How many of you have ever hit your dog? I'm willing to bet not many. I can't think of a single dog trainer, either one I've known personally or one I've read books or seen shows by, who advocates "canine corporal punishment." I have never once hit our dog, who's now 4 1/2, but he's beautifully behaved. And of course there are all sorts of animals that are highly trained where force is pretty much impossible to use -- think of dolphins and their elaborate routines. Does anyone think the Sea World trainers hit them with rods?
Straw is for horses
To win parents over to their way of thinking, the Pearls constantly present examples of parents who don't use their methods and are terrorized by their children. This is, of course, the classic "straw man" argument: "an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position."
First off is the assumption that all parents who have naughty children don't spank them. I'd say that's probably not true; this study shows that 90 percent of parents of toddlers have spanked their child at least once.
Second is the assumption that if a child isn't being spanked, he or she isn't being disciplined at all, and thus is free to wreak havoc consequence-free. Of course, just about any parent other than the Pearls knows that there are numerous other methods that don't involve hitting kids, from time outs to removing privileges to natural or logical consequences (the latter two being my methods of choice).
There's one story, cited on Page 59-61, of a 2-year-old little boy who kept whacking his mother with a toy wench. She would just whine at him to stop, which of course had no effect. Debi Pearl picked up a similar toy wrench, when the child started striking HER with it, hit him back with equal force each time. The story went on for quite some time and appeared to be quite the battle of wills. (Apparently Debi "won" in the end.) I read it aloud to my husband and said, "You know what I would have done?" He said, "Um, take the wrench?" Exactly! When Matthew went through a stage where he was whacking his trains on the new sliding-glass window, I'd tell him to stop, and if he repeated the behavior, I'd say, "It looks like you aren't treating your trains and our door the way they should be treated. Mommy is going to put these away until you're ready to try again later."
Did it work immediately? No ... but neither did Debi Pearl's method. But mine was, in my opinion, a lot less damaging to my relationship with my son. (And yes, he's stopped thwacking his toys on the glass door.)
In addition, Michael Pearl often discusses how much more damaging it is to a child to be screamed at all the time than "switched" occasionally. I agree, but of course I don't agree with his fallacious assumption that just because a parent doesn't hit their children, they're so stressed that they're constantly screaming at them.
What is "the rod," anyway?
So, the Pearls place a lot of emphasis -- a LOT -- on the Old Testament verses about "the rod." They use a very literal interpretation of the King James Version of the Bible -- in fact, Michael Pearl calls it "the word of God in English," as if God handed down a bound copy one day.
Anyway, it's interesting that they recommend plumbing supply line for "switching" kids, because that's not really very "rod" like, is it?
Anyway, if the "rod" verses have always confused you like they did me, check out Pastor Crystal Lutton's excellent study on the real meaning of "rod" (short answer: It was a shepherd's staff, a king's scepter or a walking stick -- not something you would EVER hit a child with!)
Incidentally, Crystal is a regular presence at the awesome board Gentle Christian Mothers, which I highly recommend. In addition, her grace-based method of discipline and suggested 5 Steps are very useful. Sure, they take more time and effort than switching your kids, but I think it's a no-brainer that they're worth it.
"To Train Up a Child" is rife with theological errors. I'm no theologian, and others have already done a much better job of writing on this topic than I could, so I'll just post links where you can read more if you're interested:
- "To Train Up A Child: An Examination of the Pearl Method"
- "A review of 'To Train Up a Child' "
- "The Rod Is a Means of Grace"
Unfortunately, I didn't find one from a specifically Catholic point of view, but all three of these authors make some excellent points.
So, does it work?
I think one of the things about the Pearls' method that comes across as so appealing -- especially to very stressed-out parents -- is the authors' surety of its success. ("Prideful" is a word that comes to mind often when I read works by the Pearls.)
And, I'm guessing, it probably does work, to an extent. Will your kids obey you if they live in fear of getting switched for every wrongdoing? Probably. Will they love you for it, like the Pearls suggest? I seriously doubt it. They may put on a cheerful face (another thing the Pearls are big on), because, well, they'll get hit again if they don't -- but any parent would be a fool to assume a cheerful countenance and a cheerful heart are one and the same.
Furthermore, these methods, I think, can so easily lead to disaster:
- A child who is particularly hard-headed or has had some emotional trauma just may not "cave" the way the Pearls say he or she should. As Michael Pearl writes on his website, "A proper spanking leaves children without breath to complain." What if your child just never reaches that point? Do you just keep hitting? I'm guessing that's exactly what happened to Lydia Schatz.
- A child who is used to unquestioning obedience could easily be instructed to do something that he or she should absolutely NOT do. Razing Ruth, an awesome blogger who left her "quiverfull" home, was raised in a similar manner and tells a horrifying story here.
Bringing the crazy
These are some of the quotes that really shocked me when I was reading this book, the ones that made me think, "HOW does anyone read this and not see how absolutely evil it is?"
- Page 9: "At four months she was too unknowing to be punished for disobedience. But for her own good, we attempted to train her not to climb the stairs by coordinating the voice command of “No” with little spats on the bare legs. The switch was a twelve-inch long, one-eighth-inch diameter sprig from a willow tree." (They later conclude their daughter was too young to be hit with a switch and instead lay it across the stairs as a deterrent. I guess a gate was out of the question?)
- Page 50: "Any spanking, to effectively reinforce instruction, must cause pain, but the most pain is on the surface of bare skin where the nerves are located. 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, a little, ten- to twelve-inch long, willowy branch (striped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient. Sometimes alternatives have to be sought. A one-foot ruler, or its equivalent in a paddle, is a sufficient alternative. For the larger child, a belt or larger tree branch is effective." (I'm looking at my 16-month-old right now and trying to even CONCEIVE of hitting him with a ruler. I'm failing, thankfully.)
- Page 58: "If a father is attempting to make a child eat his oats, and the child cries for his mother, then the mother should respond by spanking him for whining for her and for not eating his oats. He will then be glad to be dealing only with the father."
- Page 63: "But what of the grouch who would rather complain than sleep? Get tough. Be firm with him. Never put him down and then allow him to get up. If, after putting him down, you remember he just woke up, do not reward his complaining by allowing him to get up. For the sake of consistency in training, you must follow through. He may not be able to sleep, but he can be trained to lie there quietly. He will very quickly come to know that any time he is laid down there is no alternative but to stay put. To get up is to be on the firing line and get switched back down. It will become as easy as putting a rag doll to bed."
- Page 79: "A seven-month-old boy had, upon failing to get his way, stiffened clenched his fists, bared his toothless gums and called down damnation on the whole place. At a time like that, the angry expression on a baby’s face can resemble that of one instigating a riot. The young mother, wanting to do the right thing, stood there in helpless consternation, apologetically shrugged her shoulders and said, “What can I do?” My incredulous nine-year-old whipped back, “Switch him.” The mother responded, “I can’t, he’s too little.” With the wisdom of a veteran who had been on the little end of the switch, my daughter answered, “If he is old enough to pitch a fit, he is old enough to be spanked.” (There are no words to appropriately convey my response to this one.)
- Page 84: "On the bare legs or bottom, switch him eight or ten licks; then, while waiting for the pain to subside, speak calm words of rebuke. If the crying turns to a true, wounded, submissive whimper, you have conquered; he has submitted his will. If the crying is still defiant, protesting and other than a response to pain, spank him again." ("Wounded" and "submissive" are two words I desperately hope NEVER apply to my children.)
If you've read this far, thank you! When I began this little project, I had no idea how much it would consume me. My heart goes out to much for the children who are being raised this way.
If you've never heard about the Pearls, you're probably saying, "Is anyone really listening to these crazy people?" And the sad answer is yes, they are. I know the GCM board has many moms recuperating from the damage these teachings have done to their children and their families. And there are thousands of parents out there who are hoping that the Pearls really have the answers that they say they do. They're all in my prayers.
If you are a follower of the Pearls, I hope you take the time to realize that no one parenting method is perfect for every child, that you DON'T have to hit your kids to love them and raise them to love God, and that the alternative isn't a houseful of hooligans.
If you're looking for books, some good ones are: