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.


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