Hana Williams, Michael Pearl, and To Train Up A Child

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.   

And so it continues. Another child has died as a direct result of Michael Pearl’s teachings. How many more must die?

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – The parents of an adopted girl who died of exposure in her own backyard after she had been starved and abused for months pleaded not guilty to the charges Thursday.

A witness told investigators that the Williams got their ideas for the disciplinary measures from a book, “How to Train Up Your Child,” which recommends switchings with a plumbing tool, cold water baths, withholding food and putting children out in cold weather as forms of punishment.

After Hana’s death, CPS convinced a judge to pull Hana’s eight brothers and sister – ages seven to 17 – from their Sedro-Woolley home. Those children are all now in temporary foster care. The parents have requested a hearing to fight to get their children back.

Michael Pearl and his followers will once again distance themselves, saying that they never said families are to punish their children in anger or beat their children or starve them or put them outside in the cold. But like I’ve said before, these defenses ring hollow. For one thing, there is no evidence that the Williams family ever punished Hana in anger. In fact, in the case of the Schatzes, there is actually a great deal of evidence that the Schatzes did not punish Lydia in anger.

You don’t have to punish in anger in order to abuse children. All you have to do is follow what Michael Pearl says in To Train Up A Child, slowly and methodically.

The core of Pearl’s teachings on child training seems to be the necessity of breaking the child’s will. Over and over again, Pearl tells parents to see parenting as a battle between the will of the parents and the will of the children, and over and over he admonishes children that unless they defeat their children’s will and force them to defeat, they and their children will be miserable. He teaches that if you love your child, you must break her will at any cost.

Sometimes breaking a child’s will can be difficult. Sometimes it involves multiple (dispassionate) spankings with plumbing supply line, sometimes it involves withholding food until the child submits (and the Pearls say not to worry, for a child will never starve himself rather than submit). And while I have never heard of the Pearls recommending that children be forced to spend the night outside as a punishment, it is in some sense a natural outgrowth of the idea that a rebellious child must be separated from the others until he or she submits.

If Hana had submitted, she would not have been beaten with the plumbing supply line. If Hana had submitted, she would not have been starved. If Hana had submitted, she would not have been forced to spend the night away from the family. Since Hana did not submit, Pearl would say, she was clearly in rebellion against her parents, striving to exert her will over theirs. Her will needed breaking. And sometimes, as in the case of Lydia and the case of Hana, breaking the will may result in breaking the body.

This child was also adopted, and also from Africa. I cannot think that this is a coincidence. Children who are adopted may have attachment issues, and parents of adopted children may relate to them differently than to their biological children. Furthermore, children who are adopted as children rather than born into a Pearl family must have their wills broken much later than those raised on the Pearls from birth. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns into a pattern.

Update: Michael Pearl has issued an official statement on Hana’s death, which you can read here. I think they realize the problem they have. They are not “laughing” in this statement, but instead point out passages from TTUAC that supposedly warn against how Hana’s parents treated her. Except, of course, that they actually don’t.

“Train up-not beat up. Train up-not discipline up.” “A child needs more than ‘obedience training’, but without first training him, discipline is insufficient” page 4

“Disciplinary actions can easily become excessive and oppressive if you set aside the tool of training and depend on discipline alone to do the training.” Page 9

“Parent, have you trained yourself not to discipline immediately but to wait until your irritation builds into anger? If so, then you have allowed anger to become your inducement to discipline.” Page 25

“Parent, if you are having problems with your children, you can be assured that you are not alone. Your children are also having problems with you. You are going to have to make adjustments in your own life if you are going to help them with their problems.” “… the responsibility for making a significant change is completely yours.” Page 32

“There are always some who act in the extreme. These individuals are capable of using what has been said about the legitimate use of the rod to justify ongoing brutality to their children.” page 50

“The rod should never be a vent for parents’ anger. Where the supreme motivation is anything other than the child’s good, it is inevitable that such behavior by the parent will assuredly create problems.” page 51

None of these quotes argue against what Hana’s parents did, because there is no evidence that her parents disciplined her in anger, and there is no evidence that they did not also try to build a relationship in order to curb Hana’s “rebellion.” There is no evidence that the parents were merely using Pearls’ methods to justify brutality, rather than actually believing Pearl’s methods and using them in love to train up their children.

The problem was not anger or the rod, but rather the belief that children must have their wills broken at whatever cost necessary. Allow me to quote some other passages from TTUAC:

“Know that if he is accustomed to getting his unrestricted way, you can expect just such a response. He will just continue to do what he has always done to get his way. It is his purpose to intimidate you and make you fell like a crud pile. Don’t be bullied. Give him more of the same. 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. If this is the first time he has come up against someone tougher than he, it may take a while. He must be convinced that you have truly altered your expectations. There is no justification for this to be done in anger. If you are the least angry, wait until another time. Most parents are so guilt laden and paranoid that they are unable to carry this through to the end. If you stop before he is voluntarily submissive, you have confirmed to him the value and effectiveness of a screaming protest. The next time, it will take twice as long to convince him of your commitment to his obedience, because he has learned the ultimate triumph of endurance in this episode in which he has prevailed.” (80)

“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)

And finally, there is this gem:

“If you are just beginning to institute training on an already rebellious child, who runs from discipline and is too incoherent to listen, then use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay. 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. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final.”

I rest my case.

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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.

  • Kevin Alexander

    I just had a great idea for a commercial product. I’ll call it the

    Michael and Debi TrainUp® Shock Collar

    Like they have for dogs and you don’t even have to make them, just buy the dog ones and change the labels.
    Think how much more convenient they’d be. You wouldn’t even have to catch your kids to beat on them, just point and zap. Show them you love them up to 200ft away.

    If the Pearls don’t send me royalties, they’ll hear from my lawyers.

  • amhovgaard

    Just reading those quotes makes me so angry I’m literally shaking from the adrenaline… I’d rather not describe what I’d like to do to those Pearls if I could get my hands on them, but I have a VERY vivid imagination.

  • Swami HN

    I am still trying to figure out how I can work in a pun about “pearls before swine”, or maybe “the Pearls are swine”. hmmm

    • http://sidhe3141.blogspot.com sidhe3141

      One of yesterday’s (I think…) posts beat you to it. “Casting the Pearls back to the Swine”.

  • Twist

    Funny definition of the word ‘benevolent’ they’ve got there.

  • Sharon

    “Training” is obviously a loaded term with different meanings for different people. I trained my dogs and they are very well behaved, but there was absolutely no breaking of wills and no more violence than that which was (and sometimes is) required to keep them from swallowing something dangerous. This is the only venue for which I can support violence toward children: the snatching away of a bottle of drano, the Heimlich maneuver, etc. All of this is to say that the Pearls’ method is wrong for people and wrong for animals. I’d hate to see what they do to their dogs. And how can you trust someone is happy if that person has been beaten for being sad?

  • anat

    This is the only venue for which I can support violence toward children: the snatching away of a bottle of drano, the Heimlich maneuver, etc.

    Also: using restrictive force to keep an upset child from running into traffic. When my daughter was 5 this was a not-uncommon situation. She was having trouble adjusting to kindergarten, so for a while I had to take her home (over a mile walk) when she was already upset. I had to be prepared to hold her before she went off who knows where.

  • grumpyoldfart

    I was wondering why the older children didn’t report the parents to the police – and then I read this:

    The Williams’ older biological children were sometimes encouraged to join in administering the punishment by their parents.


  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I strongly suspect that the Pearls know that repeatedly starving and beating children will ultimately kill some of them. They simply have written them off in advance as “necessary sacrifices”, as all good totalitarians do.

    Even admitting you follow these violent “methods” should be considered prima facie evidence of child abuse. Anyone who kills a child using “punishment” as their excuse ought to charged at a minimum with manslaughter.

  • Dianne

    Does anyone know if there is any follow up to this case? Were the parents (to use the term loosely) convicted? Did they successfully sue for the return of their children? What about the other child they adopted and abused (but survived their abuse)?

  • raven

    Does anyone know if there is any follow up to this case? Were the parents (to use the term loosely) convicted?

    Last I heard, they were out on bail and one of them was returned for release violations.

    The case in California was prosecuted as homicide, first degree IIRC with a conviction.

    These cases are usually prosecuted as homicide.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    The Pearls are not only training children to be submissive, they’re training parents to be bullies:

    Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing.

    In other words: “Kid, I’m bigger and meaner than you and I will prove this to you even if it kills you.”

    • Dianne

      My great-grandfather proved to my grandfather and his (11) siblings that he (the GGF) was bigger and tougher than they were…until he wasn’t any more. They eventually started noticing that they were strapping young men and women and he was a broken down old alcoholic. It did not end well for him. The not nice side of me hopes that someday the Pearl children will notice that they are far stronger than their father.

  • Brightie

    My parents spanked for some offenses, and sent us to time out (indoors, no physical privation involved) for others. They liked Dobson. Different numbers of swats were pre-assigned for different kinds of offenses, and the highest number was five. We all knew what the punishment was, and had plenty of forewarning that we’d get that and only that if we committed the offense in question. I compared disciplinary methods with a child of another family in our church once. He actually took pride in his parents having hit him more thoroughly and often than mine. I think I was pretty well-off.