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.

Child Development, Jumping Frogs, and Evading Dinosaurs
The State of Children's Rights in Our Society Is Abysmal
Part of Parenting Is Letting Go (School Edition)
Talking to Kids about the News
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.


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