The Pearls’ discipline dichotomy: Or, my day at the grocery

I was recently in a small local supermarket with my daughter. There were two other families there, one a fundamentalist woman with her two daughters and the other a young couple with their two small children.

Quick tangent for background: Michael and Debi Pearl use scare tactics to convince parents to follow their harsh discipline methods. They basically tell parents, “you see those screaming, uncontrollable children in the grocery, or that frazzled mother run ragged by her disobedient and disrespectful young children? If you don’t follow our parenting methods, that’s what your children will be like.” Here is how the Pearls’ parenting manual, To Train Up A Child, begins:

When you tell some parents they need to switch their children, they respond, “I would if I could find someone willing to trade.” I have had children in my house that were enough to give an electric wheat grinder a nervous breakdown. Their parents looked like escapees from a WWII Polish boxcar. Another hour with those kids and I would have been searching the yellow pages for discount vasectomies. While we tried to sit and talk, the children were constantly running in and out of doors, complaining of ill treatment from the others, begging to go or stay or eat, or demanding a toy that another child would not relinquish. The mother had to continually jump up and rescue some breakable object. She said, “No,” six hundred sixty-six times in the space of two hours. She spanked each child two or three times—usually with her hand on top of a diaper. Other than misaligning the child’s spine, it seemed to have had no effect.

Another mother walked into my house with her little ones and sat down to talk. She said to them, “Go out in the sun room and play, and don’t bother Mama unless you need something.” For the next two hours we were not even aware the children were present—except when a little one came in holding herself saying, “Pee-pee, Mama.” They played together well, resolved their own conflicts, and didn’t expect attention when one of the girls turned the rocking horse over and got a knot on her head. They didn’t run in and out—they were told not to. This mother did not spank her children while at my house, and she did not need to rebuke them. She looked rested. When she called the children to go home, one asked, “Mama, can I stay and play with Shoshanna?” Mother answered, “No, not today. We have work to do at home.” As he lifted his arms, his mother picked him up. Hugging his mother’s neck, he said, “I love you, Mama.”

This young mother said to me, “My children want to please me. They try so hard to do everything I say. We have such fun together.” She is looking forward to having more children. They are the joy of her life. By the grace of God and through the simple, Biblical principles found in these pages, with determination and an open heart, this mother has trained up children that bring her joy and honor.

In other words, follow our methods and you will have perfect joyful children; reject our methods and your children will be hateful, screaming hooligans. For those who are susceptible, this rhetoric is nothing if not powerful.

Now back to the grocery store. The two young children belonging to the younger couple were absolutely out of control. They screamed and yelled the entire time they were in the store and their parents did nothing to address it. At one point, the little boy flat out yelled at his sister: “You fat stupid Madelyn!”

As I listened to all this take place, I felt like I could read the fundamentalist woman’s mind, because I know what I would have thought had I been in that store five or ten years ago. Those children’s behavior would only have buttressed my belief that children not raised on the Pearls’ authoritarian parenting were all horrible, hateful hellions. Being in the store with both the out of control children and the fundamentalist family was a very interesting experience to me as I remembered my past thoughts and views.

And then there was my own daughter. I don’t spank her and haven’t since I rejected the Pearls’ discipline methods when she was still a baby. And yet, she was calm and well behaved the entire time we were in the store. She followed directions, and helped me put things in the cart. At one point she told me something she wanted to get that wasn’t on the list, and we talked about it and reached a compromise, all without any whining.

At another point my daughter was climbing on a shelf that she wasn’t supposed to climb on – she had climbed on it the last time we were there and a store employee had asked that she not. I told her to get down and she refused, and I started to get frustrated. “Look in my eyes,” I told her sternly. Her look was one of defiance. I took a deep breath, got on her level, and changed my tone. “Honey, the last time we were here the store workers asked that you not climb on that. This isn’t our store, it’s their store, and we have to follow their rules. Okay?” She understood, nodded, and climbed down without complaint. I had no more trouble on that score at all.

My point is simply that the Pearls set up a false dichotomy. They point at the worst behaved children and then blame those children’s behavior on parents’ failure to follow the extremely authoritarian parenting methods they advocate. What gets left out of the picture are children like mine, children who are absolutely not raised anything like the Pearls advocate and are yet intelligent, well behaved, and willing to cooperate.

What is also ignored is that there are other parenting methods out there, parenting methods that actually work a whole lot better than those of the Pearls. It’s not “follow the Pearls” or “let your children run wild.” It’s not “require absolute obedience” or “give your children everything they want.” It’s almost like the Pearls have no idea other parenting methods actually exist.

Reducing all children and families into two categories – well behaved children whose parents have used the Pearls’ discipline methods, and hateful, out of control children whose parents have not used the Pearls discipline methods – is simplistic and quite simply wrong and misleading. But unfortunately, it works quite well as a scare tactic to rope susceptible parents into following the Pearls’ methods.

Note: As readers have pointed out, there is also the fact that perfect behavior is not the goal and that every child will behave poorly when tired or otherwise stressed. I didn’t discuss these things in this post because I’ve discussed them before and they’re not the point of the post.

However, given that this is the first that some of you have read of what I’ve written on parenting, I’m going to spend the next few days re-posting some of what I have written on parenting, discipline, and the methods promoted by Michael Pearl. For those of you who have long followed my blog, you might find re-reading these posts interesting.

What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
The Real Travesty of the "Hero Mom" Story
Condescending Self-Righteous Parents Make Parenting Sound Terrible
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.

  • Ace of Sevens

    Plus, there’s the problem of trying to raise good (read: unobtrusive) children rather than good adults.

  • Sarah

    I think you’re making the same mistake the fundy in the store was making. How do you know the children weren’t little angels 99% of the time, but they wre on their way home from the airport after a long flight, or they’d decided to stop and grab some things on the way home from school only to discover that the kids were in no mood to be in public. My point is that you have no idea what anyone else’s story is, and if you give others the benefit of the doubt, then just maybe they will do the same for you when you’re in a similar situation. Because I guarantee you you will be.

    The other issue is that there were two kids, not one kid and an adult. While you were managing your daughter’s behaviour at every step, the older sibling of that boy was most likely needling him for a reaction. And I’ll also put money on the older sibling’s school friends being the source of the fat stupid Madelyn comment( it’s also pretty low of you to assume the child had a kree-a’tyvlee spelled name).

    There’s a reason parents of one are sterotyped, you should make sure you don’t say things and make judgements that will embarass you later on. And, you know, because it’s just nicer not to judge people you don’t know.

    • Ysanne

      The point is not that kids should be good all the time, I think. It’s more that parents should be able and willing to address their kids behaviour when it’s getting out of control. (I.e. not running around without breaking stuff, or a bit of shouting, or occasional nagging, or a little fighting between siblings — I mean full-out acting up.)

      You’re right that sometimes kids are just tired, in a whiny mood, bored and fighting with their sibling, and there’s nothing to be done about this.
      But in such a situation, parents (especially when both of them are present) should be able to mitigate their kids’ behaviour. It’s not the most relaxing thing ever, but in my experience it’s absolutely possible to keep two kids in total brat-mode from acting up too badly and get the shopping done at the same time, all without resorting to violence or practicing a generally oppressive parenting style.

      • Uly

        Except that if the kids are at their wits’ end, their parents might be as well.

        Sometimes you know you should be a better caregiver, but you just can’t DO it. At least, that’s my experience. Maybe you’re perfect, but me? Sometimes I’m just not. Sometimes I’m tired, or hungry, or PMSing, or sick, or tired hungry PMSing AND sick, and I just can’t manage another little incident.

        In those moments I try to avoid taking my young nieces to the store, where, statistically speaking, their behavior is bound to be the worst it ever is. But sometimes I can’t even manage to avoid that.

      • Ysanne

        Yep, I agree that it’s not a good idea to take the kids shopping when they, or I, are not really up to it right at that moment.
        I count myself lucky to have yet to encounter the combination of “being a wreck myself”, “kids are in full brat mode”, “need to shop right now” and “can’t go without them”.
        I guess we’d make a beautiful warning example of horribly behaved kids plus crappy parenting in such a situation. And anybody watching would be totally right to judge it as such.

    • Nepenthe


      “Madelyn”, with that spelling, was the 76th most popular name for baby girls in the US in 2010. That variant was the most popular of all the variants. It’s not “Emily”, but it’s also not “Youneek”.

      • WMDKitty

        And it wasn’t butchered into “Maddhy’lynne” or some such monstrosity. (Thank the PTB!)

  • otrame

    Each of my boys threw one temper tantrum in a store at about 3 years old. One each. In both cases they were very tired and if I had not really needed something I would not have been there.

    I ignored them. No response at all. I acted as if they were perfectly happy. (If they had gotten completely hysterical I would have left the story, but their tantrums were just crying and a little yelling and didn’t go on long). I got what I needed and got out.

    The reaction of other customers was about evenly divided between those that looked like they thought I was torturing my child, and those that looked like I should be.

    As I said, they each only did it once. My kids were not “perfect” (well, actually, they were–though I may be a little biased) but I was often told how well behaved they were. Now my son is raising his kids and guess what? They are well behaved too. No beating necessary.


    As for the Pearls, what they want is not well-behaved children. They want TERRIFIED children. Anyone who thinks that is the way to raise a child to adulthood is sick and needs medical help. The mother in the Pearl’s story,with her statement about how much her kids wanted to please her made me sick.

    • LutheranEmily

      I don’t believe that the Pearl’s want terrified children.

      I don’t know the Pearl’s very well, but I do know people who employ their methods. They want happy and obedient children, and they tend to get it.

      Though as we can see through this blog that happy obedience often is not what is actually going through the child’s head.

  • Uly

    They point at the worst behaved children and then blame those children’s behavior on parents’ failure to follow the extremely authoritarian parenting methods they advocate. What gets left out of the picture are children like mine, children who are absolutely not raised anything like the Pearls advocate and are yet intelligent, well behaved, and willing to cooperate.

    Not just the worst behaved (by a definition of badly behaved that not everybody will agree with! I certainly don’t think that “needing your parents” is necessarily bad behavior) but the worst incidents of certain children.

    EVERY kid has their badly behaved moments. If they don’t, then you are actually doing something wrong. No two ways about THAT. If your kid never misbehaves, ever, something is really amiss.

    • Sarah

      That’s exactly right, Uly, and it’s what is so messed up about the Pearls and Ezzo. An utterly obedient little automaton is a failure of parenting. Melissa of Permission to live has some really great posts on discipline, which seem pretty much spot on for my parenting discipline philosophy.

      But, Libby, this post shows me you’ve still got a couple of holdovers from the way your siblings were raised , the judgementalism, and the black and white thinking. My kids were noisily bickering in the supermarket the other day, because I made a bad call on taking them, I didn’t realise the older one was so tired after school. When you have two the problems of managing them when they’re grumpy are at least quadrupled. The checkout lady who normally compliments them on their helpfulness actually came over tp try and distract them so I could finish checking out.

      But it doesn’t make them bad children or me a bad parent, it makes us human, and you can bet I was judging the people who weregiving us dirty looks right back, because next week they’ll bebeaming at my kids and relling me how great they are – which makes them hypocrites.

  • DLC

    I can assure you, if I beat Michael Pearl every time he did something I do not approve of, he would in short order stop doing things I disapprove of. Painful violence followed up by the odd and unexpected act of kindness are how you build up “Stockholm Syndrome” in someone. Of course your children will become devoted sycophants, if you, their sole provider who is also 4 times their size, hit them for even the slightest infraction. Your child is utterly dependent on you for sustenance. This sort of insane clown parenting should be stopped, and anyone who practices it should be jailed. I do not wish to speculate on the mentality of adults that are the outcome of this kind of “parenting”.

    • Ysanne

      Aren’t there laws against this kind of child abuse in the US?
      Germany introduced one in 2000.

      • Libby Anne

        Nope, there aren’t. Spanking is still 100% legal. The U.S. never signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The only other country that hasn’t signed is Somalia, which lacks a functioning government to do so.

      • Steve

        The US has signed it precisely because the millions of Christian nutjobs would complain about having their “religious freedom” violated.

      • Noadi

        Not nationally, no. Child abuse laws are at the state level and they vary widely and to my knowledge now state has banned open hand spanking (whether using any implement to beat a child is legal depends on the state and often whether or not any marks are left). It’s really depressing.

    • DLC

      Allow me to append my post, which on reflection seems a bit militant. I’m not suggesting anyone should beat the living daylights out of Michael Pearl or anyone else. I was pointing out how violence is used to control people.

      • Sarah

        I’d quite like to be hired as Michael Pearl’s carer when he’s old and dependent on other people for everything. It would be for his own good, you understand.

      • Dianne

        In my fantasy world where I can do anything, I’d like to take on the powers of Neil Gaimen’s Dream and give the Pearls nightmares about what they’re really doing to kids and their parents. One night they’d dream of being a terrified 6 month old who gets beaten by people 20x its size on a regular basis. The next night they’d be an old person trying to understand why their “good” children don’t want to speak to them any more. The next a 3 year old trying to decide if the horrible pain they feel after drinking a mysterious liquid is worse than what they’ll experience if they “bother” their parents with it…

        Actually, what I’d really like to do to the Pearls is make them understand the pain they’ve caused and the damage they’ve done to people. But I don’t think that they’re self-aware or empathetic enough to ever understand that. They are only interested in making kids into Stepford smilers who don’t cause trouble and they will never understand why and how that is wrong. They’re just too stupid to be able to even repent properly.

  • Janey Q Doe

    It concerns me that the Pearls hold it up as a model that children don’t seek parents when one is injured. Sure, most childhood cuts and bumps are minor, but a six year old can’t make that judgement. They should always feel comfortable going to an adult when they are injured or not feeling well because an adult is in the position to know what is serious and what is not. On top of that, a kid should be able to seek comfort from a parent so that they feels secure in the world. It’s a terrifying world if there is nobody out there to support you through it.

    • Beck

      I don’t know if my father read the Pearls’ books, but he certainly followed their methods. We learned very quickly that unless there was serious blood, fire, or a knife involved, you left Dad alone. My little brother almost died at the age of three because he drank paint thinner (left within reach, because why babyproof?) and was too scared to tell anybody what he did when he started feeling sick.

      Punishing a child for turning to you for comfort is the easiest way I can think of to kill that unique love a child holds for their parents. It certainly worked on us.

      • Rabidtreeweasel

        When I was 7 my 10 year old sister decided to make a bird house using a chisel and a block of wood. She of course slipped and cut a huge whole in her wrist. Kids being kids, right? Only she was terrified to tell our parents. She cried silently while I tried to put Strawberry Shortcake bandaids on. In the end she needed blood and stitches. She did not get yelled at for being hurt in the that instance but I understand why she thought she might. You just never knew with our parents. I got hit by a car once and was grounded. I still don’t really get the connection there others than they were scared and just reacted poorly to a traumatic situation.

      • Janey Q Doe

        My Dad and Step Mum used to take us on holidays to a caravan park every summer and we were not supposed to go back to the van during the day. Now they weren’t Pearl style disciplinarians, but knew that we’d mooch about watching TV all day rather than swimming and playing. All very well intentioned and stuff. On one holiday when I was about 10, a kid pushed me off the monkey bars and I split my chin open. There was blood gushing from it but, instead of going to our van, we took the rules to heart and went to the park office who took one look at me and told me to go to our van. My Dad and Step Mum laughed when I told them the story- they didn’t think I’d take the rules quite so literally.

        Kids are dumb. They really don’t have the reasoning skills of adults, they can’t generalise and don’t have the life experience. That’s one of the reasons these kinds of systems don’t work, if a kid operates on fear based rule, they will never know when it is okay to break it, because their brains just aren’t at that point yet.

    • Noadi

      I come from a family where physical discipline wasn’t used but with a strong message of to deal with bumps and bruises unless you needed first aid. It wasn’t a rule but what was modeled to us kids by our father and grandfather and it’s not always been a good thing, my brother suffered through 3 days of cluster headaches as a teenager before he told anyone (cluster headaches have another nickname “suicide headaches” which should tell you how bad they are). Teaching your kids to be that stubborn about medical attention is a problem, I almost put myself in the hospital a few years ago because I didn’t want to go when had a bad cough and ended up very close to pneumonia by the time I went.

      By the way, the only time I remember either me or my brother not wanting to tell anyone as kids when we were really injured was the time my brother got bitten by a horse. That was because he wasn’t supposed to be in my grandfather’s barn by himself and he knew he was going to be punished for it (probably by not being allowed to ride the horses for a while). My parents decided not to punish him for it, thinking that he’d already learned his lesson by losing a thumbnail until it grew back.

  • Deird

    The Pearls’ description of a “good” parent sounds like their children are afraid of them and have been taught that their mother doesn’t like them or want them around.

    I’d prefer kids who want to spend time with me – even with the extra bother that causes.

  • F

    this rhetoric is nothing if not powerful.

    And the idiom. The idiom is, ahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! ahhhhhhh!
    (nearly finished, I swear) arrrrraugh!

    I’ve read bits here and there about the Pearls, but I’d recognize the parenting style anywhere, regardless.

    Butsrsly, nooooobody talks that way.

  • amavra

    This is somewhat off topic, but as I have a friend with an autistic son who gets a lot of negative stares and comments when she is in a store and her son has a meltdown, I feel it is worth mentioning.

    My younger brother is atypical. It is hard to say what his diagnosis is, since he hasn’t had a formal one since his childhood Landau-Kleffner syndrome was preventing him from developing speech. But he has many markers of autism spectrum including unpredictable emotional outbursts, perseverating/ obsessing on obscure topics, lack of interpersonal skills. And my parents tried to spank these behaviors out of him.

    It doesn’t work. I mean, it would sometimes get him to stop screaming or hitting at that moment, but it didn’t give him any better tools to cope with the world. His already stunted empathy (LKS related) is pretty much non existent now and I think growing up being spanked all the time is a large part of that.

    I know the Pearls think that their method doesn’t apply here because my brothers and I were spanked well into preteens and it didn’t follow the exact method of consistency and detached emotion. But a kid with autism or other neuro- atypical disorders is not going to be “trained” out of it. And they too often label such children as ill-behaved and prevent them and their families from getting actual help.

    I just remember always being labeled as a family with a terribly behaved child, the solution was always more discipline and more training. I dunno, maybe they consider my brother a success, as he is the only one of us who still goes to church. Though I was a better “trained” child who strayed very far indeed from the path they laid out for me.

  • Caravelle

    Shorter Pearls : A well-behaved child is a child you can’t even tell exists.

  • Carlie

    amavra – I was about to write the same thing. My son was what would commonly be called a very difficult child. Heck, he was a difficult child. We very quickly discovered that the “normal” things to do to a tantruming child to make them stop just made it worse: he had fits that lasted hours. Cry themselves to sleep? No, he’d cry until he threw up repeatedly, and then go back to crying again. It took a long, agonizing time to figure out that the best way to deal with it was to try and structure things to avoid those situations to begin with, to adapt to the way he dealt with things, to plan outings around his schedule, etc.
    My mother was appalled and said I was spoiling him rotten, and I can’t count the number of people who said he just needed “a good spanking to show him who’s boss”. Finally, after he had started school, we found out that he had a mild form of autism. All those tantrums were things he literally couldn’t control, couldn’t just “stop”. And then we learned that the way to deal with it was indeed to adapt to his needs and work with him to make situations more tolerable. He’s now a healthy mostly well-adjusted kid who has lots of skills in his pocket on how to deal with the world, but if we had followed the Pearls’ method, all he would know is that the world hurts him and so do his parents.

    One author I love on parenting is Barbara Kingsolver. She has an essay collection called “High tide in Tuscon” that includes a lot of essays on parenting that really struck me to the core when I read them. There is one called “Civil disobedience at breakfast” in which she talks about how she wants her daughter to become a self-sufficient, independent adult who is confident and self-assured; her toddler fights back about something and she realizes this is how a child becomes that kind of person, by practicing it on her parents. If a child is taught not to talk back and not to express themselves ever, they won’t ever be able to when they’re adults either.

    • Sheila Crosby

      If a child is taught not to talk back and not to express themselves ever, they won’t ever be able to when they’re adults either.

      Which is perhaps why some politicians are all for that style of parenting.

      • carlie

        That… is a very good point.

    • Siobhan

      Thank you. My oldest has aspergers and I just wonder what he’d become if we had used the Pearl method. We actually are stricter with him than we’d prefer because he needs the structure. And we have made a ton of mistakes trying to figure out how best to help him learn to control his impulses and learn social skills. It isn’t easy, but the key is that if we want him to learn to not use violence and yelling with others, we have to model it.

      Our religion (unitarian universalism) has as its first principle, ” The inherent worth and dignity of every person”. Note, it is not ‘persons over the age of 16′. I don’t always live up to this in my life, but we try hard to make this part of our parenting philosophy – a way to approach any interactions with others. Because we figured out that the best way to teach our sons is through modeling. Practicing what we preach, I guess.

  • Toni

    I think spanking helps to behave better at least for me. I’m 13 boy and daddy and mom spank me alot with the belt or the cane. It hurts alot but helps me behave. The worst is that kids in my class tease me when they see the welts on me cos I wear shorts all year and it’s visible.

  • Ben Jeffrey

    So you are taking the book out of context the point they continued to emphasize was that you need to keep in communion with your children and the rod is a tool to stay connected. If you lack emotional discipline to control yourself then you will never be able to teach your children to control themselves.