The Breaking of a Child: A Story of Near Disaster

The next day was Tuesday. Hope did not say please and so did not have breakfast, lunch, or her bottle. By late afternoon Hope had gone for forty-eight hours—two straight days—with nothing to eat or drink but a single six ounce bottle of milk. By that time she was beginning to act strangely. Her usual vivaciousness had disappeared, replaced with a sort of melancholy. She lay on the couch listlessly, uninterested in playing or even reading books. 


I’ve hesitated from sharing this story because of how personal it is, but I think it needs to be told because it illustrates perfectly the danger of the Pearls’ teachings. See, when I first read about the death of Lydia Schatz, my immediate thought was that I understood how something like that could have happened. The Schatzes followed the discipline methods of Michael and Debi Pearl, who teach parents to view their relationship with their children as a battle for dominance that they must win. Once a contest is started, the Pearls say, you can’t back down. You can’t blink. My parents are also Pearl followers, and there was one time when a situation got similarly out of hand, but in their case, mercifully, they blinked. Their basic humanity got to them and overrode the Pearls’ advice; they got scared by what was happening, by what they were doing to their child, and they backed down.

My parents didn’t follow the Pearls’ discipline methods because they wanted to do us harm—they followed them because they wanted what was best for us. When the Pearls’ discipline manual came to them highly recommended by their Christian homeschooling friends, they read it and found its reliance on Bible verses and (simplistic) theological arguments convincing. The Christian homeschooling movement puts parents under intense pressure to turn out perfect children, and in that environment books like this seem to make sense. But even the best of intentions can have disastrous results—and that is what the Pearls’ book does, it takes parents’ best intentions and spins them into something twisted.

In general, my parents’ adherence to the Pearls’ discipline methods meant that we children were not allowed to show a spark of defiance toward them and were expected to be 110% obedient 110% of the time. Bad attitudes were not allowed, and obedience was expected to be immediate, complete, cheerful, and without complaint—anything short of that was disobedience. When we were disobedient or defiant—or were seen as being disobedient or defiant—we were spanked with a wooden paddle until we were sorry, repentant, and compliant. We learned quickly that things were easiest for us if we just rolled over quickly, so we generally did.

But the story I want to tell here is the time my parents ended up in a battle of the wills with one of my sisters, Hope, who was only eighteen months old at time—a contest of the wills that quickly spun out of control. Now I say that there was a contest of the wills, but I actually think it was a one-sided contest—I think my sister was confused and bewildered, not defiant or rebellious. But it didn’t matter. Her actions were interpreted as rebellion and that was all that mattered. This story is illustrative of the danger of the Pearls’ child rearing methods.

It all started one Sunday at supper time. Hope had recently gained the ability to lisp a little “peez,” so my parents held her plate of food out to her as she sat in her high chair and asked her to say please before they would give it to her. They weren’t trying to make any special sort of point or anything, just to teach her to be polite and ask nicely for things. But for some reason, she wouldn’t do it, and my parents interpreted that as a sign of willfulness on her part. They told her she couldn’t have her supper unless she said please—so she sat and went without, watching us eat our warm spaghetti, steaming garlic bread, and fresh spinach salad as the delicious smells wafted over her high chair.

Hope no longer breastfed, but my parents still gave her bottles of milk. That evening my mother bathed Hope along with the two or three siblings closest in age to her, and then dressed her in her warm footie pajamas. Then, as usual, she prepared a bottle, this time asking her to say please. But Hope would not say please. After some cajoling, my mother reluctantly snuggled her into bed in her crib, empty stomach and all.

In order to explain the mindset my parents were operating on here, I’m going to quote directly from Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child (p. 11):

Be Assured of Two Things

First, almost every small child will have at least one time in his life when he will rebel against authority and attempt to take hold of the reins…. This act of stubbornness is profound—amazing—a wonder that one so young could be so dedicated and persevering in rebellion. It is the kind of determination you would expect to find in a hardened revolutionary facing enemy indoctrination classes. Parents who are trained to expect it, and are prepared to persevere, will still be awed at the strength of the small child’s will.

Second, if you are consistent in training, this attempt at total dominance will come only once in a child’s life, usually around two years old. If you win the confrontation, the child wins the game of character development. If you weaken and allow the child to dominate, the child loses everything but his will to dominate. You must persevere for the sake of the child. His will to dominate must be dominated by the rule of law (that’s you.)

Based on the Pearls’ teachings, my parents believed that they were now engaged in a contest of wills with Hope, a contest of wills that revolved around her refusal to say “please.” If they gave in and let her get away with that refusal, they believed, all would be lost, and much damage done. On the other hand, if they won the contest, they would put Hope on the path to a happy, healthy, and productive life. They could not lose. They could not back down. They had to conquer Hope’s will and refuse to let her dominate them.

The next morning at breakfast, Hope was put in her high chair, dressed in fresh clothes and hair tied up in a bow, and offered food—a warm bowl of oatmeal topped with brown sugar—if she would say please. But for whatever reason, Hope would not say please. So once again, she watched us eat while getting nothing for herself. And later that morning she was once again offered a bottle on the condition that she must say please, and once again she did not say it, so once again she went without. Lunch came and passed—peanut butter jelly sandwiches with pretzels and carrots—still without a please.

We children began to see it as a challenge—a challenge to do whatever we could to get Hope to comply and say please. We kept her bottle handy and again and again over the course of the day we offered it to her, urging her to comply and say please. In between our attempts we got out her toys and played with her, enjoying her babyish smiles. Finally, sometime that afternoon, Hope lisped out something that sounded vaguely like a little “peez” and was therefore given the bottle. She drank it down—all six ounces of milk—as though she was famished, which of course she was. By that time she hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in twenty-four hours.

But then supper came and Hope once again would not say please for her food. Once again she sat in her high chair and watched us eat, unable to avoid the aroma—and my mom is a very good cook. Once snuggled into her pajamas, Hope was again offered a night time bottle—and again she would not say please. My parents concluded that while they may have won one battle—she had surrendered her will and had said please for a bottle that afternoon—the war was still on, and they must win it. And so Hope went to bed hungry, having only had a single six ounce bottle of milk that entire day. As she read a bedtime book to my small siblings, Hope among them, I could tell that my mom was concerned—but determined.

My parents did not feel that they were starving Hope, because they were quick to offer her food—and tasty, tempting food—if she would only say please. Their interpretation of what was happening was that Hope had gone on a hunger strike, a hunger strike she could end at any time by simply obeying and saying please. The problem wasn’t with them or their actions, it was an internal battle within Hope. All Hope had to do was to stop being rebellious and submit her will to theirs, and it would be over.

The next day was Tuesday. Hope did not say please and so did not have breakfast, lunch, or her bottle. By late afternoon Hope had gone for forty-eight hours—two straight days—with nothing to eat or drink but a single six ounce bottle of milk. By that time she was beginning to act strangely. Her usual vivaciousness had disappeared, replaced with a sort of melancholy. She lay on the couch listlessly, uninterested in playing or even reading books. I sat and held her in my arms, worried. My siblings were worried too, but Hope seemed barely aware of our attempts to coax her to say please, offering a bottle as a reward.

I knew nothing other than the Pearls’ discipline methods, and had been taught since I was small that if parents didn’t break their children’s wills while small, those children would grow up to be miserable and unhappy. I believed all of this. This entire situation, then, was confusing for me, because I saw the pain my sister was in but I still believed in the system, still believed that her pain was justified and necessary. If only she would just say please, I thought. But another voice nagged me: Is she even able to anymore? What happens if she doesn’t? When will this end? And yet, I didn’t do anything. I wish now that I had—that I had secreted her some food and water, or attempted to intercede with my parents. I wish that my sense of compassion had overridden my brainwashing and belief in the system. But it didn’t.

That evening Hope didn’t say please for either supper or a bottle. She acted tired and didn’t make eye contact, so mom put her to bed early. By this time, my parents were becoming extremely concerned about the situation. In some sense, they were stuck. They believed, based on the Pearls, that if they gave in and gave Hope food or a bottle they would be allowing her to conquer them—they would be submitting their will to hers rather than the other way around. The Pearls teach that even giving in once—just once—will set back everything that had been gained and even threaten to ruin the child forever. And yet, here was their eighteen-month-old daughter, still toddling and barely starting to lisp words, wasting away before their eyes. The atmosphere was tense, and I think in retrospect that they were frightened.

The next morning, everything was different.

See, that night my mother had a dream. She dreamed that Hope died, and that Child Protective Services was called to investigate, and that they took the rest of us children away. They say that dreams are our subconscious processing and regurgitating, and I think this was an obvious case of that. But my mother’s interpretation was different. She told us that the dream was sent by God, sent to tell her to give in and feed Hope, give her her bottle, and end the contest. Thankfully, Hope was still strong enough to eat and take a bottle, and her recovery didn’t take long.

My mother’s dream gave my parents an out—an opportunity to give in and cede what they saw as a contest of wills even though the Pearls strongly advised parents against ever doing this. Yet my parents did not reject the Pearls wholesale. Believing they couldn’t end the contest entirely, they instead changed the requirement—they now asked that Hope say please only for snacks or dessert, withholding them if she did not. About three days after they ended the main contest, Hope lisped “peez” for a Popsicle, and regularly did so for snacks and desserts after that. Part of me wonders if it was a developmental thing, and if my parents assumed she was able to say please on command a week or so before she was actually able to.

This story illustrates the way the Pearls’ teachings can lead parents to become caught up in real or perceived contests of the will with their children, and result in those contests spiraling out of control. When parents believe that they can’t back down ever, no matter what, without threatening their children’s temporal and eternal well-being, we shouldn’t be surprised when some parents, like the Schatzes, refuse to back down and instead persist in continuing the battle until the contest escalates to a disastrous end. It doesn’t even take bad parents for this to happen, it simply takes well-meaning parents following toxic advice. And this, perhaps, is the most dangerous thing of all about the Pearls’ teachings.

My own parents continued to endorse the Pearls’ discipline methods even after this incident, but nothing like it ever happened again. I think maybe this incident frightened my parents, and shook a little bit of common sense into them. Perhaps it took a small edge off of the infallibility they imputed on the Pearls, or perhaps it simply awoke a little nagging doubt in the back of their mind, doubt that served as a check on things getting out of control. Either way, when I recall this incident and look at my sister Hope, now in her teens, I am reminded of the danger the Pearls’ teachings pose to both parent and child. And even after all these years, telling this story hasn’t been easy.

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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.

  • Sophie

    I just can’t understand how anyone could do that to their child. 18 months is still a baby, Hope was not cognitively developed enough to maintain “a battle of the wills”. Toddlers live in the moment, whilst they are constantly learning it’s still fairly simple stuff. I think this is one of the most dangerous parts of the Pearls’ teachings, they are superimposing adult behaviour and adult thought processes onto children and on babies. A baby isn’t capable of defying it’s parent, if you hit it because it crawled off the mat all it knows is that it’s hurt. It doesn’t understand why or learn not to crawl off the mat. Babies aren’t even able to fear, that comes later. However saying that it probably is for the best that you didn’t sneak your sister food or water, if she hadn’t become so ill your parents would probably not have got scared and they wouldn’t have caved.

    • Christine

      Even if Hope was cognitively developed enough to maintain a battle of wills, she wasn’t old enough to understand the consequences. So it’s a hunger strike. You know what? If my child goes on a hunger strike (an actual one), I’m not letting her maintain it past the point where she can actively refuse food. Children don’t understand the consequences of things like that. I wouldn’t let my daughter say “that tastes yucky, and I feel better, so I’m not having it anymore” to antibiotics, why would I let her starve herself?

    • Rosa

      The belief that you have to win contests of wills with children is pretty widespread in American culture, and it makes it so easy to get caught in a terrible spiral of punishment and neither side backing down. It can happen to parents using benign discipline methods like time outs and taking away privileges, it’s just that the results are not dangerous (just unhelpful and embarrassing).

      • Niemand

        I think that there is some point to not teaching a child that they will eventually get their way if they cry or tantrum long enough, but there’s got to be some level of common sense to it and leave some “outs” for the kids-and yourself.
        When my kid was small and wanted something s/he couldn’t have, we’d say no. Sometimes s/he’d cry and scream about it. We’d still say no, but offer explanations and alternatives. “No, you can’t pick those flowers. They aren’t ours. They belong to the park and they’re for everyone to look at not for anyone to pick. These dandelions weren’t planted by the park and some people consider them ‘weeds’, but they’re pretty. Would you like to pick them?” Sometimes that’d work and s/he’d go off happily picking dandelions or whatever. Sometimes it wouldn’t and a long tantrum would result.
        The odd thing about the tantrums is that in retrospect I’m glad they happened. Because as s/he got older, the tantrums developed more and more words. And the words became coherent arguments. And sometimes good arguments. “That guy [in a parks department uniform] is pulling up flowers. Can’t I just help him?” “Hmm…let’s ask first, but if he says ok then yes you can.” And now s/he can make coherent arguments and discuss things rather than just obeying or defying. It’s made for a calmer late childhood. We’ll see how adolescence goes.

      • Conuly

        It’s tied, also, to a belief that to raise kids you have to be punitive. Some people throw in rewards, but it can be hard to convince them that not EVERY behavioral issue should be dealt with using punishment and/or bribery, that other paradigms do exist.

        It’s not that all instances of punishments, rewards, or natural and/or logical consequences* are wrong or harmful, it’s just that they aren’t always helpful for a particular situation, and they certainly aren’t always the only options.

        * Natural consequences means you don’t save your kid from his mistakes. If you tell him to bring a sweater and he doesn’t, he gets cold. Logical consequences means you try to find a solution to fit the crime. If your kid borrows your sweater because he is cold, and then proceeds to splash in a mud puddle and ruin it, he has to pay for a new one out of his allowance. Punishment, using this system, would be that in either scenario your kid gets a spanking or a time-out or something.

      • Christine

        Is this where the anti-timeout movement comes from? People used it as a punishment, so others decided that gentle parenting means no timeouts, ever?

      • Conuly

        I don’t know, Christine. So long as they work for a particular family, I don’t see how they can be an issue myself.

      • Rosa

        I think some of the positive parenting discussions are anti timeout-as-punishment, in that they’re anti punishment in general? I don’t know enough about it, unfortunately.

      • Rosa

        Neimand – yeah, we used timeouts as punishments, and I don’t regret it. What I do regret are the times we got into these terrible contest-of-wills standoff where the timeouts continue until behavior improved…except it didn’t improve, because what was actually needed was less reactivity and maybe some food & rest.

        On the other hand, in similar situations my own parents hauled us out of the car/chased us around the house and spanked us, sometimes until they broke the wooden spoon on our asses, so like I said – in retrospect the dumb “I will win over a 3 year old because I am the adult and I am going to get my way!” instances are embarrassing, and were clearly not helpful even at the time, but the choice to timeout instead of spank was not harmful, which makes it clearly better than parenting by violence (which was the main alternative suggested to us, by family & random strangers alike.)

      • luckyducky

        One of my nephews got confused, I think a bit older, more like 2.5yo, when someone over emphasized the importance of please/thank you and went through a period where he thought it was shameful to say. I don’t really understand what happened but viewed through the right frame, it was clear he resisted saying them because he was embarrassed. Thankfully, there were enough pragmatic parents around my sister, a very young mother, who, while not a Perl reader, put herself under a great deal of pressure to raise a “good kid” to prove herself a good mother. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, my parents, that they helped her back off on that until he was able to understand it was basic politeness.

        On the subject of time-outs, when I am doing it right, it is a logical consequence. It is a chance for both of us to cool off before we approach problem-solving and/or it having to take a break from an activity that it the source of frustration/conflict/over-stimulation. And I present it as such: “That you are picking a fight with your sib tells mom is that you need to cool down, sit on the steps for X minutes.”

        Right now we are going through a period of really unpleasant nah-na-nah kind of talk that only comes out at the dinner table and is like nails on a chalk board for me. I’ve tried ignoring it and redirecting it, and neither have made much of dent. So, I have settled on “you have a choice: speak pleasantly, be quite, or wait in your room until we are finished because you are not allowed to ruin dinner for everyone else.” That is pretty standard choices for temper tantrums and foul moods as well. I didn’t want to tell my children they have to happy, cheery, sunny all the time but I am also not going to give them free reign to infect the entire household with a crumby attitude so they are free to be grumpy… in their room.

        I likewise regret the battle of wills whether it boils down to time outs “because I said so” or adult temper tantrums (not proud to admit to them). Whether I win or lose the battle, I’ve undoubtedly lost because I’ve failed to demonstrate understanding, patience, and constructive problem-solving and likely reinforced the behavior that I was seeking to change.

      • MrPopularSentiment

        Regarding time outs, I used them VERY sparingly because I don’t want my son to think that he can do something so bad that I will abandon him. At his age (he’s just turned 2), I think that’s a logical interpretation on his part of a time out.

        If a situation is spiralling, I do remove him from it, which is similar to a time out except that I stay with him. Usually, we just find a quiet spot and I hug him until he calms down a bit, and then we can talk about what happened and he can rejoin the fun.

        I have used something much closer to a real time out twice. Both times, things were just getting so crazy that I was starting to fall apart and I was worried that I might lash out and do more damage than a little separation would do. So I just put him in his bedroom, told him I’d come back when he’s feeling a bit calmer and was ready to talk, and closed the door. Then went off into my own quiet corner and had a good cry. Usually, after a minute or two, he’ll calm down and I’ll calm down and he’ll come to the door and call out for me. Then we just lie down together for a bit and talk about what happened.

        I’m not anti-time out, and I’m also not necessarily anti-spanking. I think that both are parenting tools of varying efficiency and both, as with all parenting tools, have consequences that parents may not anticipate. In both cases, my position for my own family is that I won’t use them (yes, I am anti-punishment for my family, though I do make liberal use of natural/logical consequences).

        Hope that clarifies a bit :)

      • Sophie

        I have a mother who constantly thought I was doing things to make her life more difficult, so I am familiar with that parental way of thinking. But she’s just self-absorbed and self-obsessed, it isn’t a parenting philosophy! She never hit me when I was a child, but she was emotionally abusive. Fortunately I have my dad, who loves me unconditionally and who didn’t have ever changing expectations and rules. If I did something he didn’t like he would explain what I had done and why that wasn’t ok. He shouted at me once in my life and that was because I frightened him. I always tell people that my dad is my mum because I have the relationship with him that most people I know have with their mums.

      • Nebuladancer

        We have been studying this in history class this last week: a contest of wills that MUST be won at all costs. Oh wait, that was World War One, or The Great War, otherwise known as the most unnecessary waste of human lives in the last century. Stupid, pointless, unsinkable battles, inflexible lines being drawn with dangerous tactics and devastating results. That’s what this kind of thinking produces. It starts small, just inside a family, but it spreads across a whole continent until people are dying because WE MUST WIN!

  • The_L

    This is deeply troubling, not just because of what happened to Hope as a baby, but because so many other children die from this toxicity. PPL listed so many stories of children who weighed less than they did when they were adopted–significantly less than they should have at their age–and so many more children who actually died of malnutrition, that it deeply disturbs me that the Pearls’ books are still being sold.

    • kisekileia

      What’s PPL?

      • Rosa

        Pound Pup Legacy, I think.

      • Firemind

        It’s a textspeak abbreviation for “People”.

      • Lucreza Borgia
      • Guest


  • Nea

    Stories like this make me wish I could believe in Hell, just because earthly punishment isn’t enough. Michael Pearl’s shallow theology, sociopathic need to control everyone around him, ego for praise, and complete ignorance have warped so many concerned parents and killed or broken so many children.

    Indeed, if I believed, I’d wonder if all this talk of Satan on earth is real. Who else would laugh and and delight at the knowledge of another scripture warped, another child injured, another mind twisted to think love and abuse are the same, another parent stumbling into cruelty?

    • Niemand

      Earthly punishment isn’t enough, but Hell is too much. If I were god I’d keep Michael Pearl in a particularly unpleasant part of purgatory until he understood exactly what he’d done wrong and felt remorse for all the people he had hurt. True remorse, not the “oh, I know I’m a sinner” pompous crap that Christians call remorse. And been forgiven by all his victims. I’d expect to see him in Heaven about the same time as the heat death of the universe, but that’s less time than eternity.

      • Jayn

        Given his ideology, part of me thinks the most hellish place for him might actually be limbo.

      • Nea

        The most hellish place for Michael Pearl is the remainder pile and to be forgotten.

    • gimpi

      Perhaps true justice would be for him to be reborn and raised under his own discipline system. He might then learn that “breaking the will” of a newborn or toddler is cruel and hateful. That beating a child only teaches the child to fear the parent it should be able to trust. That growing up requires some rebellion. That independent thought is necessary for true maturity.
      After a childhood full of fear and pain, growing up with a stunted mind, unable to think or make decisions for himself, constantly in need of and terrorized by some “authority” he would learn the error of his ways.

      • Lori

        He says he was raised with the same methods he raised his kids with. I believe that. But I like your idea. Have him raised by someone following his *writings* to the letter.

      • Kit

        I’m not sure this would be effective – they say abuse is the gift that keeps on giving, just because when a child is abused, if they later have children they don’t know how to parent otherwise, right?

        Moreover, I actually see a bit of the opposite, because I think if he was dominated and terrorized by authority figures throughout his childhood, it would explain why as an adult he feels the need to control and dominate everyone around him. First, he doesn’t understand how ELSE he is supposed to relate to others, and second, it’s a subconscious protective mechanism because if you’re controlling, you can’t be terrorized as he might have been as a child.

      • Nea

        After a childhood full of fear and pain, growing up with a stunted mind, unable to think or make decisions for himself, constantly in need of and terrorized by some “authority” he would learn the error of his ways.

        Except he is and he didn’t. He is incredibly controlling and punitive. He has a stunted mind and doesn’t like to think – if he did, he wouldn’t be threatened by such things as different Bible versions or a curious infant. He is (presumably) terrified of Hell; he certainly teaches everyone else to be. He shows all the damage of someone abused as a child who survived and adapted – and now grows rich on perpetuating the same abuses outside his own family.

        Where they are gulped up by everyone else who has a stunted mind and doesn’t like to think, when here’s someone promising perfect results if you just hit and hit and hit some more and never, EVER stop to think.

      • Lori

        You guys are right, of course. And I actually wouldn’t wish this on baby Michael even if I knew he would grow up to be The Michael Pearl. I think having him reincarnated is just a hyperbolic way of saying we wish the adult Michael could experience a little of his own medicine while in the body of a child. But no, I don’t think any of us here would really do to him what he has done. I think you’re right on when saying it’s a cycle. If any of us could time travel and intervene for baby Michael, that would save countless children from this.

      • gimpi

        My idea was mostly symbolic. I know abuse can (and mostly does) foster abuse down the road. Perhaps he can never understand how destructive his ideas are. I don’t know how he can come to understand that, embedded as he is in the bubble.

    • tsara

      I’d go with putting him [nominally] in charge of a bunch of unruly children in a public-ish place (so that people can see), and, by the power of This Is My Head And I Said So, render him completely unable to make them care about his existence.

  • Marian

    Ugh. Not to pretend to be some sort of parenting expert, but I remember when I was teaching little Olivia to say please, and it looked nothing like this. She was about 9 or 10 months old, and I was teaching her please in sign language, rubbing her hand on her chest, (didn’t really get in to the whole “teach your baby sign language” thing except for the word please, which I wanted her to learn because she had this really fingernails on the chalkboard whine she would use to ask for things). I treated it as teaching her a better way to get what she wanted, not a battle of wills.

    So, if she started whining for something, I would tell her to “say please” and model the sign for her. If she did it, I would praise her to the skies, and then give her what she asked for. If she didn’t do it, I would “help” her do it, picking up her hand and making the sign for her… and then I would praise her to the skies and give her what she asked for. At first, if she said please, she got whatever she was asking for (as long as it wasn’t dangerous) just to reinforce that please.

    Sometimes her “please” was a really angry swipe of her hand across her chest, which I found hilarious. I didn’t punish her for bad attitude, I just continued to demonstrate that using the word please would get her what she wanted, even if she used it reluctantly or angrily, even if I had to help her do what I was asking.

    I would say that by about a year old she was consistently using please, and I didn’t have to have some epic battle of wills to do it. Course, it was funny when she started talking and would not “say” the word please, preferring to sign it long after she had the verbal ability to spout of tons of words.

    • ako

      When my niece was learning to say please, she needed a lot of reminders. (She did the sign language thing in combination with speaking.) Reminding her and modeling the behavior nearly always worked. Once in a while she’d refuse and be denied a treat, but she’d always get regular food (and anything else that was important to keeping her healthy and safe), and it was never forced into a battle of wills.

      She didn’t develop perfect manners, but she’s a considerate kid, and also lively, imaginative, confident, bold, cheerful, and clever. She’s also alive, healthy, happy, and not afraid of her parents.

    • chervil

      “Sometimes her “please” was a really angry swipe of her hand across her chest, which I found hilarious.”

      You found it hilarious. You know what? It IS hilarious. And adorable. A sense of humor can take you much, much further than a spanking ever could, I think it’s one of the most powerful parenting tools we have.

      • Kimberly


  • ako

    That’s terrifying.

    I can actually see how that happens. Knowledge of child development isn’t intuitive, and when you’re guessing from the outside, it’s easy to be unconsciously biased towards attributing more understanding of a situation than is actually the case. (From the perspective of an adult or older child, it’s really obvious that she’s being asked to say please, and it’s hard to work out how it seems from a child’s perspective.) So it’s easy to see how a parent can believe inaccurate information. And the Pearls rely massively on threats and intimidation, convincing parents that the only alternative to breaking a child’s will is dealing with hopelessly wild and out-of-control brats, and even putting parents in fear for their children’s souls. If you honestly believe that the alternative is a lifetime of misery and criminality, followed by eternal damnation, cruelty can sound necessary. Parents do painful and upsetting things to their kids frequently when they believe it’s the least bad option.

    But it’s very important that parents not expect perfect obedience from their child, and the fact that it tends to take a while between a kid being able to do a thing once and them being able to do it consistently is only one of the reasons.

  • Katty

    Thank you, Libby Anne, for your courage in sharing this very personal account with us. It can’t have been easy. My heart goes out to you and your siblings for having gone through this, but also to your parents having been basically brainwashed into almost killing their own child.

    • Lori

      I’ll second that. I was touched by your willingness to share your story. I think it shows that you know exactly what you’re talking about when you say these methods can lead down a very dark path. Thank you for having the courage to do that.

      I have a suspicion that the Pearls didn’t even follow their own advice as they raised their 5 kids. I mean, it probably looked very much like what the books described. But I’ll bet they did slight modifications in their real lives that they don’t even recognize or don’t put in their books lest their written advice lose its power. I think that’s part of how they’re able to be in denial about what their advice really looks like when it’s taken as gospel and followed to the letter. They write as if their readers are children and have to have inflexible instructions or they won’t be able to “do it right.” I guess what I’m saying is I think the Pearls have created books that even they wouldn’t necessarily follow. I think that’s truly worse than if they had followed their own advice to the extremes they recommend. If they had, they would have seen the messed up results in their own children. But by creating this totally inflexible system that is, imo, unreal, and then claiming it’s exactly what they used on their children who turned out to be functioning adults (no one died or became a criminal), people assume their book teaches exactly how to get kids that appear to be happy like theirs do (they do appear to be very happy if you see them online).

      Bottom line, I don’t believe even the Pearls followed their own advice to its extreme, and that’s what makes that advice all the more toxic. Just a theory.

      • minuteye

        What you suggest is possible, but I think it’s equally likely that they just had kids with the right temperaments for it. The behavioral techniques that they lay out are cruel, abusive, and damaging… but they are going to be largely effective at enforcing a particular kind of behavior in the majority of children. But if you don’t care about how much your children are being harmed psychologically, and you’re “lucky” enough that all five of your children will eventually submit? They may be sincere (terrifying though that is).

        Or maybe I’m giving them way too much credit.

      • Lori

        I agree. I think they were lucky with their 5. That’s what makes me think even they didn’t follow their advice to the extreme. When you put something down in words, you know what you mean. But if you never followed your own words as you wrote them (just what you meant), you may never see the consequences of the words you actually put on the page. If you’re basing it all on an experimental group of 5, your words may fit what you did to those few (and you got lucky that no kid among the grand total of 5 had mental health issues, behavior disorders, exceptional willfulness, undiagnosed physical illness causing strange behavior, etc.) But you have no idea what the words you write can mean to someone else with a different kid in a different situation. In other words, the Pearls may have kept their common sense and found a clever way to get out of a bad power battle that they don’t even recognize as “giving in.” So while they didn’t kill their kids, if they write the words “never give in” because they’re in denial that they ever gave in, other people suffer. Well, it’s still just a theory. But if I’m right, it highlights how ignorant it is to give such radical advice based on your own “idealized” fuzzy memory with 5 children and not to recognize that your words when taken literally can kill people.

      • minuteye

        I’m glad that you mentioned physical illness (other problems that a child can have too, but this one particularly stands out to me). How are parents who follow these teachings supposed to figure out that a child is sick? Expressions of pain and discomfort, such as crying and being unable to sleep, are all categorized as “defiance”, things that should be punished. As well as getting lucky with their children’s temperaments, it would seem that they got really lucky with their health, and never had to deal with a colicky baby, or taking their toddler to the emergency room with a fever at four in the morning.

  • Ruth

    I have a child with autism. Early on I was given some advice from poorly trained therapists that led to escalations like this. Common sense and compassion won out and I found a way to defuse the situation. I see some very bad quackery being pushed on parents of developmentally delayed kids that
    is supposed to help the child, but requires bizarre foods, enemas, clay baths and even chemical castration drugs. Instead of real help, my local parent support group was just an echo chamber for quackery. (My child is now an honor student in high school, ACT of 25).

  • kisarita

    I think children do engage in battles of wills with adults, but that it’s usually the adult who starts it. Seems to me that Hope may have been trying to assert herself against injustice- and very justifiably. It was your mom who turned it into a power struggle the way I see it.
    I tried to explain to my brother- once you’ve engaged in a power struggle with a 5 year old, YOU”VE ALREADY LOST, even if you “win.” I mean just look at yourself.
    I also really identify with the way you look back at things and wish you would have taken a different course of action… sigh…. i have so many moments like that.

    • sylvia_rachel

      once you’ve engaged in a power struggle with a 5 year old, YOU”VE ALREADY LOST, even if you “win.”

      Quoted for truth.

      • Niemand

        Agreed. Never a “like” button around when you need one.

    • Rosa

      I have to remind myself of this all the time.

    • Lucreza Borgia

      You should meet my friend’s son. Would bash his head into the floor if he didn’t get his way, as a toddler!

      • Conuly

        Lots of kids do that when frustrated. It’s just not that uncommon.

  • Little Magpie

    Libby Anne, thanks for sharing this very personal story. That’s terrifying. I’m glad it worked out okay.

  • sylvia_rachel

    I’m so glad this one had a happy ending.

    In addition to iillustrating how it’s the Pearls’ methods themselves that are the problem, not the co-opting of those methods by sick and twisted people (as MP has publicly claimed), this story is a perfect example of another thing that’s bad about adversarial childrearing techniques: their effect on the kids who aren’t being punished/”trained” at any given moment, but are seeing their parents do bad things to their sibling and/or co-opted as fellow “disciplinarians”. It sounds like everyone in the family knew, somewhere deep down, that something was wrong about what your parents were doing. One of the main things adversarial teachings like the Pearls’ (the “Babywise” materials are another example — they tell you your 3-month-old is being “defiant” if s/he wakes up “too early” from a nap!) do, IMO, is teach you to assume the worst about everything your kids do. So where a parent might, pre-Pearls, have looked at a 2-year-old having a meltdown at Safeway and thought, “Oh, crap. I took a hungry kid grocery shopping at naptime again, didn’t I…”, the Pearl-trained parent will look at that same 2-year-old having that same meltdown and see a battle for the chid’s soul that they have to win at all costs. They don’t have to be mean and vindictive; they just have to be tragically mistaken about how 2-year-olds operate.

    It’s not that hard to get sucked into a battle of wills with a small child (bigger than 18 months — I found 3 was the hardest age in that respect), particularly if you yourself are of a stubborn kind of temperament. I mean, it can be very frustrating when they just arbitrarily refuse to do things, or freak out today about something that didn’t bother them at all yesterday, and always just when you are trying get out the door to go somewhere or something. It changed my life the day I realized that DD was reacting to me: the crankier I was, the crankier she got; the more I dug in my heels, the more she dug in hers. (I know: duh. Can I plead sleep deprivation?) We still clash sometimes, because we are both determined people with strong views and we both have an unfortunate tendency to get sarcastic, but if I don’t freak out when she says “I don’t want to go to X”, but calmly talk things through with her, she generally does end up going …

    • CLDG

      “It changed my life the day I realized that DD was reacting to me: the crankier I was, the crankier she got; the more I dug in my heels, the more she dug in hers. (I know: duh. Can I plead sleep deprivation?) ”
      THIS THIS THIS. The worst mornings we have (that’s always our bad time – getting out the door because I’m a bad morning person) are when I’m impatient and shouty and the worse I am, the worse she is. If I get angry, she completely falls apart. When she was fairly young I started a thing of “reset” and “hug it out” where we hug and cry if we need to, then do what we have to do. I’m so not perfect at it, but it’s so infinitely better than the battle of wills. I can already see how much different my relationship with my daughter is than it was for me and my mom, because we always had The Battle between us.

      • Lori

        Oh I love the “reset!”

      • Mary C

        Two things: I totally sympathize with you on the mornings issue – what you describe could be our household exactly. Makes me realize that she’s not so much the problem in the morning, it is very likely 90% me, and given that I’m mom, I’m the one who needs to make some changes to the routine to make it better (like going to bed before 11pm, rather than reading blogs, ahem).

        And two – My husband and I have “start overs,” much like your resets. If we get in a dumb fight, one of will often say “Can we just start over?” And then just to be silly we go all the way back to what we were doing before the fight started – even if that means one of us has to go back outside and walk in the door again, or sit back down at the dinner table – and just forget all the mean words said and start fresh. It works remarkably well, and keeps anyone from feeling like they are backed into a corner by rash words or actions.

        Because it is ok to just let some things go and move forward with love, whether it is with a husband or a child. Contrary to what the Pearl’s think, choosing to focus on the big picture doesn’t mean that you have “lost” or will now be faced with a defiant, rebellious child. My daughter has a beautiful strong spirit, and I would be heartbroken if I somehow crushed that spirit – much less ever doing it intentionally! Sometimes I think I read about the Pearls and those who think like them just to make sure I’m not inadvertently doing something they’d do.

  • Lori

    I started a power battle once with my oldest when she was about this age. I wanted to make her say “sorry” for something. I quickly realized I couldn’t make her say it, and I had to get out of it somehow. I probably gave her a little consequence (like a time out?) and then moved on. But I learned that you avoid this by not settting up the power battle in the first place. That’s the opposite of what the Pearls advise.

    Sometimes you accidentally set one up you didn’t even see coming. So you have to learn how to get out of it. I usually do by being honest that I goofed. I don’t make it so the kid “won,” I make it so current Mommy is correcting Mommy from 3 minutes ago. “Oops, I didn’t mean you have to say ‘sorry,’ what I meant was, “It’s nice to say sorry, and I hope you say sorry when you really feel sorry. OK, go play.”

    This really saves my butt now that I have teenagers, too!

    • Niemand

      Agreed. I think it’s important for kids to learn that adults make mistakes and (more importantly) that adults know that they make mistakes and back down when they make mistakes. That way the child doesn’t feel like they’re helpless captives of an irrational and powerful monster, their teenage realization that “hey, my parents aren’t always right” will be blunted (and therefore, hopefully, the rebellion less extreme) and they see a model of how to back down and admit fault and therefore learn to do it themselves.

      • Nea

        Now the thing is, I agree with what you’ve said, but in this case, we’re discussing parents who *do* want their children to see themselves as captives of an irrational and powerful monster, because the parents are meant to reflect God and their idea of God is irrational, angry, and quick to punish. The parents HAVE to be right all the time because God IS right all the time and thus, nobody gets to make mistakes.

  • Niemand

    Please, Libby Anne, never let your parents alone with your children. I’m sorry to be insulting your parents who I have never even met, but they just don’t sound like people who it is safe for children to be around.

  • Rosa

    The thing that strikes me about this story – because, unfortunately, I’ve heard/seen way too many similar stories to be surprised that your parents held out this long – is that even when they gave up the worst parts of the teaching, your parents continued to use the same language about childrearing, and recommend the Pearls.

    It’s only recently that I’ve been able to really comprehend how many actually good parents talk like this and advocate this kind of behavior, when they would not actually do it themselves. They defend the Pearls, they defend Dobson, they say ridiculous things like “we only spanked for defiance, not mistakes” without hearing how chilling that is, because they would not beat a child. They would not kill a child. They are not masking evil intent. And then they are blind to the people (or situations – like older adoptees not raised in this system) that are most dangerous to children, or to the underlying hatred and control that can be expressed with the exact same words.

    • ako

      I think part of the danger is that it’s very easy to draw common sense lines on what’s taking it too far when you’re looking at it from the outside, calm and rational and able to play armchair quarterback, so it doesn’t feel necessary to go “Don’t let your kid go for too long without food” or “Don’t spank your kids too hard”, let alone specify where the line actually is.

      But for a parent who’s tired, stressed-out, and scared of what the kid’s difficult behavior might mean, with a head full of worst-case scenarios and someone actively encouraging them to assume the worst about their child’s intentions, it’s much harder to draw the line. Particularly since, as Libby Anne’s post shows, it often starts out sounding relatively reasonable (delaying her dinner until she says please), and gradually escalates until it becomes frighteningly dangerous. When you get everything from fear of embarrassment (at being ‘defeated’ by a two-year-old) to genuine parental concern on the side of pushing it just a little bit further, it makes it harder for someone in the heat of the moment to know exactly what to do.

      • Rosa

        Exactly. You don’t know which side people are going to take – that of basic humanity, or of ideology – until they actually do. And then it’s too late.

        I think the gender role & patriarchal ideology that often goes hand in hand with this style of parenting makes it worse, too – if mom does the primary childcare, and has the expertise of that experience, and is the one overseeing the system, but she defers to dad, who has less direct experience and more ideological pressure from his peers, as well as the added pressure of being ultimately responsible for all failures, the pressure to stick with the ideology over the immediate wellbeing of the child is even worse.

      • Sgaile-beairt

        there is a set of parents in philly in the news today who just killed thier 2nd child by medical neglect…bc they say thats what GOD wants to prove faith….their own lawyer thought they werent likely to obey the court order to take them to the doctor after the 1st kid died & they only called a funeral home, never 911….but hey its just their own kids so no jail for them….

        but they are ‘good, loving parents” according to their lawyer- yeah right!! if thats good & loving, torturing childrn to death in the name of lovingkindnessjeesus, then give me honest hate please!!

  • Kellen

    It is a chilling, terrifying world where a little thing like misplaced trust can result in good-hearted parents perpetrating such evil.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    This is absolutely horrifying.

    My son, at just over two, says ‘please’ pretty consistently. I never made him say it, I’ve never asked him to say it, I’ve never even tried to teach him to say it. He just started saying it spontaneously a few months ago and now uses it regularly. He learned it because I use it with him. Same with ‘thank you.’

    That’s what absolutely kills me about stories like these – not only are children being abused, but it’s completely unnecessary. Maybe you’ll get a child who is outwardly obedient and polite (though it’s a toss up what will happen to them once they become adults), but you have to go through so much pain and conflict and near misses like this to get there. Meanwhile, you can get a child who is polite and respectful and awesome just by being polite and respectful and awesome yourself. And the added bonus is that when the latter kids listen to you or act respectful, it’s because they actually do respect you, not because they are afraid of you.

    The Pearls are so incredibly backwards. Honestly, I’ve never been surprised to hear when children brought up with their methods die, because their teachings specifically train parents to ignore signs of their children’s distress. How can you possibly know when you are going too far when you no longer know how to read and interpret your child’s responses?

    • guest

      I just wanted to chime in with an acknowledgement for your important point that children, who model what they see, will act respectfully if THEY are treated respectfully. I expect a child will be much quicker to pick up the habit of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ if their carers say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to them. Somehow I doubt the Pearls gave their children this basic courtesy.

  • Truthspew

    I still recall the general psych and developmental psych classes I took. By 18 months the kid doesn’t even have a fully formed frontal cortex. That’s the higher reasoning part of the brain. So a battle of wills with someone that young is idiotic at best.

    It’s funny – growing up once I hit my teens and my mom died and my father was the only one left I was pretty hard on him. Of course he sort of deserved it for trying to be authoritarian.

    It culminated a few years later as I said, he drafter me to paint the house. Then had the gall to comment that he could “Get a fucking four year old to paint better than that.” at which point, I got off the ladder, handed him the brush and said “Go find a fucking four year old.”

    He painted that house himself.

  • Becca

    I think it’s amusing that the comment thread has turned into a debate on what would be the best way to punish MP for eternity. I’ll add my two cents.

    Hell for Michael Pearl would be having to pay out damages to all the individuals abused due to the advice of his books.

  • Rachel

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Libby. You’re making it very clear just how dangerous the Pearls’ books are by showing how even generally good parents can take it too literally.

    Three thoughts that came to mind while reading this:
    1) If either you or any of your siblings had fed Hope without your parents’ permission, your parents would likely have deemed you both in rebellion, and it would have made it that much harder to feed Hope before she was completely broken.
    2) Whether it was her subconscious speaking or an actual message from God, that dream your mother had very likely saved Hope’s life, and certainly her higher development functions.
    3) If the worst had happened — and I am thankful it didn’t — I wonder how quickly the Pearls would have disavowed your family and claimed that your parents had misinterpreted their teachings. Because they don’t seem to have room in their mental bibles for the fault to be on them.

  • Alexis

    Often new learning has a latency period. A child tries a new word or a new behavior, succeeds, and then seemingly forgets it for a few days or weeks. I have no children of my own but I’ve seen it in my nephew, niece and neighbors. Take a few steps “Oh look I’m walking!” and for the next few days they don’t even try. And you’ve seen the TV shows and the movies where the proud parent is showing off the child “She said DaDa today! Show them how you can say DaDa!” and the child looks at the parent as if to say “What? You look like a silly clown”. Then three weeks later the child starts babbling and just can’t stop.

    No amount of Perle’s discipline can ever change this.

  • Lana

    ugh, she was way too young for that. If I had had little, little siblings, I might have a similar story because my parents were that way, and followed the same ideas. But I have so many similar stories; in my case, I was the one not given food as a kid. If I didn’t say thank you for something they gave me, I lost it. Its awful.

  • Christine

    You know, Libby, I wonder if your mother actually had a dream like that. It’s entirely possible that she was sensible enough to know that, despite what the Pearls claim, this could result in the death of her child, and she wanted to avoid that because she didn’t want her child to die. As you say, your parents did this because they allowed themselves to be convinced that it was good for you, so in theory they’d still be in favour of you remaining alive and healthy. But to admit that there was a flaw in the system would be risking all you older kids becoming horribly rebellous, so she had to make up an excuse.

    Also, I am actually fairly convinced that my 15-month-old is probably better behaved than many of these kids. She tells me if her diaper needs changing. (She tells me politely, not by screaming), she spontaneously gives me things that might help, is quite empathic, and can be trusted to go and get her sippy cup when she’s thirsty (and put it back on the table). I didn’t have to teach her any of this either. (Yes, parents are biased, but I’ve had other parents comment on the fact that she will cheerfully eat broccoli when we’re out, and on how well she listens and respects other children playing with their toys.) Of course, I’m probably using a different definition of being well-behaved. The spontaneous helping is something *I* value, because I think it’s important that she be her own person and see things on her own. Same for getting her own water. They’d probably be seen as signs of disobedience in the Pearls and their followers.

  • MNb

    Pearl’s method is unscientific. All research points out that reward is way more effective than punishment.

    “if my parents assumed she was able to say please …”
    Irrelevant. In the second stage Hope was rewarded and not punished. That’s how development works.

    “not teaching a child that they will eventually get their way if they cry or tantrum long enough”
    Again the same principle. Here giving in is a form of reward and stimulates undesired behavior. The difficult problem is to avoid situations where giving in is a reward and not giving in is a punishment.

  • Kimberly

    I find this all terribly sad. My son has been diagnosed with Aspergers, even came to me as a teenager and told me that’s “what was wrong” with him. He had all kinds of meltdowns, couldn’t eat in loud retaurants, had many food and clothing aversions, and generally had behavior that was not compliant in most social situations because his nervous system couldn’t handle it. If I had followed Dobson and the Ezzos, which were the most prominent parenting authorities in my life at the time, I probably would have beaten him black and blue and alienated and infuriated him. He has grown up fine having reason and humor as discipline and being “indulged” with bland food until his sensory system could process strong tastes and textures. He is articulate, sensitive, kind, and brilliant. I would have ruined him and our lives had I not parented from my heart and my intuition and dumped these authors.

    • Avery

      Exactly Kimberly. One of the reasons we ended up leaving a patriarchal cult was that our boys have aspergers….they would never have survived it.

  • Rae

    Wow, I am like the single person most devoid of any instincts or skills regarding childcare at all – I can troubleshoot at the “is this child hungry, tired, or in need of a new diaper?” level and that’s it, but even I know that a child who’s still learning basic conversational vocabulary might not know how or when to use all of the words that they know, nor fully understand verbal instructions to do something. I mean, hell, I’m just starting to learning to speak Spanish, and I can only understand marginally more unless people go slowly. If someone told me, in Spanish, “say please if you want to get your food” I would understand the word “please” and probably the word “food” but have no real way to understand how they were related to one another.

  • Jessica Inman

    All parenting books are designed as guidelines and good advice on rearing children. Every parent should use wisdom and grace when bringing up there children, not strictly adhere to one system. God gave us love and mercy, we should use our minds and hearts to know when we should also extend that love and mercy to others.

    • plch

      but some books are just completely wrong and dangerous because the are
      based on faulty premises, this is one of them, no amount of love and
      mercy can change that.

    • David Kopp

      How about always? Does always work for you?

      It’s basic freakin’ empathy is all that it takes. It doesn’t need to go through a deity. The only time I can think of that you SHOULDN’T extend love and mercy to someone is if they’re actively trying to harm you.

      Especially with children, that are people just like you, only without as much experience. There are no “systems” for children any more than there are “systems” for relating to other people. Use empathy, try to put yourself in their shoes, and try to understand that children have a much more limited set of experiences and practice to draw upon than an adult. That’s really all it takes.

      But what do I know, I’m some godless liberal… /rant

    • Beutelratti

      You do realise that the Pearls are using bible passages to justify beating children, right? God’s wisdom and grace as described in the bible includes beating a child.

      • pi31415

        No, it really doesn’t. The rod verses have nothing to do with hitting a child. The rod refers to parental authority and discipline — not to hitting, beating or punishment. Orthodox Jews don’t translate it to mean hitting, so why do Christians?

    • Lucreza Borgia

      Have you actually read “To Train Up a Child”?

  • Rilian Sharp

    I let my brother’s pet fish die because I was afraid to defy my mom. It starved to death. After that happened, I decided that I would not give into my fear of her ever again. It won’t bring Huey back or undo his suffering. Its the best I can do.

  • Grace

    Alright, so this is missing the point a little, but this story really bothered me for reasons beyond the obvious holy-shit-this-child-is-starving.

    I was raised in a very little Washington town by a southern mother maybe ten years older than all the other parents. When I was little, I resented how much stricter our household was than anyone else’s, but now, as a teen, I am deeply grateful that my mother taught me to be genuinely polite. And GENUINELY polite, not what your sister was being taught.

    “Please” is for when you are requesting something. When the food is already in front of the child, the food belongs to the child as a gesture of love, and the child should respond with gratitude. Making her beg for something that is right in front of her is ridiculous, and only teaches her that “please” is a magical code word that transports food that extra few inches, or worse, that just because the food is in front of her, she is not guaranteed to eat. She SHOULD be guaranteed to eat, and be grateful for that. Better yet, gratitude can be expressed with more than a monotonous “thank you”, which may have prevented the two-day spectacle you described.

    Does saying “please” for food that is right there benefit a child as they age? No, it just sounds childish and insecure. Gratitude benefits everyone, no matter their age and station. It makes people’s days a little better to hear a “thank you”, and that kind of courtesy cannot be taught with starvation or any other deprivation.

    • JKPS

      I see your point, but I was raised differently and I think I disagree with you on some points. Even now, if I’m eating with my parents, the food may be on the table but if I need something passed to me, I say “Please pass the salt and pepper” or whatever. But I do agree that a “thank you” suffices just as well, if not better, than a please, and I completely disagree with the idea of, you know, starving people.