Michael Pearl in 1831

Michael and Debi Pearl’s child rearing methods are not new, but are rather a return to ideas about children common in the earlier part of our nation’s history, as this story from the American Baptist Magazine illustrates.  In it, Francis Wayland has the same goals and uses the same reasoning, arguments, and methods as those put forward by Michael Pearl. The scenario Wayland describes is eerily similar to some of my own experiences growing up on the Pearls’ methods.

WARNING: You may find this content disturbing.


(American Baptist Magazine, October 1831, pp. 296-301)

Mr. Editor,

I offer for the perusal of your readers, the simple narration of a trifling incident which has in a few days occurred in my own family. Although of but little importance to any one but those immediately concerned, I think it may be made to illustrate religious truths, and, if so, it will be valuable to all. It may be even specially useful from the part of its being of such a nature, as almost every parent is frequently called to witness.

My youngest child is an infant about 15 months old, with about the intelligence common to children of that age. It has for some months been evident, that he was more than usually self willed, but the several attempts to subdue him, had been thus far relinquished, from the fear that he did not fully understand what was said to him. It so happened, however, that I had never been brought into collision with him myself, until the incident occurred which I am about to relate. Still I had seen enough to convince me of the necessity of subduing his temper, and resolved to seize upon the first favorable opportunity which presented, for settling the question of authority between us.

On Friday last before breakfast, on my taking him from his nurse, he began to cry violently. I determined to hold him in my arms until he ceased. As he had a piece of bread in his hand, I took it away, intending to give it to him again after he became quiet. In a few minutes he ceased, but when I offered him the bread he threw it away, although he was very hungry. He had, in fact, taken no nourishment except a cup of milk since 5 o’clock on the preceding afternoon. I considered this a fit opportunity for attempting to subdue his temper, and resolved to embrace it. I thought it necessary to change his disposition, so that he would receive the bread from me, and also be so reconciled to me that he would voluntarily come to me. The task I found more difficult than I had expected.

I put him into a room by himself, and desired that no one should speak to him, or give him any food or drink whatever. This was about 8 o’clock in the morning. I visited him every hour or two during the day, and spoke to him in the kindest tones, offering him the bread and putting out my arms to take him. But throughout the whole day he remained inflexibly obstinate. He did not yield a hair’s breadth. I put a cup of water to his mouth, and he drank it greedily, but would not touch it with his hands. If a crumb was dropped on the floor he would eat it, but if I offered him the piece of bread, he would push it away from him. When I told him to come to me, he would turn away and cry bitterly. He went to bed supperless. It was now twenty-four hours since he had eaten any thing.

He woke the next morning in the same state. He would take nothing that I offered him, and shunned all my offers of kindness. He was now truly an object of pity. He had fasted thirty-six hours. His eyes were wan and sunken. His breath hot and feverish, and his voice feeble and wailing. Yet he remained obstinate. He continued thus, till 10 o’clock, A.M. when hunger overcame him and he took from me a piece of bread, to which I added a cup of milk, and hoped that the labor was at last accomplished.

In this however I had not rightly judged. He ate his bread greedily, but when I offered to take him, he still refused as pertinaciously as ever. I therefore ceased feeding him, and recommenced my course of discipline.

He was again left alone in his crib, and I visited him as before, at intervals. About one o’clock, Saturday, I found that he began to view his condition in its true light. The tones of his voice in weeping were graver and less passionate, and had more the appearance of one bemoaning himself. Yet when I went to him, he still remained obstinate. You could clearly see in him the abortive efforts of the will. Frequently he would raise his hands an inch or two, and then suddenly put them down again. He would look at me, and then hiding his face in the bedclothes weep most sorrowfully. During all this time I was addressing him, whenever I came into the room, with invariable kindness. But my kindness met with no suitable return. All I required of him was, that he should come to me. This he would not do, and he began now to see that it had become a serious business. Hence his distress increased. He would not submit, and he found that there was no help without it. It was truly surprising to behold how much agony so young a being could inflict upon himself.

About three o’clock I visited him again. He continued in the state I have described. I was going away, and had opened the door, when I thought that he looked somewhat softened, and returning, put out my hands, again requesting him to come to me. To my joy, and I hope gratitude, he rose up and put forth his hands immediately. The agony was over. He was completely subdued. He repeatedly kissed me, and would do so whenever I commanded. He would kiss any one when I directed him, so full of love was he to all the family. Indeed, so entirely and instantaneously were his feelings towards me changed, that he preferred me now to any of the family. As he had never done before, he moaned after me when he saw that I was going away.

Since this event several slight revivals of his former temper have occurred, but they have all been easily subdued. His disposition is, as it never has been before, mild and obedient. He is kind and affectionate, and evidently much happier than he was, when he was determined to have his own way. I hope and pray that it may prove that an effect has been produced on him for life.

And now, Mr. Editor, let me say that I should not have taken the trouble of writing, nor given you the trouble of reading the apparently trifling detail, but for some lessons of practical improvement, which it has suggested to my own mind. If you will allow me briefly to lay them before your readers, I will make no farther demands upon your patience.

I. From this incident, which is in every respect literal fact, without any embellishment, parents may learn the intensity of the obstinacy of children. When they find their children stubborn, they need not be surprised. Let them hold out in a mild yet firm course of discipline until this obstinacy is subdued. This is real kindness. There can be no greater cruelty than to suffer a child to grow up with an unsubdued temper. Let us strive, by the grace of God, to cure the evil as early as possible. I do not make these remarks, by way of telling how much better I govern my family than other people. I believe no such thing. Far from it. God has seen fit to call me to bring up a child of unusually unyielding temper. I have related the effect of this method of treatment, in the hope that it might be an encouragement to those who may be required to undergo a similar trial.

II. But secondly, I could not avoid looking upon the whole of this little incident, as illustrative of the several steps in the ordinary progress of a sinner’s conversion.

1. I remarked that my child was about 15 months old, and yet I had never been obliged thus to treat him before. The fact is, I had never before required any thing of him, which was directly contrary to his will. Hence there had never occurred any thing to test the question, whether he was disposed to consider my will or his own as of supreme authority. But as soon as a case occurred, which brought him and myself into direct and naked collision, his disposition was revealed in an instant. How unyielding that spirit of disobedience was, I have already related.

I have thought that this part of the incident illustrates the reason why so many sinners are not, and why some sinners are in a state of conviction. So long as they do not feel any thing to be immediately required of them, which is at variance with their own wishes and pursuits, they are at ease in sin. They feel no distinct opposition to the law of God, and are not in fact convinced that they are sinners. Let God grant a sinner’s desires, and require of him only external service, and he would be entirely content. But let the Holy Spirit present before him the law in all its broadness, let him see that he must submit his will unreservedly and universally to the will of God, and he is at once in open rebellion. He was living without the law before, but let the commandment thus come, and his sinful disposition revives; that is, comes forth in its power, and he dies, that is, yields himself at once to its deadly influence. Thus the commandment which was unto life, that is, would have secured his happiness had he obeyed, is in consequence of his disposition found to be unto death. We see, therefore, why it is that men are not, when in a state of thoughtlessness, conscious of their enmity to God: namely, because they do not feel that his law is opposed to their will, and we see how it is, that their real character at once is revealed, when the real character of God is brought into immediate collision with their desires.

2. It will be remembered, that I offered my child food, and he would not take it. I offered to receive im to my arms, if he would renounce his hostility to me, and evince it by simply putting forth his arms to come to me. I would not force him to come, nor would I treat him with favor until he submitted. I was right and he was wrong. He might at any moment have put an end to the controversy. He was therefore inflicting all this misery voluntarily upon himself.

Here several things are to be observed.

1. The terms I offered him were perfectly kind. I was willing to pass by all that he had done, if he would only evince a right disposition. 2. I could offer no other terms. To have received him on any other terms would have been to allow that his will was to be my rule of action, and whenever he set out to have his own way, I must have obliged my whole family to have conformed in all their arrangements to his wishes. He must have been made the centre of the whole system. A whole family under the control of a child 15 months old! How unjust this would have been to all the rest, is evident. Besides, my other children and every member of my family would have been entitled to the same privilege. Hence there would have been as many supreme authorities as there were individuals, and contention to the uttermost must have ensued.

Again, suppose I had subjected all my family to this infant’s caprice, and had done so whilst he remained under my roof, how could I have afflicted him with a more grievous curse? He would soon have entered a world where other and more powerful beings than he would have opposed his will, and his disposition which I had cherished must have made him miserable as long as he lived.

Or again, if all this had been done, he could not have been made happy. He did not know enough to be able to secure his own happiness. Had I let him do as he pleased, he would have burnt and scalded himself a dozen times a day, and would very soon have destroyed his life. Seeking, therefore, his good, and the good of the family, I could do nothing else than I did. Kindness to him as much as to them, taught me not to yield to him on any other terms than a change of disposition.

On the contrary, by yielding to me, my whole family has been restored to order; he is happier by far than he has ever been before, and he is acquiring a disposition which will fit him for the wide world, which, if he lives, he will enter upon.

So, to apply all this to the case of a sinner, God can offer a sinner no other terms than repentance. To yield to the sinner’s will, and save him without the unconditional surrender of his will, would be to make the sinner’s will the centre of the moral universe. How would you like a moral government founded on your neighbor’s caprice? It would be to throw down the government of law, and make this universe a hell.

It would be unkind to the sinner himself. He does not know enough of the universe to secure his own happiness, if he were permitted to act without control. He would make a hell for himself, even if God left him entirely alone. It is, therefore, infinitely kind in God to resist him, for if he were not resisted, he would destroy the happiness of the universe and himself together. By resisting him, he only ruins himself.

To avoid all these evils, God only requires of him to surrender his own wilful and wicked opposition, and be happy. Is it not exceedingly reasonable that he should do so? Is there any thing to cause his pain but his own wilful obstinacy? Does he not inflict all his misery upon himself? In one word, the creature is trying every possible means of escape from the wrath to come, except submission, and this it obstinately and most sensitively avoids. Ought we to tell a sinner in such a state to wait, to use the means, or to submit to God, while yet he was holding out the sceptre of mercy?

3. Again. When very hungry, my child accepted of bread from my hand while yet his opposition to me was unchanged. Extreme distress produced a forced yielding, so far as to secure an immediate alleviation, but his heart was the same as ever.

Thus we fear it is with many a convicted sinner. He sees that eternal destruction is before him, and he must yield or perish. He yields as it were to force. He gives up this and that and the other external sin. He surrenders the objects on which his heart is set, rather than his heart itself. The stream is changed rather than the fountain. He gradually convinces himself that God has pardoned him, and settles down too frequently in a false hope. At other times God reveals to him again the deceitfulness of his heart with still greater clearness, and he is yet more distressed than ever. Happy are they who are thus led to surrender their whole body and soul and spirit a living sacrifice to their God and Redeemer.

4. The change, as I remarked, was instantaneous. He might have obeyed me as well twenty-four hours before. It produced an instantaneous change in his whole character.

So in the case of conversion. The sinner has only to submit himself to the righteous government of God, and accept of the Saviour’s sacrifice, and the agony is over. There is no reason why he should delay. You may do it now, reader, whilst your eyes rest upon this trifling relation. The moment of your doing so, will introduce you to a new world. You will be filled with love to God. The peace that passeth understanding will be shed abroad in your heart. Your bosom will glow with love to the whole family of the redeemed on earth and in heaven. You will find that happiness can never be obtained by obeying your own will, but that it is obtained only by relinquising it, and making God the centre of your affections, the eternal rest of your soul.
Francis Wayland

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