Casting the Pearls back to the Swine

For the next couple of days, I’m going to be re-posting a number of posts I’ve written in the past on issues involving parenting and Michael and Debi Pearl. I think these posts may be of interest to new readers, and if you’re a reader who has been around with me since the beginning, they may be worth a re-read. This post was originally published here.    

It is a strange reality that Michael and Debi Pearls’ child training methods were driven into me so firmly as a child that I didn’t even think to question them when I left Christian Patriarchy behind. I still believed that children must be trained to obey their parents unquestioningly, that children should be spanked starting as young as six or nine months, and that if parents did not break their children’s wills those children would grow up to be miserable, spoiled brats. Therefore, when I gave birth to my daughter, years after I first questioned my parents, I fully intended to use the Pearls’ methods on her.

When my daughter first became mobile, she was fascinated by the garden we had growing in pots on our coffee table. She would crawl over, pull herself to standing, and reach her fingers into the dirt. And so of course I did what I had been trained to do: I said “no” and slapped her hand every time she reached for it. I had been taught, after all, that children should be trained not to touch things you don’t want them touching, and that training starts early.

And then I realized something. I was punishing my daughter for exhibiting natural curiosity. What the hell was I doing? Wasn’t curiosity something I should be fostering? What was I doing to my child?

I immediately got on the Internet and typed the words “Michael and Debi Pearl” into google. Was there something about them that I did not know? I quickly learned that, outside of Christian Patriarchy, the Pearls’ methods are universally condemned. I suddenly saw the Pearls’ methods for what they were: abuse.

But where did that leave me and my precious little daughter? How was I to train her? How could I be sure I wouldn’t ruin her? Having grown up as I did, spanking children was second nature. What was the alternative?

I began doing research on other child training methods, and soon learned about Attachment Parenting. I liked what I read. I decided that I would focus on forging a relationship with my daughter, on mutual understanding and respect, rather than on training her for blind obedience. At that moment, my entire approach toward my daughter changed. She was not an adversary to be defeated: she was a little girl to love and bond with.

In my home, I never say “no” without a really good reason. Is she getting into the trash can? What curious fourteen-month-old wouldn’t! So long as there is nothing dangerous in it, is there any reason she shouldn’t pull the trash out and throw it all over the floor? So it inconveniences me! Who cares! She wants to spill dry beans on the floor and move them around with her hands? Why not! She wants to color with chalk instead of going to bed? Why not! She wants to draw on the walls with markers? Why not!

My daughter and I are teammates, allies, friends. Sure, there are still rules – I’m the mom, after all, and she’s the little girl – but I listen to what she wants and we compromise. She can play with the dry beans on the floor, but she needs to help pick them up afterwards. She can color with chalk for five more minutes, but then it really is time for bed. And someday, when we move out of this apartment, she will help me repaint all the walls white.

Condescending Self-Righteous Parents Make Parenting Sound Terrible
What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • JoeBuddha

    Good on you for figuring it out yourself. I had to be taught by my lovely wife; fortunately for all of us, she got it through my head before she died. I raised two children by myself, and we got through it as a team. I made sure they were able to make their mistakes while I had their backs, and when they would no longer listen to me, they were so used to making good choices that they were fine. They’ve grown into people anyone would be proud to know.
    I’m hoping for the same for your daughter. Make sure she understands the choices you have to make as a family and that her voice matters, and you both should be fine.

  • Avicenna

    My cousin married a lovely young lady who when she was younger was taught not to draw on walls in a very interesting way.

    She was told that she could draw on the walls of one room in the house and that every month she could do one wall! So when she was young she started with scribbles and it improved and improved daily. Every month she would work on another wall and when all the four walls were full she and her dad would paint the oldest wall… Now I am not saying you should expose your kid to household paint, but I thought it was a very sweet way to get your kid to learn to draw and paint but not wreck your walls.

    • jamessweet

      That’s a really neat idea! We may just steal that :)

    • Noadi

      My parents bought big pieces of poster board and stuck them on the wall and told us we could draw on them all we wanted instead of the walls. My brother grew out of it pretty fast but I’m now making my living with art.

  • Dianne

    And so of course I did what I had been trained to do: I said “no” and slapped her hand every time she reached for it.

    One of the first comments I remember my mother making about her parenting methods was, “Why slap a child for getting into something she’s not supposed to? Just put it out of her reach.” So when my daughter was born I never considered hitting her. Both my parents were hit as children, but both resisted that teaching and so we never got hit as children. I’m extremely grateful to them for getting that one out of our family culture. I don’t know that I could have had the strength to do so myself.

    Keep communicating with your daughter. Don’t worry if she sometimes has tantrums. Tantrums and defiance are part of growing up. She’ll be a better adult for learning how to control herself rather than depending on a parent figure to do so. Perhaps that’s why (some) fundamentalists need god so much: they were never taught to have an internal moral compass that will keep them from misbehaving if someone isn’t ready to punish them for that misbehavior. So when the parents are gone they invent an omnipresent being to punish them if they do wrong.

    • Rilian

      I think that if they really hadn’t developed any morality, then they would just go crazy when away from their parents; they wouldn’t invent another parent. But they don’t invent god, their parents told them about god.

  • jamessweet

    I’m having an issue with my younger son (13 months) the last couple of days, where he is very insistent on climbing up on the kitchen chairs and often onto the kitchen table. I actually have a video, which I haven’t uploaded yet, of him dragging a chair across the room and climbing up on it to lean over the kitchen sink.

    At 13 months! It’s pretty cool he can do that, but that’s also the problem: He’s not nearly coordinated enough yet for this amount of climbing. He’s already had at least one bad fall, and there would have been many more if he weren’t spotting him and/or stopping him from doing it.

    It’s times like these when I am moderately tempted by ideas like “blanket training” and that totally uncompromising attitude towards getting obedience out of kids. But, I don’t have any real interest in that, even though occasionally I think I’m tempted. For one, I don’t really have the tenacity, heh…

    But moreover, I’m a little proud of my boy that he is attempting such ambitious climbing at such a young age. I admire his persistence. I don’t want to squelch that! It’s a tough line to walk, because I do need to watch out for his safety, and it can be exhausting having to constantly monitor him so he doesn’t do anything too dangerous. But it’s worth it!

    WIW: We do “mostly” attachment parenting. Our overriding philosophies towards parenting are very much in line with AP, and we adopt a lot of the practices. We do occasionally resort to a timeout-esque technique with our older guy (just turned three last week!), but it’s an extreme fallback that we rarely employ. And it’s not a true timeout, because we don’t ostracize him or cut him off; sometimes I’ll even sit with him until he calms down. We put him on the steps behind a child gate where he can’t get out, we call it “taking a rest”, and we only do it when he’s flipping out to the point that we can’t even talk to him, or if he’s doing something we absolutely must put a stop to and we are having trouble stopping him without removing him entirely from the room.

    So that’s definitely not orthodox AP, but I think it’s more or less in keeping with the principles of it, while finding a way to make it work for us.

    I think that’s what it’s all about, is finding what works for your family, while keeping in mind that parental love is unconditional, and that exploration and curiosity are to be fostered rather than squelched, even if they occasionally have to be reigned in for safety issues/protect your stuff/parental sanity. For some people, that winds up being full-blown attachment parenting, or even the more radical consensual parenting; for others, it winds up involving things like timeouts and some more restrictive disciplinary measures. For us it’s somewhere in between: attachment parenting, with some compromises to maintain our sanity :)

  • Janey Q Doe

    Whilst I admire your patient approach to parenting, I’d warn you not to think that your own needs don’t count in the whole process. If you want Sally to go to bed because you’re tired and you’ve had a long day- that’s okay. Doing that also teaches her that she needs to take into account the needs and feelings of others and that sometimes you have to subjugate yourself for others. If you are the one being subjugated all the time, there is a danger that Sally will not learn to do it for herself. Of course, this can still be approached in the same gentle manner- Mummy is tired right now and she really needs you to do this.

    • Rilian

      Someone else being tired does not mean that I need to go to bed. It *might* mean that I need to be quiet so they can sleep.

      • LutheranEmily

        If she is a small child and might endanger herself while awake it does.

        It of course doesn’t mean that for adults or even older children, but for a small undisciplined child, it sure does!

        My 4 year old used to get herself into dangerous situations when she was 1 and 2. She would get out of bed in the middle of the night and “do stuff”. Once, I heard a bang and found her in my basement sweeping. She hadn’t completely mastered the stairs yes.
        Another time, (she was 2 I think) she got a chair and took my purse off the counter. In my purse she found a pack of gum. She proceeded to put the entire pack of gum in her mouth. She must have had 10 pieces in her mouth. It was a huge wad. She could have choked.

        We ended up having to put a baby gate up to keep her middle of the night escapades safe, but there are definitely times when a small child “needs” to go to bed.

  • Rilian

    I figured this stuff out by thinking about how I wished my parents would treat me. I don’t have kids (yet) though. I’m not sure if I ever will, but I think it would be a good experience.