Sibling v. Sibling: Giving the Child the Rod

This is part of a series in which I am 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.   

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point early on my mom handed me the rod. She told me I was to spank my younger siblings if they misbehaved or broke any rules and she was not in the room. The rule was that I could spank any sibling at least three children younger than me. This meant that at ten I could spank my five-year-old sibling, and all those younger than him.

This breaks my heart because now, years and years later, my younger siblings tell me they saw me as a bully, that they resented me, that I “lorded it over them.” I may have been all that, and I definitely was far from perfect. Perhaps having this sort of power over them brought out the worst in me. But I was ten, twelve, or fourteen, and at the core I did what I did because my parents handed me the rod and told me to do so.

As to why my parents did this, the answer is not that difficult. With so very many children, my parents could not watch and discipline each of us individually. So they did what all Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy parents do: they outsourced. They outsourced their discipline method to me, and that method was the Pearls.

I was told that loving parents – or, er, siblings – discipline their children, and that the only way to make a child into a happy, healthy adult is to spank him. I was taught that children must have their wills broken and must be forced to submit. I did not generally spank my siblings out of malice (though I’ll admit to my shame that I sometimes did). I spanked them because I had been told to and did not know any better. I did not realize that as I spanked I was building a wall of resentment between me and my younger siblings.

I wish for all the world that I had been allowed to be a normal sister to my younger siblings. Instead I was put up as a second mother, an authority figure, a clone of my parents and their methods. I spent an enormous amount of time watching my younger siblings, both when my mother was in the house but occupied elsewhere and when my parents were away. I was expected to act as parent, not as sister, to my siblings.


Sixteen-month-old Faith reaches for a glass bowl on the coffee table.

Faith, no, don’t touch that.

Faith touches the glass bowl. *pop* I slap her hand. She looks startled.

I said no.

Faith reaches for the glass bowl again. *pop*


Her little hand reaches out once again, her lower lip trembling. *pop*


Faith whimpers and looks like she’s going to cry, and I sigh. I gather her in my arms.

Faith, it’s okay, but I said no, and that means no.

She looks up at the glass bowl with pain and confusion in her face.


This scene repeated over and over and over again. I learned to never give in to a child’s crying, and that even a baby could rebel. I learned to house proof the baby rather than baby proofing the house. As for slightly older kids, I frequently spanked four, five, or six-year-old siblings for “disobedience” or “insolence.” Obedience was expected to be immediate, completely, and without complaint. Even talking back was to be punished, often with spanking.


Judah, I told you to take this trash bag out.

I don’t want to!

I don’t care. You have to take it out or get a spank and take it out.

But I did it last time!

Alright, that’s it, you’re getting a spanking.


Why was I made to be an authority figure to my siblings instead of a sister? My heart breaks because I inflicted pain on them. It hurts worse that I never questioned these things, never asked why, never said no. But what did I, at ten, twelve, or fourteen, know? What did I understand? I had never seen anything different from what my parents taught and modeled at home. My parents handed me the rod and told me to spank. And I regret it with all my heart. And now, all I can say is I am so so sorry.

I am today working on repairing my relationships with my siblings, relationships I unwittingly and unintentionally sabotaged all those years ago. As for the future, I will never, ever put my children in this kind of situation.

When Marriage Looks Like the Only Escape
A Letter from Jesus and Living in Fear
Red Town, Blue Town
The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
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.

  • Benjamin Allen

    The real reason this is done is for the same reason that the Nazis often used Jews to police the ghettos, and why gangs often initiate new people by forcing them to kill, rape, or beat someone. You dont want to do these things, you consider them unacceptable, but by making you do it, it increases the emotional and moral distance between you and the person you are ordered to harm (who presumably, you identify closely with). This increases cognitive dissonance and creates a sort of personal point of no return. You are forced to switch your primary identification away from your siblings, toward your parents turning Us into Them, and Them into Us.

    • Judy L.

      The real reason Nazis used Jews to police ghettos was to make those Jews complicit, and to avoid having to do the dirty work themselves. An example of this is that gas chambers were developed primarily to replace the work of the Einsatzgruppen, the military death squads that roamed Eastern Europe, murdering the Jewish populations in shtetls and smaller villages; the Nazis were concerned about the emotional and mental toll it took on the executioners to have to round up men and women and children and shoot them. Jews were forced to work in the extermination facilities and crematoria, however, it was always a Nazi military man who released the zyklon B into the gas chambers (I suspect this was for security reasons rather than a sense of pride and responsibility for the work). But I agree that the result is the same: it’s a point of no return, where your humanity is destroyed, and you can’t actually identify with anybody and you’re not part of any us or them; you are, literally, beyond the pale.

      This Pearl Child/Dog Training is not discipline; it’s purely punishment and manipulation. Disciplining someone, anyone, needs to be about admonishment, appropriate and proportionate punishment if necessary, and when it comes to children, the most important element is to foster self-discipline where a child learns about safety, kindess, empathy, responsibility, and pride.

      I’m so sorry that your parents did this to you, Libby Anne. I respect and appreciate that you can be honest about the fact that you sometimes used it as a bullying tool; as I’ve said before in my comments on this blog, you can’t expect people to engage in violence without getting their bloodlust up. I grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive home, and my siblings and I carry that damage with us, but the physical and emotional violence was never rationalized as discipline or as something that was supposed to make us better people. Violence makes a perversion of what ‘family’ is supposed to be.

  • Daniel Fincke

    This is heartbreaking to read.

  • teh_faust

    “I was expected to act as parent, not as sister, to my siblings.”

    As an abusive parent, one should add.

  • Inflection

    Children can be complete jerks to their siblings — I was, until my younger brother got bigger than me, and I will forever regret it. Encouraging them to spank siblings much younger and smaller than them cannot possibly end well.

  • Contrarian

    This is such a bad idea. It makes some sense to give older children authority in a large family, but without the maturity and perspective of adulthood, giving children the authority to punish their younger siblings is almost doomed to lead to bullying.

  • Ace of Sevens

    My parents left me in charge of younger siblings all the time, but I wasn’t allowed to hit them. Of course, since hitting was how my parents generally handled discipline, I had no model how to do anything else and ended up hitting anyway.

  • LoreleiHI


    I wasn’t allowed to discipline my siblings. I had responsibility, but no authority.

    Picture the scene:

    “You, the list of chores that have to be done by the time we get home tonight is on the table. You are responsible for everything that happens while we’re gone.

    Son and Daughter2, you don’t have to listen to a thing That One says. She’s the family slave. Have fun!”

    Somehow, my siblings hated me for the ‘special treatment’ that I got. No matter which way you go, you’re screwed. /hugs

    (Yes, my family was fucked up. Very, very fucked up. But I didn’t have the proper obedient spirit, since I’d told the pastor that I didn’t want to move back home after the sexual abuse. This was part of the punishment.)

  • Rilian

    My mom specifically said that I was not to do any “parenting”, even when my brother was doing something wrong. She wanted me to just tell her about it so she could decide what to do.

    Not that my parents were awesome or anything. They were kind of terrible. But they didn’t do this particular terrible thing.

  • Anonymity

    I’m so sorry that you and your siblings had to go through all that.

    I’ve been reading these posts, and my upbringing was like an extremely toned down version. Not spanking, just yelling and guilt trips and also no religion. But I am almost as terrified of my mother as a lot of the people who were hit. I’m still incapable of standing up to her.

    The one time I remember being able to stand up and say no was when I was told to look after my brother (he was 13/14 I was 16/17) and make sure he did his homework. He never did his homework, whether parents were there or not. Surprise, he still didn’t do his homework. The most I could think of was to try to persuade him that not only was he going to get in trouble, *I* was going to get in trouble.

    When my parents came home, he hadn’t done his homework, and I said that there was no possible way I could actually make him do his homework, or make him do anything, and I refused to accept responsibility for HIS misbehavior.

    Fortunately, they saw my point, but regardless, no matter how much I got yelled at or whatever, I would never be able to make him do his homework. He wasn’t afraid of me.

    I wish I could say that kind of thing now and stand up for myself.