TTUAC: The Promise of Perfection

To Train Up A Child, pp. 1—2

Quick note first, while the book is written by “Michael & Debi Pearl,” certain sections are labeled “by Debi Pearl,” leading me to conclude that the rest of it is written by Michael. That’s the assumption I’ll be working on in these reviews. Also, the first part of the title of each of these posts is the actual title of the section in TTUAC. The second part, after the dash, is my addition.

Anyway, moving on:


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 would be enough to give an electric wheat grinder a nervous breakdown. The parents look like escapees from a Second World War, Polish boxcar. Another hour with them, and I would have been searching the yellow-pages for discount vasectomies.

Reading this, I get the feeling that Michael can’t stand children acting like, you know, normal kids. One of the things you have to have to raise children is patience, and I don’t think Michael has that. This is an important point—throughout this book Michael promotes conditioning children to be immediately obedient and not make excuses, ask questions, object to something, or anything else that might “bother” a parent. The thing is, being a parent isn’t about not being inconvenienced. Being a parent involves a lot of inconvenience. You have to be willing to have your reading interrupted and your coffee spilled. If you treat your children right and set good patterns—things like communication, listening, cooperation, and constructive compromise—your life with your children will be a bit harried at times, but it will also be rich and fruitful and not out of control. But that’s not something Michael’s okay with—he would rather bring a household into a parent-induced silence and surface-level peace by conditioning children to immediate and unthinking obedience.

Also, I’m pretty sure comparing parents of even the most trying children to concentration camp victims is . . . bad form. Very bad form. But anyway, back to the text, in which Michael is describing the visit of a family whose “parents look like escapees from a Second World War, Polish boxcar”:

While we try to sit and talk, the children are 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 the other children will not relinquish. The mother must continually jump up and rescue some breakable object. She says, “No” six-hundred and sixty-six times in the space of two hours. She spanks each child two or three times—usually with her hand on top of a diaper. Other than misaligning the child’s spine, it seems to have no effect.

First of all, again, this sounds like normal kids acting like normal kids. Believe it or not, normal kids run in and out of doors, complain about others being unkind to them, ask to go or stay or eat, and fight over toys. My goal has always been not to eliminate these behaviors but to teach children to navigate these situations productively—to remember to close the door after them when they come in or go out, to ask for food politely rather than simply demanding it, to know when to deal with a situation themselves and when to take it to the grownups, and to focus on cooperation and sharing rather than on who owns.

Second, what Michael describes here is not good parenting. For one thing, I keep breakable objects out of reach. Kids are kids—they’re still working on their motor skills and some of them are too small to understand the significance of expensive objects. But more than that, this mother should be focusing on listening to, communicating with, and connecting with her children rather than simply responding to their altercations by hitting them. I mean, think about it—how is this productive? Would it not be better to focus on taking the time to teach them how to appropriately navigate their circumstances, with an eye toward helping them grow into mature and independent adults? Michael also thinks the mother’s actions are ineffective, but for a very different reason, as we shall see.

When we speak of consistently rewarding every transgression with a switching (not a karate chop to the lower backbone), this mother can only see herself as further brutalizing children for whom it will do no good. Her discipline is just “laying down a field of fire” to give herself sufficient cover to get through to the next task. She doesn’t hope to conquer their wills, just create enough diversion to accomplish her own mission.

Ack. First, this whole “conquer their wills” thing. No. Just, no. Children are not things that need breaking. Second, if this mother sees her spanking as “brutalizing” her children, why is she doing it? Third, this whole “laying down a field of fire” thing—I rather agree. Hitting the kids on the backside when they’re too troublesome or annoying rather than focusing on proactively teaching them positive skills—like how to properly go about interrupting an adult conversation, for instance—is like doing the bare minimum to keep an old car from breaking down completely rather than taking it in and having actual work done. But again, Michael’s solution is not for the mother to focus on proactively teaching positive skills but rather for her to break them completely.

Another mother walks in with her little ones and sits down to talk. She says to them, “Go out in the sun-room to play and don’t bother Mama unless you need something.” For the next two hours we are not even aware the children are present–except when a little one comes in holding herself saying, “Pee-pee, Mama.” They play together well, resolve their own conflicts and don’t expect attention when one turns the rocking horse over and gets a knot on her head. They don’t come in and out—they have been told not to. This mother never spanked her children while at my house. And she never needed to rebuke them. She looks rested. When the children are called to go home, one says, “Mama, can I stay and play with Shoshanna?” Mother answers, “No, not today. We have work to do at home.” As he lifts his arms, the little fellow is picked up. Hugging his mother’s neck, he says, “I love you Mama.”

This paragraph leaves me with some questions. Why did the children stay in the sun-room playing happily for two hours? Was it because they knew that if they came out or asked to play elsewhere they risked being punished for not being completely obedient? Or was it because they were legitimately happy in there and had been taught the interpersonal skills needed to be able to cooperate, resolve their disagreements, and play independently? That difference matters. Also, the whole knot on the head bit? I try to teach my kids how to handle small bumps and scratches without freaking out or dissolving in tears, but if they are upset and need comforting I absolutely give it and if one of them gets an actual knot on the head you better believe they can expect my attention! The buzzword here is concussion, and I’m always very careful to monitor the kids after a good knock on the head to make sure they’re actually okay. If a child doesn’t expect attention when they get a goose egg, that’s a problem. Finally, the part where one of the children asks to stay and play and the mother tells him no and he accepts it? Well, that’s how it usually goes with my daughter Sally too, but it’s because she knows I listen to her and that if I say “no” I have good reason. She might ask why not, or might suggest some solution to make it work, but she’s usually pretty easy to reason with and pretty eager to understand. My point is that that last bit didn’t say to me “child who has been trained to be unquestioningly obedient,” it said “child who knows his mother listens to him and doesn’t say no capriciously.” Taken together, then, this paragraph leaves me with more questions than it answers.

That all said, this paragraph is how the Pearls attract followers. Quite simply, the Pearls promise parents happy and obedient children and a peaceful and rested life if they are only follow the methods they lay out in their book. And just as the women who turn to Created To Be His Help Meet are probably more likely to be those in unhappy marriages, even so the parents who turn to and embrace To Train Up A Child are probably more likely to be those who are especially overwhelmed. I’m not going to say that I think the women who read CTBHHM are doing everything perfectly in their marriages already, or that parents who read TTUAC already have it right. In actual fact, I suspect that the opposite is more likely. But what these women need is healthy relationship skills, and what these parents need are healthy parenting skills. The Pearls offer the opposite—they teach wives to be submissive and obedient doormats and parents to beat their children into submission, holding out promises of heavenly marriages and happy and obedient children.

It’s worth noting that while teaching children to be obedient may not be as valued outside of evangelical and fundamentalist circles, it is revered within those circles. All of the “children obey your parents” verses are trotted out regularly, and in my experience at least, teaching children to be obedient in the present is more important than thinking about preparing them for independent adulthood in the future. I add this because evangelical and fundamentalist parents are already primed to expect obedience from their children, meaning that to them the Pearls’ promises of perfectly obedient children sound godly rather than Orwellian.

Anyway, back to Michael:

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 more children. They are the joy of her life. But there was a time when this was not the case.

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 who bring her joy and honor.

Just to point out, Michael can’t know exactly how this woman’s children ended up the way they were. In fact, I think it’s likely that the friendship and cooperation Michael describes between the mother and her children, provided they can be taken at face value, are a result of something very separate from what the Pearls promote in their book. This is like Debi’s observation of a young couple in last week’s installment of CTBHHM—Debi saw (what she interpreted as) a young couple very much in love and completely infatuated with each other and determined on the spot that this vibrant relationship was the result of the young woman’s willingness to accept the young man’s every amorous advance. Of course, in this case Michael actually had a conversation with the woman he is writing about, so maybe the woman did tell him that she got her children the way they were through using the child training methods he teaches and promotes, but from the little he gives us of what she said we don’t actually know that.

Let me add one last thing before closing. This sort of comparison—contrasting the good, godly, perfect individual or family with the out of control, unhappy, rebellious individual or family—is common practice in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. And as we’ll see, it’s a theme threaded through To Train Up A Child. It’s a salvation narrative—the story of the miserable sinner saved through God’s grace, or, in this case, the application of the Pearls’ teachings.

When Toxicity Demands a Break
The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
I Co-sleep, But: Some Thoughts on Attachment Parenting
TTUAC: Bad Attitudes Are a Disease
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.

  • Gail

    If you hate children this much, you probably shouldn’t be a parent. The spanking children young enough to be in diapers is seriously disturbing. Children that young shouldn’t even be “disciplined” gently (and no children should ever be hit); experts usually recommend the practice of “redirecting” or correcting behavior for children under three, but not punishment of any form (like time outs), because the children are too young to connect their actions and consequences.

    • Japooh

      Thank you, that freaked me out as well.

    • ako

      Yeah, there’s a whole chain of mental activities necessary for punishment to work. For punishment to have a chance of working, the person being punished has to understand and remember how they’re expected to act, be physically and mentally capable of obeying, make the choice to disobey, remember what they did later, and mentally connect the act to the punishment. All of those are learned behavior, and asking a two-year-old to do all of them at once (and remember to do them even when surprised, confused, distracted, frightened, angry or hurt) is setting everyone up for failure.

      • sylvia_rachel

        Many a three- or four-year-old I’ve met isn’t all that good at making those connections, either. I had a friend who punished her 3yo for hitting other kids at daycare by making him take one of his toys to daycare the next day and give it to the kid he hit. She was baffled and upset and frustrated that after many, many iterations of this, he had still not learned not to hit. It turned out he was hitting other kids after they hit him first, but even if he hadn’t been, what are the odds of a 3yo’s making an effective mental connection between a punishment and a “crime” that took place a whole 24 hours earlier?

  • Jolie

    There’s a wise saying that goes like this:

    The first ten years of your child’s life, there will be times when you will be embarrassed with them- and that’s OK, it’s part of the experience. The next ten years of your child’s life,there will be times when they will be embarrassed with you, and that’s OK as well.

  • AnonaMiss

    When he writes about a ‘knot on her head’ I thought it meant the child had gotten a difficult tangle in her hair, not a potentially-serious injury. With most authors I’d suggest giving the benefit of the doubt, but given what I’ve heard about Michael Pearl, your interpretation is probably correct.

    • Keljopy

      The child got in when the rocking horse turned over so I’d assume it was a bump to the head as well.

  • Cassiopeia

    The Pearls would be horribly disappointed in my mother.

    She only ever tried the spanking thing once. It didn’t work.

    Mostly because I have some interesting brain wiring which means pain = anger rather than fear. Our family comes in two general body types, tall and stocky or short and slenderer. I’m the former, my mother is the latter. Even as a toddler I was tall for my age and heavy.

    She still has scars from that first attempt at spanking. Because of the pain = anger thing, spanking was not a punishment so much as it was the trigger to much worse mayhem. I completely flipped out. The kicking and punching weren’t so bad (according to her) but then I managed to sink my relatively large set of baby teeth into the arm trying to hold me down and I would not let go until she stopped.

    Beating your child until their will is broken works so much better when you’re significantly larger than the child.

    Chances are, if she’d continued trying the spanking thing she would have ended up seriously hurt. I was the same height as her and considerably stronger by age 10. Hell, three or four year before that I could have caused a lot of damage.

    Instead she discovered that, if it was explained to me what I’d done wrong, I was pretty OK with not doing it. Yes there was childish rambunctiousness but I never did anything horrendously bad. And explaining or non-violent punishments worked so much better than hitting.

    I’m a healthy, intelligent, independent, adult woman with letters after my name. I have a good relationship with my mother (so much so that she can joke about that one failed attempt at corporal punishment). I am not a doormat.

    And I will never, ever hit my children.

    • Things1to3

      All of my kids and I share that pain=anger thing too. Spanking doesn’t work for us at all. Explaining and re-directing work so much better.

    • Mary C

      “Beating your child until their will is broken works so much better when you’re significantly larger than the child.”

      So true. Reminds me of my husband. His father used to beat him…kicked him clear across the room more than once…until in my husband’s words “I got big enough to fight back. And then that was the last time he ever raised a hand to me.” :(

      I’m sure the Pearl’s would say the problem was that my husband’s parents didn’t start hitting him early enough.

  • MargueriteF

    “This sort of comparison—contrasting the good, godly, perfect individual or family with the out of control, unhappy, rebellious individual or family—is common practice in evangelical and fundamentalist circles.”

    What this suggests to me is that there might be a kind of shaming going on in evangelical circles– if your children are out of control, even occasionally (and even in ways that many of us in more mainstream society would not perceive as “out of control”), you are a bad parent who’s failing to properly discipline the kids, and in fact your whole family may be seen as dysfunctional. Some of the passages quoted above certainly seem to suggest this. Fundamentalist parents with difficult or headstrong children, then, might find parenting them even more difficult because they know they are being watched, whispered about after church, and derided as failures. I imagine this might lead to the mindset necessary to turn to this book.

    On another subject, my kids are good at self-entertainment. Even so, if one of them is hurt, I expect them to come to me. I *want* them to come to me so I can look them over and make sure they’re okay. The idea that a kid might be too intimidated and fearful to come to Mommy when s/he has a bump on his or her head, just so Mommy can be peaceful and “rested,” is disturbing.

    • Jolie

      Not to mention if a kid is bullied by other kids… it can’t be good.

    • Lunch Meat

      Yes, there is absolutely shaming going on, even in less conservative/fundamentalist churches. If your child smokes, drinks, dresses “immodestly,” talks back, doesn’t go to church, hangs out with non-church friends or is into countercultural stuff, they are labeled as “rebellious” and there is something wrong with the parenting. The parents are either shamed or pitied. And if your child is unlucky enough to get pregnant (because birth control is never taught) then the whole family is subject to a kind of low-level informal shunning and judgment.

      • Jackie C.

        When one of my college-aged daughters became pregnant and wasn’t married, a conservative/fundamentalist friend kept pushing me to talk her into adoption, telling me she couldn’t possibly be a good mother. I thought that was so strange but you just explained it. Four years later I can say with absolute confidence that my daughter’s one of the best mothers I’ve known. I’d throw it in that friend’s face, but we’re no longer friends.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        Have you ever heard of the Baby Scoop Era? Basically, social workers, judges, and other people honestly believed that unmarried women were incapable of being good mothers and used pseudo-science to back these claims up. Women were forced to give up their children to be adopted by a married couple who were better parents by sole virtue of being married.

      • Jackie C.

        I knew about it but this is the 21st century! Our daughter had supportive family and it’s not like the child would have been unloved or shamed. That is why I couldn’t understand her insistence. But apparently our grandaughter would have been a source of shame in this woman’s world. We’re grateful every day that our daughter chose to raise her.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        It might be the 21st century, but that kind of thinking is still prevalent today albeit with less slut-shaming verbiage. Here is a link on a publication titled “Good Mother, Birth Mother” that was published not too long ago:

      • Jackie C.

        Wow. I had heard these statements used in the 80s when my brother and his Catholic girlfriend gave their baby up for adoption, but since I haven’t been around anyone in years who was giving her baby up for adoption, I was surprised when these statements were thrown at me. I took them to mean she thought my daughter was lacking in some way, but after reading your link, I see it’s a mindset. While normally I talk with my kids about their decisions, this child is a people pleaser, and I was afraid my own family’s long-term heartache (and regrets at believing in this philosophy – “better for the child”) at losing my nephew would influence her too much if she was considering adoption. Plus she herself is adopted so it was all messed up in her head, and mine. I instead had her speak with a trusted mentor who I knew was pro-choice. She was able to make a decision that I am confident was what she really wanted at the time, and she is certainly grateful it’s the one she made. She’s a fantastic mom and while she still struggles, she has a good life with a good marriage (not the child’s father) and other children.

        I followed your link to another “The Missing Piece.” That fear that I had – that I would unconsciously, or consciously, manipulate my daughter into what I thought was best – is what this propaganda piece by the Family Research Council is aimed at teaching “counselors” at pregnancy counseling centers to do. It’s what my friend wanted me to do. Manipulation.

        It’s supposedly based on some research (govt funded in the late 90s) on why women make the choices they do when they are single and become pregnant. But it’s market research initiated to discover why adoption rates were dropping. And it pushes the idea that women make abortion choices early in pregnancy, which explains the push to slow down how quickly a woman can get an abortion. It also has a disturbing piece about an older woman, financially secure with a good job, unmarried, who sees this as her chance to have a baby. She never considers adoption and the counselor doesn’t know how to get her to see that it would be better for the baby and for herself. She pities the woman. So scary.

        This comment in the piece is frightening, “Counselors have the desire and the ability to help clients work through very difficult decisions. They demonstrate this repeatedly in interviews. Their concern for the spiritual welfare of their client is not exclusive of a broader concern for their lives.” These staff, unless they are certified mental health professionals, probably do not have the ability to help women work through these decisions. A good therapist knows when not to work with a client – when their own goals may influence a client. Yet this is exactly what the Family Research Council wants these pregnancy center staff persons to do – convince the client to buy into their own worldview and their own goals.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        I believe much of the counseling at adoption agencies or people linked to such agencies is totally unethical, coercive, and not meant at all to help the woman come to an independent decision. There is nothing in the link that supports parenting.

      • Jayn

        Sadly, this kind of blame exists outside of evangelical circles as well. A lot of parents of children with certain neurological conditions (ADD or autism, for example) get blamed for not disciplining their children, as if they were the cause. Evangelicals take it to more of an extreme, but it’s one of those things where they’re simply promoting a worse version of common cultural themes.

      • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

        I have a friend who adopted 2 children with fetal alcohol syndrome, and she has eperienced alot of rejection in the church world over their behavior. Its heartbreaking. She has totally put herself out for the least of these, and she gets judgement for it. Sad commentary on the state of church culture.

      • Rosa

        the worst blamers in my circle (my child has both an ADHD and an autism diagnosis) all come from religious backgrounds, though. Not all Evangelical – working-class Catholics of my parents generation really valued obedience and quietness as well. I think it’s part and parcel of convincing/coercing people to have more kids than they really want – it’s the only way to make lots of closely spaced kids feasible for most parents.

      • Helix Luco

        neither of my parents are particularly religious, but they spent over ten years trying to punish the ADD out of me, guess who developed anxiety problems for their trouble? one of the worst parts is that they still don’t understand that they did anything incorrectly, all of the pain i experienced was filed away as perfectly ordinary, ‘that’s just what teenagers are like’ after all.

      • sam

        same thing for me too, Helix.

  • John Small Berries

    She says, “No” six-hundred and sixty-six times in the space of two hours.

    Is that a subtle way of saying that anyone who doesn’t use their child-rearing philosophy is serving the Antichrist?

    • Lorelei

      Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft–I got that pounded into me for years.

      Yes, he did that on purpose. And yes, I believe that’s what he’s saying.

    • Christine

      I noticed this too, John!

  • Composer 99

    We’re off to a bad start already: I’m getting creeped out by the Pearls’ writing.

    I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

    • Conuly

      Getting creeped out by their writing is a normal reaction. It would be much worse if you weren’t!

  • Mira

    I just have to say that if you can’t hit a Sheltie–Shetland Sheepdog–even in the lightest fashion without causing permanent emotional damage, how much more so are children susceptible to this kind of abuse? When we first got our Sheltie, we had to relearn how to train her because my other dog, a mutt, was perfectly willing to take a swat on the butt when he was being naughty and not mind in the slightest. I never HIT him or beat him, but he was a decent size dog and sometimes needed a slight pat on the rump to remember that I was the boss.
    Shelties are another matter entirely. If you even swat one (especially the females) they look at you in shock and abject horror, cowering under you and begging you to love them and sometimes urinating in apology.
    I’m just saying if DOGS are like this–dogs that are bred to be obedient, loving, and loyal, specifically–how much more so are our own children? I think kids WANT to obey and love their parents–why would we try to instill discipline using force? The biggest difference, of course, between dogs and kids is, as our parents might say, the ability to “use our words.” Simply hitting a child because they won’t listen, to me, says that you’re unwilling to even use your words and deign to believe that your child is a HUMAN, capable of understanding (even in limited ways) what you want them to do.
    My Sheltie prefers me to use my words: they’re far more effective than swats. Wouldn’t children even more so?

  • Jackie C.

    Children are objects to be taught not to disturb my world. I go to them when I want affirmation in front of others and to be pleased and entertained. This mindset is so disturbing and twisted. Basically you’re teaching your children to con you and not count on you for love and support. “I love you, Mama” could just mean “See how good I was today at pretending we’re a happy family? Please don’t hit me when we get home.”

    If my kids played quietly for 2 hours, I wondered what they were up to. What these parents are missing out on are some of the best memories and stories. Life is chaotic with children, but most can learn to be considerate, and they grow out of needing so much attention. I would rather have spent all the hundreds (thousands?) of hours working on life skills that I did than wonder how much they hated me in the end for “training” them. People are not meant to have their spirits broken, which is what Michael advocates. Besides, anyone who gives up what they want (peace and quiet in this case) for the sake of another grows in strength and life skills too. But then Michael wouldn’t get that. I think he’s stuck at 17, thinking the world exists for him.

    The kids he wants us all to have remind me of a friend’s family when I was a child – they knew to be quiet during the day, not to play so loudly as to disturb their mother, and never go to her for an injury or bug her with a request. The older ones cared for the younger ones. I thought it was so strange – then I realized their mom was an alcoholic.

    • Newbie

      So the goal here is to have your kids so well “trained” that their primary caregiver doesn’t have to be that invested in the kids.. She could be an alcoholic, like this example, or… She could be the husband’s 24 hour servant on his back and call. Interesting…

      • Rosa

        or she could be busy with a new baby all the time. Notice the mom whose kids became robots was open to having lots and lots of children?

      • tulips

        That was my conclusion as well. It’s a good effort to distract from the issue though. If your children are trained to live off crumbs they’ll hardly even recognize starvation when they get near it (much less put up a fight) so no uncomfortable conflict as reality collides with fantasy.

    • Jackie C.

      I should clarify here that my concept of giving up what you want for the good of another isn’t like the Pearls’ concept of it. I’m more talking about changing dirty diapers, interacting with your children instead of expecting siblings to always be responsible, teaching them how to interact with others, even if you have to do it over and over again. Normal parenting!

  • KristinMuH

    I’m curious, Libby Anne, if spanking produces perfect kids, how do your parents explain your deconversion and gentle parenting style? Do they “blame” themselves for how you’ve turned out, or is it all your/Satan’s fault?

    My apologies if this is too personal/painful a question.

    • Libby Anne

      They blame sending me off to a state university rather than sending me to a Christian college or keeping me safely at home. :/

      • SDR

        Did that effectively screw things up for your younger siblings (since you we’re the oldest)? Are they being kept at home and denied any opportunity for a college education?

      • Libby Anne

        No, they’re just not being sent away from home to state schools. At the moment the option seems to be, go to a Christian college or live at home and go to a local state school or community college. That’s for the girls, at least—the boys get more latitude, though my parents still view sending one of them away from home to a state school as a bad idea.

      • AlisonCummins

        But they beat you when you were little, which is proof against “departing from the ways” they taught you. State university is not more powerful than God, and God says that if they beat you that you wouldn’t deconvert. So how does that work? Did God break a promise?

      • Libby Anne

        This is why they send me to a state school in the first place. They thought I was “ready.” They’d done everything right. How could anything go wrong? I’m not completely sure how they rationalize that now, because I’d really rather not ask. :P

      • KristinMuH

        ah, so it was the satanic public college system that did it! Thanks for the answer – I wondered how your parents would rationalize that one.

  • NeaDods

    I get the feeling that Michael can’t stand children acting like, you know, normal kids. One of the things you have to have to raise children is patience, and I don’t think Michael has that

    If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the man’s own wife – heck, his own words as quoted in the last CTBHHM thread – it’s that Michael Pearl cannot put aside his self-described “selfishness” for anyone. Anyone at all. He admits himself that it took years to break Debi to his will and it took a decade for him to actually grasp that she has needs too.

    Of course he’s not going to have patience with a child! Of COURSE he’s going to put an incredible premium on getting every human being around him to cater to him instantly and without effort!

    And of course he’s going to think about it in terms of conquering and breaking. Debi talked in CTBHHM about how competitive he is, how “everything” with another guy ends up in a physical tussle because Michael always has to be the winner. How is he going to know that he’s “won” or thoroughly conquered if there’s the possibility that someone in his own household may have a will outside of his?

    If a child doesn’t expect attention when they get a goose egg, that’s a problem.

    Yeah, I keyed on that instantly too. Way to train the kids to not come to you with problems! That can’t possibly come back to bite them or you later in life!

    evangelical and fundamentalist parents are already primed to expect obedience from their children, meaning that to them the Pearls’ promises of perfectly obedient children sound godly rather than Orwellian

    Literally godly, isn’t it? As in by teaching the kids to consider their parents omnipotent judging, wrathful rulemakers, they’re teaching the kids how to act towards God? That’s the impression I get from the outside looking in.

    It’s a salvation narrative—the story of the miserable sinner saved through God’s grace, or, in this case, the application of the Pearls’ teachings.
    Or the Botkin’s teachings, or Gothard’s teachings or… It’s just idolatry all the way down, isn’t it?

  • Mel

    I have once ran into a kid who was four and was expected by her mother to sit perfectly still while the mom was cleaning up after a college event. I felt bad for the kid and started playing with her. The mom came back and started yelling at the girl for bothering me. I interrupted and explained that I was the one who started the game – which was true. The mom told me that I could play with the girl but didn’t have to. I played with the little girl who was about four for around 45 minutes. She was so starved for adult attention that she never got bored. (I expected most activities to last about 4 minutes before the girl got bored.) The mom only interacted with me/the girl to apologize for the girl taking up so much of my time.

    I realized while playing with the girl that she was the perfect mark for a child abuser. Heck, I could have loaded her into my car and driven away and I doubt she’d have made a peep. As a more experienced adult, I know now that I could have called CPS…although it wouldn’t have done much. Back then, I just didn’t know what to do. Although, I did wish I could take the girl home with me to have a normal childhood.

    • Saraquill

      Expecting a 4 year old to sit still for an indefinite time? That’s cruel.

  • Christine

    It’s not classical confirmation bias, but Michael’s beliefs are definitely self-sustaining. If he sees a child behaving well (and being cheerful), then it’s a sign that beating your child isn’t harmful to them. If he sees a child get upset, well clearly that parent wasn’t beating their child enough. Reality? What’s that?

    • ako

      I wonder what he’d make of a well-behaved child who wasn’t beaten. Would he resort to predictions of future doom (“They may be good now, but wait until they’re a teenager!”) or would he simply deny what he saw?

  • Trollface McGee

    Ugh, why is it ok to do this to kids? If you talk about breaking someone or conquering their will in the context of adults, you talk about psychopaths who are put away for life. Doing it to kids? “Discipline”
    Also, how the hell does Michael know that the “good” mother with the well behaved kid beats the kid? Maybe she is completely against corporal punishment and the reason the kid is well behaved is because she employs those evil librul hippie parenting methods.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    The problem with punishing babies is that developmentally they haven’t even navigated where they begin and the caregiver ends. An 8 month old has a hazy concept of mommy as a separate person. How can they disobey when they haven’t yet formed the idea of themselves as separate entities? HAving studied the research about infant and child development, I am always amazed at parenting “experts” who are completely unaware of the research. If a Ph.D who has studied thousands of infants and analyzed the data comes up with a theory, I pay attention. And TONS of research like this has been done. It’s not a secret, it’s out there, as well as books on parenting by these types of researchers, written for a lay public. I knew nothing about babies when I had my first, I wasn’t one of those kids who babysat. I had to learn everything, and I turned to people like Penelope Leach, an MD and a mother with a shelf of parenting books. And Brazelton and Dr. Sears. Somebody with something besides attitude to offer. And I looked at the books like Babywise. And I flipped to the back to check the footnotes, to find out what research their method was based on. Penelope Leach’s books have pages and pages of notes, practically a third of the book is footnotes, referencing the scientific studies. Babywise has a half page of notes. One thing I discovered is that when it comes to writing on parenting, People with a real background in child development don’t have a massive attitude. They just aren’t judgemental.

    • sylvia_rachel

      Babywise has a half page of notes.

      And also, many of the research they reference doesn’t actually say what they claim it says.

    • smrnda

      I studied psychology and worked with infants and young kids for a while and it’s just a FACT that kids have certain limitations at certain ages you can’t get around. The problem is some parenting ‘experts’ live in an alternate universe of their own facts and have disdain for anything resembling proper research.

  • Japooh

    Anyone repeatedly striking children young enough to still be in diapers is in desperate need of parenting courses taught by professionals. And the course needs to be based on actual research conducted by actual researchers who give a sh!t about children’s development. The Pearls do not qualify and I’m already horrified by this book.

    why on earth would anyone be proud of raising children that will not interrupt their parents when they’ve been bonked on the head by a rocking horse? What kind of parent is that unconcerned about the well-being of their child?

    • Rosa

      the kind of parent who boast about “houseproofing the baby instead of babyproofing the house” and litters the place with breakable things right at toddler eye level to have more chances to teach the kids Mommy & Daddy value stuff over children. Among other things.

      • sylvia_rachel

        Yup. In other words, big mean bullies.

      • Japooh

        Too true.

      • Basketcase

        I’m hoping to work on a balance – so that when we go to friends places who dont have kids, I dont have to worry about how babyproof their place is. But definitely for starters, babyproofing is easier, then work towards houseproofing the toddler :) I want to respect his innate desire to explore, but also teach him to respect other peoples belongings.
        Thankfully, its what most of my friends have done as well, so we can have them and their toddlers over to our not-yet-childproof home without too many concerns. The ones whose kids haven’t learnt any respect for other peoples belongings tend to not get invited over so often as its just too stressful.

  • Rosa

    Aren’t the Pearls people who believe in salvation by grace, not by works? I don’t see how this emphasis on “godly” behavior having “worldly” results works with their theology one little bit.

    By any outside standard, this is horrifying, but even within their own worldview I don’t understand how it’s not all idolatry and false prophecy.

  • sylvia_rachel

    I have read this part before, so I knew what was coming. It still made me feel slightly ill to read it again.

    Instead of having kids, Mike should have built a fleet of robots. (Although of course that can go wrong, too…)

    I am strongly reminded in this section of the two hypothetical children in the Babywise books — the perfect child whose parents used Babywise, and the perfectly horrendous child whose parents didn’t. There is never any in-between territory, or any acknowledgement that what works with one kid may not work the same with another kid; and there’s this bizarre (to me) emphasis on how everyone will compliment you on your kids’ behaviour if you follow the program, like your baby is just some kind of accessory that you acquire for the purpose of attracting compliments, like a particularly expensive scarf. With the Pearls I guess you at least know you’re dealing with a particular religious worldview that places an unusually high value on unquestioning obedience; the really disconcerting thing about Babywise is that, in its secular incarnation (same text minus the biblical gloss), it went so mainstream selling essentially the same message.

    • Liz

      In my experience, homeschool kids are supposed to be more “mature” (ie, quiet, amenable, and “respectful”) and just generally better than public school kids, and taking your kids out in public and getting compliments is just proof that homeschooling is better.
      And when my mom would take us places we *were* complimented on how good we were and adults thought we were great, until they started asking us questions like “what grade are you in?” only to be met with a blank stare because I had no frickin clue what grade I was in because my mom didn’t believe in having us in specific grades or even telling us what grades we got on assignments, which…. just, no. Didn’t work.

      • Rosa

        my mom has this horrific story she told me in supporting me in my anti-spanking stance (against a lot of relatives, though she said it to me, not them): when I was a badly-behaved little kid with undiagnosed ADHD, she eventually gave up spanking me because it just obviously wasn’t working. She broke a spoon across my ass and realized I wasn’t going going to back down unless she really, permanently hurt me, so she stopped.

        But she always wondered if she should have kept going til it worked. It worked for other people – one of her relatives had kids just our age who were always perfectly behaved, and it really made her wonder if she had made the right choice.

        Until those kids dad went to prison (for something unrelated) and she learned that they and their mother had been beaten horribly, for years, confirming her suspicion that only real fear would cause that level of obedience.

      • sylvia_rachel

        Oh my :(

      • Christine

        There are kids who are just that obedient. But I tend to remind myself that “at least I’m not hitting her” when my daughter is an embarrassing handful.

      • sylvia_rachel

        Me too. (Well, not so much now that she’s 11. But when she was two and three, HOO BOY, she was a whole *arm*ful.)

        I forget, are you in Ontario too? One of the things I love about Toronto is that you’re not constantly surrounded by people telling you that your child would be much better behaved if you would just spank them. (I did get this from my SIL from time to time — she raised her kids in the 1960s and 1970s — but not from anybody else.)

      • Christine

        I’m a bit west of you – KW. (I grew up in Toronto though). What I like is the fact that if someone told me to spank her, I could almost get away with calling the police on them. (For another 6 months only, and it wouldn’t actually work, but it’s a reassuring thing to know). It’s not just that it’s ok to not spank – spanking is socially unacceptable here. I’m sure there are a lot of people who see it more like scratching your genitals – they assume it happens, but never in public. But it’s unacceptable to the point that I was SHOCKED to discover that 80% of people in the 5-10 years older than me age range had been spanked at least “rarely”. (That said I was spanked. Once. And then my parents found better ways to deal with their stress. So technically I would fall into that, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a lot of the “rarely” answers were similar to mine.)

      • sylvia_rachel


        That’s exactly how it is — I’ve met parents who will admit they’ve spanked their kids once or twice (usually it’s one of those OMG-that-car-almost-ran-over-you-you-must-NEVER-EVER-EVER-do-that-again emotional overreactions), but spanking as the go-to method of discipline is just very much not a thing.

        I’m 39, and I was spanked as a child. I think I would also fall into the “rarely” category (although I’m not from Toronto, I’m from Calgary, and my parents are/were American, which I suspect messes with the data a bit). I think most of my peers were spanked occasionally, although I don’t know for sure; certainly I didn’t think of it as weird or unusual or upsetting when I ran across spanking in books, the way my 11-year-old does. My mom was never a spanker; my dad, on the other hand … his parenting M.O. was basically to completely ignore whatever obnoxious and/or destructive thing we kids were doing to our toys, the furniture, the flowerbeds, or each other right up until the precise moment when it passed his personal annoyance threshold, at which point yelling and/or spanking would ensue. The thing I was most frequently spanked for was beating up on my younger brother, which didn’t make me stop beating up on him but did make me more careful about getting caught :S

      • Rosa

        oops! You were talking to Christine. The nesting confused me.

        What’s so different, do you think? Did the law change and the social attitudes follow?

        My dad was very much like yours – temper tantrums with spanking. That’s why I was sure I was never going to spank.

      • sylvia_rachel

        By law in Canada (specifically, s. 43 of the Criminal Code), parents can still use “reasonable force” to discipline children age 2 to 12. S. 43 hasn’t changed since sometime in the late 19th century, IIRC. So there hasn’t been a change in the law since my childhood, for sure. I think it’s actually been the other way around. Possibly Canadian society was influenced by other countries that have outright bans on spanking, or maybe certain parenting experts/philosophies that are less violent have had more influence here than south of the border, or maybe at some point a critical mass of people figured out that other things work better and started to rub off on the rest …

        I don’t want to give the impression that Canadians are necessarily better parents than Americans, or anything. There’s still plenty you can do to mess up your kids without actually hitting them, and we certainly have our share of abusive parents :( But I do feel like having the default setting be “don’t hit your kids” rather than “hit your kids” represents progress.

      • Rosa

        Nope, I’m in the American Midwest. I live in a mixed (class & race) neighborhood in a city, but we have a lot of family in small towns – there are huge differences in different groups for how people think kids should be treated. Mostly the spanking advocates are family members, not friends.

        My kid has serious hyperactivity and impulse control issues, and the literalism & inability to read social cues of someone on the autism spectrum – whenever I get into these discussions, online or in person (the worst is the cry-it-out one, because most people won’t advocate beating children to compliance but they will advocate leaving them alone to scream for hours until you win) people say “but of course it’s different for special needs kids.”

        Except, except, except, when he was 2 and 3 and we were getting all the terrible judgement and bad advice, WE DIDN’T KNOW THAT WAS WHAT WAS WRONG. It is only my commitment to nonviolence – which he wore raw and thin – that kept me from doing the exact wrong thing with him, starting with the fact that we just worked on structure and lots and lots of exercise instead of spanking him for impulsiveness that he literally could not control at all. It wasn’t “willful disobedience” and he wasn’t not looking us in the eye or responding to verbal prompts because he was trying to piss us off. We still did way too many authoritarian, punishing, pointless standoffs, but (like Christine says about hers) at least I didn’t hit him. (well, once. Only once.)

      • Rosa

        we have a niece who is very obedient (and now, a little older, very bossy and rules-based) but even she was never “seen but not heard” – she considers herself a person, like the grownups, who’s allowed to take up space and have opinions and sometimes get to do what she wants instead of what someone else wants. It’s a different, better, kind of good behavior than that silent not-bothering Pearl praises.

      • Jayn

        I do have to sometimes wonder how many kids spanking just doesn’t work on. I was generally fairly obedient, but I can also be quite stubborn at times. Even though I feared being spanked, sometimes I Just Didn’t Want To Do Something, and my brain just didn’t quite register it as a choice between doing something I didn’t want to do and getting spanked. Punishment was far enough in the future to not counteract my desire to not obey NOW.

      • Rosa

        I think that’s pretty common – at least for just “regular” levels of spanking. There’s a level of violence that will outweigh the distance for most kids, maybe all if they’re terrorized from infancy. Or maybe the kids it really doesn’t work for end up dead, or with brain injuries, or removed from the home.

        I know for my kid, only maturity and ADHD meds curbed the impulsiveness. (for me it was just maturity – my mom gave up spanking in early elementary, and my behavior did not get better or worse, but i did eventually grow out of it.) I weep to think of the kids with these impulsiveness issues in an obedience-and-punishment system, constantly punished for what feels nearly out of their control.

      • j.lup

        My siblings and I grew up in a not-religious abusive household, and my father got compliments on how well-behaved and mature we were. What we really were was constantly afraid, made to feel worthless, neglected, and forced to look after ourselves.

      • Liz

        The funny thing is, I didn’t grow up in an abusive home, everything was more or less functional but that didn’t stop some of the negative aspects of homeschooling. It didn’t have to be terrible to be less than optimal, in my experience.

      • j.lup

        Liz, What resonated with me was your comment about the perception of homeschooled children as “mature (ie, quiet, amenable, and “respectful”),” and that compliments about their behaviour is taken as confirmation that homeschooling is just better. It just made me think about my own experience (non-homeschooled) of being perceived that way and the assumptions people made about my parents, i.e., ‘the kids are well-behaved and independent, the parents are obviously doing something right.’ Yes, we were obedient and quiet, but that’s because we were scared and traumatized, and while we were responsible for much of our own care and had to be mature in that respect, our emotional maturation suffered. I was just chiming in with my own experience to illustrate the idea that we can’t judge what a child’s home life or ‘homeschool life’ is like, nor what kind of parents their parents are, simply by their behaviour in public and by what we value as ‘well-behaved’ and ‘respectable’.

      • Liz

        Oh, I was just trying to clarify that I experienced similar things even though my household wasn’t abusive. It’s interesting how certain experiences resonate even with such different backgrounds, and I really appreciate you and everyone sharing your stories. I’ve been looking for a place to talk honestly about homeschooling and how some of my experiences have been less than positive which is why I like this blog, but the more I read the more I think… damn, my experiences just don’t even compare. I’m sorry that you and so many other people have gone through such horrible things.

    • NeaDods

      and there’s this bizarre (to me) emphasis on how everyone will compliment you on your kids’ behaviour

      The Pearls are ALL about the outwards appearance. They talk about god, but it’s the other people’s appreciation that they promise and crave.

      • sylvia_rachel

        They also talk a lot about “heart training” and making sure your kids aren’t “sitting on the outside but standing up on the inside.” (It’s not enough to make your 2-year-old sit in her carseat so that she isn’t killed if you crash; you must also crush her will to resist. Trying to get her to understand why it’s important to wear your seatbelt while in the car is not on the table; she’s supposed to do it immediately and cheerfully because you said so, full stop.) Because you will somehow MAGICALLY KNOW what your kids are thinking and feeling, even as you are systematically teaching them that if they don’t appear 100% happy at all times, you will whack them for their “bad attitude”, giving them an extremely strong incentive to never give you any clue what they are really thinking or feeling.

        The cognitive dissonance makes my head hurt.

      • kecks

        hell, i would look happy as fuck all the time if i were 5 years old and anything else would mean my parent starts to hit me for real. so glad corporal punishment is banned in my country.

    • David Kopp

      Wait wait wait… are you trying to say that children are really basically just people without the experience that adults have, with all the differences that actual people have? Poppycock, I say! Pure hogwash!

      • sylvia_rachel


  • jemand2

    “parents” then immediately segue to “mother.”

    Where is the father in *any* of these anecdotes?

    • Christine

      Standing behind her, with a second, larger, switch.

  • Things1to3

    Two things bother me with this first set of examples. Firstly, the energy levels of the kids aren’t taken into account. Kids come in all energy levels and that can make it much easier or much harder to manage them. My kids are very high energy, and my sisters kid isn’t. Put them in a room like the Pearls example and my kids will be in, out, and on the roof. My sisters kid will sit and play quietly. We use the same parenting techniques, but the kids personalities make a huge difference.

    Secondly, with small kids, I’ve found that timing and consistency are absolutely as important as the method of discipline. Michael touches on this, but barely when he says “When we speak of consistently rewarding every transgression with a switching.” It’s the consistency part that’s the important bit though, not the switching. You can get just as far consistently rewarding every act of obedience, and when you ignore rewards and focus only on punishments aren’t you dismissing half of your potential management options?

  • TLC

    My son was a pretty well-behaved little kid. But I don’t think I ever went off to another room for 2 hours without checking on him at least once.

    Here’s what I want to know: was Michael Pearl beaten when he was growing up? Until his will was “broken”, and he was a mindless, perfectly obedient little creature? Because if he was, would he have turned out to be a church leader and nationally known author? (Pause to shudder) Somehow, I doubt it.

    I know there are those who overcome abusive childhoods to achieve great success. But they usually know they were abused, and have something to overcome — they know something needs to change. I just can’t picture one of these “robot children” sticking with the same set of beliefs as an adult and having the confidence, assertiveness and determination to become the type of leader that Michael Pearl has become.

    • sylvia_rachel

      Yeah, 2 hours is a very long time for small children to be unsupervised in someone else’s house. Even well-behaved small children.

  • ako

    This is like an object lesson in how pre-existing bias changes interpretation. I see a story of one woman who is constantly losing her temper and spanking her kids and facing unmanageable discipline problems, and one woman who is never shown or explicitly described as hitting or beating her kids in any way, but is shown calmly offering age-appropriate explanations and getting a positive response, and I see it as evidence that explaining in a calm, age-appropriate way tends to have a positive influence, while constant negativity and hitting doesn’t teach discipline.

    Michael Pearl sees this as evidence that children should be drilled mindlessly, and beaten with sticks every time they fail to obey, until they somehow turn out pleasant and affectionate.

    • sylvia_rachel

      Totally. When I see pleasant, affectionate, well-behaved kids, “wow, their mother must be a diligent spanker!” is pretty much the last thought that would cross my mind :P

  • Saraquill

    Why did this man conceive if he can’t stand children acting like children?

    • sylvia_rachel

      Because his religion bans birth control … ?