TTUAC: Definitional Discussions and Pavlov’s Dog

To Train Up A Child, pp. 4—5


“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov. 22:6).” Train up, not beat up. Train up, not discipline up. Train up, not educate up. Train up, not “positive affirmation” up. Training is the most obvious missing element in child rearing. Training is not discipline. A child will need more than “obedience training,” but without it everything else will be insufficient.

With all of Michael’s insistence on distinguishing between “training” and “disciplining,” t’s time we pulled out a dictionary.

Train: [with object] teach (a person or animal) a particular skill or type of behavior through practice and instruction over a period of time.

Training a child, then, is, according to the dictionary, about teaching a child—and in this case, teaching a child a particular type of behavior, and doing so through “practice and instruction over a period of time.” Next let’s look at the dictionary definition of discipline:

Discipline: train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.

That sounds like pretty much the same thing as the way Michael is using the word “train.” Sure, the definition of discipline includes the word “punishment,” a term Michael’s trying to avoid here, but as we’ll see the training he prescribes does include punishment—switching a baby when she reaches for a forbidden object, for instance. In other words, Michael’s playing a semantics game here.

Michael is promising parents that if they train their children they will not have to punish them. No one likes to punish their children (well, almost no one). And this is similar to James Dobson’s promises that if you discipline your children consistently, they will be better behaved and less confused and less punishment will be needed—and there is indeed some truth to that. Parenting should be consistent and intentional rather than inconsistent and out of control. But Michael seems to think that the only consistent and intentional parenting method out there is his own, not realizing that it’s possible to be consistent and intentional while parenting very differently from the extreme authoritarian methods he advocates.

And what exactly is this training that Michael is recommending? How will it so effectively forestall the need for punishment?

Parents should not wait until the child’s behavior becomes unacceptable before they commence training—that would be discipline. Discipline is a part of training but is insufficient in itself to effect proper behavior. Training is the conditioning of the child’s mind before the crisis arises; it is preparation for future, instant, unquestioning obedience. An athlete trains before he competes. Animals, including wild ones, are conditioned to respond to the trainer’s voice command.

Yes, Michael did just use the word “conditioning.” As in, Pavlov’s Dog type conditioning. And yes, he says parents should prepare their children for “instant, unquestioning obedience.” You didn’t just read that.

How does this conditioning take place, and how is such instant and unquestioning obedience created? As we will see in coming weeks, Michael teaches that parents have to break their children’s wills and force their children to completely surrender and submit to them utterly. Once this is done—once children are broken—they will be completely, instantly, and unquestioningly obedient, thus eliminating the need for doling out punishments—what Michael means when he uses the word “discipline”—in the future.

The frustration experienced by parents is of their own ignorant making. Our problem is not “bad” children, just bad training. There are no exceptions, the “strong willed,” the hyper active, the highly intelligent and the easily bored all need training, and training is effective on all.

A word for the wise: If someone is suggesting they have a specific parenting technique that will work on every child, whether strong willed or hyperactive or highly intelligent or easily bored, you might want to be a bit skeptical. When I talk about positive parenting I talk about broader principles—listening to your child, trying to understand your child’s perspective, modeling cooperation and communication rather than expecting instant obedience, respecting your child as a person—but I also try to remain cognizant of the fact that every child is different and will need a slightly different approach. I think it’ll be interesting as Bobby gets older to see the differences between him and Sally and what that means for how I parent. Michael’s suggestion that these differences are irrelevant and immaterial is a problem.

As we will see, this “training” starts with breaking a child’s will. One theme I find in the stories of bloggers who started out raising their children on the Pearls’ methods and then threw them out (the Pearls’ methods, not the children) is that this first step—this breaking of children’s wills—can be long, painful, and drawn out. This was certainly the case for Lydia Schatz and Hana Williams. Once children are broken, sure, they will be submissive and obedient, but you have to break them first—and that process can be horrific and certainly is not devoid of conflict or punishment (nor does Michael suggest that it should be, as we shall see).

Of course, if you start earlier enough the process of breaking a child’s will is generally simpler than if you suddenly and out of the blue start in on an older child. I think this helps explain the many Pearl-following parents who claim that this has worked—that they rarely have to punish their children and spend their days basking in the glow of their children’s immediate obedience. But remember my mention of bloggers who tried and rejected the Pearl’s methods? Their stories suggest that even when you do start early, it doesn’t always work, and it frequently doesn’t work out anywhere near as painlessly as Michael suggests.

I do want to problematize something, though. In my home growing up, we children were trained to immediate obedience at a very young age in just the way the Pearls prescribe. However, it’s not like we lost any sense of our own desires and needs. Rather, we simply learned quickly that questioning orders and not obeying immediately—or even obeying with a “bad attitude”—resulted in being spanked or otherwise punished. Wanting to avoid punishment, we learned to swallow our emotions and just obey, plastering on a smile or at the very least making sure to avoid frowning. But that didn’t mean we didn’t still feel or rage inside. Even though my parents believed they had broken each of our wills, I think what they had really done is made us so frightened of the consequences of disobeying that we negotiated our circumstances as best we could using what coping mechanisms we had available. A child raised on the Pearl’s method may be instantly obedient and appear outwardly cheerful, but that tells nothing about what is actually going on inside the child.

And finally, again, notice that Michael speaks of “the frustration experienced by parents” and attributes it to their failure to “train” their children. It’s as though he’s unaware that there are parents who have never done anything remotely like what he teaches here and yet do not spend their years parenting in a constant state of frustration with their children. Michael Pearl inhabits a very black and white world.

Understand, at this point we are not talking about producing godly children, just happy and obedient children. The principles for training children to instantly obey can be equally applied by Christians and non-Christians. Although as children get older, the character and teaching of the trainer plays a more significant role.

This is actually one thing I’ve seen Christian bloggers who oppose the Pearls’ child training teachings point to as a warning sign. Michael is talking primarily about breaking children and turning them into mindless obedient robots, not about teaching children to love Jesus and love their neighbors. What’s really fascinatingly interesting, though, is the interplay between Michael’s views on child training and his beliefs about God. As we shall see, Michael’s God is a God who requires just such instant and unthinking obedience—a God who is not above breaking those who are recalcitrant. Michael gets into this later in the book, explaining how breaking your children and requiring their complete submission helps prepare them for offering their complete submission and allegiance to God. That said, insofar as Michael’s methods are pulled from the psychology of classical conditioning, of course—i.e. Pavlov’s Dog—it is absolutely true that they are universal and need not spring from any particular religious beliefs or lack thereof. 

One last thing. Note the pairing of “happy and obedient.” The Pearls do say that they want happy children, and they promise their readers happy children. As we’ll see, they go so far as to say that spanking a child for a transgression makes the child happy while not spanking the child would make the child miserable—in the here and now, not “you’ll thank me someday.” But the Pearls, as we shall see, also teach parents to penalize children for bad attitudes and to interpret unhappiness as rebellion. How, then, is one to tell simply by looking at the outside whether a Pearl-trained child is actually happy? Speaking from experience—they can’t. Kids growing up in these conditions can of necessity become very good at faking a “happy” exterior.

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.

  • AlisonCummins

    I wonder if by “happy” he means “not whiny.” Yes, his kids are beaten for not smiling, but that’s because it’s nice for him to be surrounded by a brood of smiling children and not because he cares about their inner state. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in other people.

    • NeaDods

      Once again, appearances are more important than reality in the Pearl world. If the kids look happy, they are happy and could. It possibly be damaged or raging on the inside. And the outward appearance is all he cares about.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        North Korea, with all the Population Units dancing Joyfully with Great Enthusiasm before Comrade Dear Leader.

    • j.lup

      That’s precisely what I’ve gotten from all this. Pearl doesn’t give a fig about what anyone else feels or experiences. He’s a tyrant and a petty dictator. He thinks that women can’t be happy unless they’re submissively serving a man, and children can’t be happy unless they’ve had their spirits broken, all traces of independence or resistance erased, and are too traumatized to do anything but obey. Basically, no one can be happy unless they’re making the (appointed-by-God) dictator happy and meeting his needs.

      (As a secular aside, it infuriates me that the Pearls have made their living as con artists, using promises of Godly grace and threats of damnation and divorce to dupe people into giving them their money, and that the law seems powerless to hold them to account when children are tortured and killed by their parents who use the Pearl’s methods.)

      • tsara

        re: your secular aside: I don’t think the Pearls’ schtick would fly in Canada (IANAL, so I could be wrong), but we don’t have a Constitutional right to free speech. It’d be lovely if someone could find a way to charge them, though. Incitement to violence? Criminal negligence causing death?
        (Actually, that would probably just make them feel like martyrs. I don’t know what can be done aside from fisking the books and warning people about them.)

      • Christine

        What the Pearls advise is definitely illegal here, and the courts have confirmed this. I’m not quite sure if that’s enough to make the books illegal even here though.

      • Whirlwitch

        The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes the right to free speech. The chief legal exception is hate speech, so the books could only be banned on that ground. There is no way to charge the Pearls themselves with anything, since they aren’t Canadian.

      • Hilary

        Pity, because they should be held to a court of law on grounds of hate speech against child development.

      • j.lup

        tsara & Whirlwitch: Yes, our Charter guarantees the right to ‘freedom of expression’, not free speech (I reckon we came up with different language so as to side-step the problems of defining what ‘speech’ is), but hate speech and defamation laws do apply and have banned religious propaganda from importation in the past (most notably Chick Tracts). But Pearl’s child abuse manual is available for sale on amazon_ca (though it does get soundly trounced in the reviews) and through Indigo. I could find only one petition seeking a ban on its sale within Canada, arguing that it violates specific articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which the US signed but did not ratify) and that, “This book targets a specific group based on age, and advocates violence against them, therefore should fall under Canada’s hate-speech provisions.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have garnered much attention, perhaps because the Pearls and their wisdom aren’t big sellers up here, even in proportion to our population.

  • Mira

    I couldn’t even fathom treating a child in this manner. I simply couldn’t do it. Switching a baby? What the hell?

  • ako

    I’ve seen people use the whole “It’s not punishment! It’s discipline! Er, I mean training!” word-game thing before. (“Consequences” is another popular word – if the parent is making the decision to impose a restriction or other unpleasant thing on a child, as opposed to merely allowing it to happen, it’s a punishment.) It’s a great way to distract from what is being done to the child. You take the big, scary P-word and go “No, I’m not doing that! I’m doing this completely different, much nicer thing!”, and hope people don’t look at the specifics. I was punished as a child, and that involved time-outs, denial of privileges, and extra (age-appropriate chores). To suggest that beating a child with plumbing line is somehow kinder is ridiculous.

    That bit about interpreting unhappiness as rebellion is really scary. I read some of the Hana Williams trial stuff, and apparently that really does sometimes go as far as interpreting self-harm and behavior that can be seen as suicide attempts* as pure rebellion, and responding with punishment instead of therapy. Put a kid with exceptional vulnerability to depression or similar mental health problems in that kind of environment, and there’s a very good chance they won’t survive to see adulthood. (And beating, or ‘spanking’ a kid when they’re small doesn’t provide some sort of lifelong immunity to mental health problems.)

    *In this particular case, all evidence suggests it wasn’t actually a suicide attempt, but confusion and loss of motor control caused by hypothermia, which was caused by parental torture.

    • Sally

      I agree that there’s a general taboo to the word “punishment” in modern parenting. Both STEP Parenting and Active Parenting make a distinction between consequences and punishment. Their distinction is that consequences “fit the crime” in that they are either natural or if not possible, then they are logical. They’re not arbitrary. Whereas punishment is arbitrary. So time out is a consequence if the kid really needs to step aside and cool off. Time out is punishment if he’s getting a time out for something like saying a bad word to his sister.
      Well, my kids figured all this out real quick. If I offered them the sentence we’re taught to say (I’ve mentioned this before), “Would you like to stay and talk nicely to your sister or would you like to continue to use mean words by yourself in your room?” My kids figured out that the “if/or” choice was really just a “cue” (or warning) and that in this case, they better shape up or a time out was coming. I never made a big deal of labeling punishment V consequences, but *they* pointed out to me that the “if/or” was just a delayed punishment. When I told them I was using consequences that “fit the crime,” they agreed, but insisted it was still punishment. I agreed. That’s not to say I didn’t continue to use logical and natural consequences, but I didn’t try to pretend they weren’t “punishment” wrapped up in a “warning.” The punishments and warnings are done in a humane way, and that’s the advantage of them. But for these programs to say they don’t teach punishing kids is stupid. BTW, I studied these principles before they were born, so I saw their insight unfold as they grew older. I didn’t swoop in and try to use these on older, savvy kids out of the blue.

    • onamission5

      Truth, my mother treated me like my suicide attempt at the age of 14 was something I had done at her, not to myself. Her response was then to treat me with cool detachment, never mentioning it but never letting me off the hook either. This helped my feeling that nobody gave two fucks about me not one whit, although I suppose in retrospect that being almost totally ignored was better than a beating.

      • redlemon

        I thought I was the only one. After my suicide attempt, I spent a week in a hospital. When I was being released, I felt kinda okay. Like something had changed. As soon as I sat down in the car, my parents turned to me and announced that they knew this was some kind of “revenge” against them, that I was a terrible human being, that they were taking away all my stuff because I was obviously spoiled, and that I wasn’t allowed to see my boyfriend again ever because he obviously put me up to something like that.* I started to cry and cry and cry, to the point that I was hyperventilating. I will never forget, nor forgive this until the day I die: my dad turned to my mom and asked if I was still broken. He asked her if they should take me back inside to get fixed again. He still defends that comment to this day.

        We hadn’t even left the parking lot of the hospital. When I got home, my brother, in a rage, had destroyed my room and most of my clothes. My mom said I deserved it. They only half followed through, but enough to destroy whatever progress I had made.

        *My boyfriend was the one who drove me to the hospital, after he realized I was acting funny. He stayed with me the entire time I was there, up until he was forced to leave because of driving curfew. He visited me. We had only been dating for a year and we were 17, he could have walked away after that. He didn’t. He walked me down the aisle 6 years later.

      • Saraquill

        Wow. I can’t fathom anyone reacting like that and still calling themselves parents.

      • onamission5

        The way your family behaved toward you was unfathomably cruel. I am so glad that you had one person in your life who was there for you to provide a counter to the awfulness, and that your family did not manage to keep you apart.

      • Whirlwitch

        I’m really sorry you went through that. Your boyfriend/husband sounds like a real keeper, though.

        I had a somewhat similar experience in that I had to leave home and live with my wife before I knew what living with someone who loved me was like. Figuring that out feels pretty awful, I realized then just how much I had been missing. I started unfolding as a person then, no longer in permanent defence mode.

      • redlemon

        After that, I always kinda knew he was the right guy. It was right about the time when my grandma, who was barely able to speak English anymore due to dementia, grabbed me by the collar and told me that he was a “keeper”.

        Grandma always knew what I needed :)

      • Lyric

        Your grandma sounds like she had a good head on her shoulders.

        I’ve met a few people who thought everything was deliberately aimed at them. It almost seems to be one of the prerequisites to evil.

      • NeaDods

        I think it’s that whole “outward appearances are more important than reality” thing cropping up yet again. A family can’t hide a suicide attempt, can’t handwave it away. So the people who focus entirely on the outward appearance blame the victim, literally, for ripping away the illusion that everything is fine.

      • redlemon

        That’s exactly what it is. My entire childhood can be described as “don’t talk about our private family matters to other people”, with “private family matters” being anything not positive. (The irony, at least to me, being that nobody ever had any illusions of us being a perfect family to begin with. We all bleed dysfunction. The only difference now is that I embrace it.)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        Truth, my mother treated me like my suicide attempt at the age of 14 was something I had done at her, not to myself.


  • Sally

    Well, I agree with the thrust of your post that children who seem “broken” on the outside are not necessarily showing their real feelings. I think that’s a very good point. The only thing I don’t agree with is that Michael is claiming he doesn’t punish. In the excerpts you quote, he doesn’t say he’s not going to use punishment. Now I realize we got to the word punishment by looking up the word training in the dictionary. But Michael is doing what the Pearls love to do- they’re teaching us their own definitions of words, the “the world’s” definitions. He recommends elsewhere (on YouTube for one place) that when you’re reading the KJV, you need to use a dictionary from the year ????- well, I forget what year but I think it’s probably the Noah Webster’s 1828 version (Here’s why Here’s the definition of “train” that Michael would probably claim is correct from the 1828 version,train.

    “trainingTRA’INING, ppr. Drawing; alluring; educating; teaching and forming by practice.

    TRA’INING, n. The act or process of drawing or educating; education. In gardening, the operation or art of forming young trees to a wall or espalier, or of causing them to grow in a shape suitable for that end.”
    My point is not that Michael Pearl’s whole concept of training is a good one. My point is simply that we can’t necessarily use a modern dictionary to show us what Michael is saying. He’s either defining his own words or likely using definitions from a particular dictionary from 1828. Clearly from what we already know about the Pearl’s training methods, he absolutely will use punishment in his methods and I don’t think he’s claiming otherwise.
    But again, I appreciate your point that with the Pearl’s method, the result is not necessarily on the inside of the child what it appears to be on the outside.

    • Sally

      Oops “But Michael is doing what the Pearls love to do- they’re teaching us their own definitions of words, the “the world’s” definitions.”
      I meant to say, “NOT ‘the world’s definitions.’”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        Didn’t Screwtape devote a whole letter to redefining words into their “diabolical meanings”?

  • Hilary

    There is a reason Pavlov didn’t work with cats:'s+cat&hl=en&rlz=1G1ACEW_ENUS548&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=KJAkUoSWHoGDrAGclYCYAQ&ved=0CFIQsAQ&biw=1290&bih=566#facrc=_&imgdii=_&

    (Someone had to say it. ;-)

    But Michael, you can train children without breaking them, hitting them, or hurting them. It just takes patience, time, and this strange human emotion called empathy that you’ve never heard of. You totally can train your children how to use the bathroom like a big kid, get dressed, sit at the table and eat, stand in line, all kinds of things, without hitting them. The problem is, you’re not just violent, psycho control freak, you’re *lazy*. Hitting children whose bodies are still developing in motor control and coordination for being clumsy, instead waiting for them to grow up and making their living space safe for them is lazy. Hitting children for not doing exactly what you say the first time, instead of thinking about it from their perspective, respecting that they are people not machines, or learning to work with them to understand how to motivate them without fear, that’s lazy with a capitol L.

    My mother did infant/toddler home daycare when I was growing up, and I remember how every day at 4:15 she would put on the baby music video Babysongs by Hap Palmer, and the toddlers would pick up little red rocking chairs, line up in front of the TV, and sit and watch. “It’s a wonderful day, to go out and play, hey maybe you can come along – All you need to bring is a song to sing, a happy little baby song.” Just as the video ended, their parents started showing up at about 5:15.

    That is training toddlers. Gentle repetition, showing them simple things in they are capable of doing, and using music as a cue to do the same thing every time. Something they can enjoy doing. No pluming line in sight. It worked every time.

    • kecks
      • Hilary

        Yeah, my 3 cats and I share a range of communication with sounds we all understand. I can definitely call for them and have them come to me, mostly. They know exactly what to do to remind me to put out food and clean the litter. Oddly enough, none of it includes inflicting pain on each other.

      • Gillianren

        The only time my cat inflicts pain on me is when he’s happy–he kneads, and the very tips of his fangs don’t fit in his mouth, so when he rubs his jaw against me, he scratches me with his teeth. The only time I inflict pain on him is when he forgets one of the house rules–Dark Kitties in Dark Hallways Get Stepped On. In neither case is the pain deliberate.

      • CarysBirch

        Lol! That rule applies to chocolate dachshunds in dark hallways too. Also little dogs underfoot in the kitchen get (inadvertently) kicked.

        Pretty sure she thinks the dropped food prizes are worth the occasional dog-human pileup.

      • Hilary

        Exactly – it’s never deliberate pain. Well, I have on occasion swatted a nose to get a cat away from a door they are not allowed to go out, but usually just snapping my fingers in their face is enough. That is the sum total of discipline I need to use with them.

        I’ve stepped on tails a few times. I always apologize, and tell my cat that he has a very nice tail (3 fixed short hair boys) and that I never try to hurt him and it was a mistake. I usually get a nice head rub accepting my apology.

        The only times I get hurt is when Ziggy is settling on my pillow and steps on my hair. They’ve all learned that if you need to cross over a human female in the bed, YOU DO NOT STEP ON HER BREASTS OR YOU WILL GET EVICTED OFF THE BED POST HASTE!

        But it is worth it, to be in bed and surrounded by love. Penny at my side, Ziggy sharing the pillow, Amitai sprawled across my hips, and Cody my metrosexual-flirts-with-anything black panther over my ankles.

      • gimpi1

        Or any kitty in a dark hallway when I don’t have my glasses on.

      • Monika Jankun-Kelly

        This! I understand “meow” means “I want something”. The cats understand they need to show me or lead me to what it is they want, be it the sink for water, their food dish, or the toy drawer. I had one cat who learned to come when called by name. She knew she would get luvs and snuggles. I had another who had a very distinct meow he would ONLY use to say “I need a litter box right now!”. This was very handy in the vet’s waiting room. They have learned that poking me gently without claws when I’m at my desk gets positive attention, while poking my nose when I’m asleep gets them (gently) shoved off the bed.

      • Hilary

        I have a feeling that by the end of the series, all of us LJF regulars are going to know all of each others pet stories, simply as a relief from the topic at hand. Every time Mr Pearl tries to use an animal training comparison, we all start talking about the real animals in our lives and how much even they contradict the Pearls teachings.

      • Gillianren

        I’m pretty sure my cat is smarter than they are. My cat is not that bright, and has been seen on several occasions to fall off the middle of the bed.

      • Alix

        LOL. I thought my cat was the only one. She’s … half really stupid, half really incapable of properly estimating how far she needs to jump. (Which is sort of part of being stupid, I guess.) So we get such wonders as her taking flying leaps at the side of the couch (while attempting to land on top of it) and sloooowly sliding down like some cartoon. Or such wonders as her batting at sticky paper, realizing it’s sticky, then laying full-length down on it only to tear around the house like a bat out of hell upon realizing that the sticky paper is, yep, still sticky.

        …Not that I didn’t just have to deal with this this evening, or anything. >.>

      • Gillianren

        Mine sits on the edge of the tub when I’m in the bath with his tail dangling into the water. He is then shocked every time that his tail has gotten wet This will often then result in his tearing around the apartment at high speed while chasing his own tail. It’s really funny except for the part where he gets water everywhere.

      • Conuly

        One of my cats bites when overstimulated, but she’s a semi-rescue, and… we’re working on it.

      • Hilary

        At this rate Libby should just open a cat discussion thread, or general pet post.

        “I can haz LJF bloggers and posters? Lol!”

      • Feminerd

        Lol! That would be fun. I’m just about ready for a new kitty- my old one died about a year ago, but we’re ready for new kitten(s) now.

        The cat, dog, bird, hamster, horse, and other animal/pet discussions help take the edge of the horribleness of the Pearls, though. They also reinforce that the Pearls have no idea what they’re talking about- if their methods fail at training animals, and they do, then why would you ever try to use them to “train” a child?

    • NeaDods

      The problem is, you’re not just violent, psycho control freak, you’re *lazy*.

      THIS! We already know that Michael cannot emotionally deal with nuance and is unwilling to put thought into anything that isn’t black and white — look at his reaction to learning about Biblical translations and his fleeing to KJV only specifically so that he doesn’t have to think about alternatives. He even admits that someone else taught him KJV only and its arguments against other translations, which he uses word-for-word.

      We also know he’s a control freak from both his own writings about selfishness and Debi’s writings about control men.

      Add those two and of course he’s going to take the easy, violent way out of thinking about children’s needs.

      • smrnda

        He’s lazy, insecure and cowardly. He gets to feel big by beating up on little kids, or encouraging others to beat them. It’s probably because outside of his little ultra-conservative bubble, Michael would be ridiculed and laughed at by actual adult men who find his laziness, egotism and propensity for violence pathetic and revolting.

  • aletha

    I think in general, Debi and Michael should be handed a dictionary and told “Here is what words REALLY mean. Use this and stop making up your own definitions.”

    • NeaDods

      But then they’d have to bow to someone else’s authority and not put themselves in the role of teaching what things “really” mean.

      • aletha

        Oh yeah. Good point.

    • ZeldasCrown

      i’m sure all of this playing hard and fast with the dictionary is intentional. It offers them a lot of benefits, not the least of which is that it gives them yet another “out” if their advice doesn’t work. By defining things differently (and somewhat vaguely) they can always claim that they meant something else, and yet again define away any instances that show their advice isn’t universal. “Oh, you thought I meant that by ‘fellowship’? I actually meant this other, very specific definition. So you weren’t actually following my advice correctly, and thus don’t count as an example of it failing.”

      • Hilary

        Would this also fall in the category of gaslighting?

      • tsara


      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        Remember redefinition of words into “diabolical meanings”, My Dear Wormwood…
        Your Ravenously Affectionate Uncle,

  • TLC

    When anyone uses the phrase “instant obedience” with humans, it completely freaks me out because this is what my mother and sisters demand of me if I want to keep my place in the family. No, I don’t spend much time with them.

    Just found this excellent blog entry from Quivering Daughters about family cults that has some great background information. I think this is the Pearls’ main motivation: not to train children or have great marriages, but to create these “family cults” just like theirs.

    Also, Google the phrase “instant obedience” and you’ll get a whole slew of teachings on how good Christians must give God perfect, instant obedience or they’re sinning. Here’s an explanation based on a quote from Rick Warren:

    No time to think, reason, research, pray about it — just DO IT, because God said so. Or his appointed “representative” like Michael Pearl said so. It’s no wonder that most of these people believe everything they are told and never check things out. That’s how their leaders condition them to keep them in line.

    • Eve Fisher

      And the irony, of course, is that Jesus Himself stopped and prayed in the garden of Gethsemane before he marched off to the Cross – and he prayed “If it be Thy will take this cup from me…” I think a good definition of a cult is any group that wants you to be holier/purer/better than Jesus.

  • Rebeccas_Daughter

    Pearl is advising parents to create a conflict between two intense human needs – the need for autonomy and freedom, and the need for love. Since he’s advocating for the abrogation of the child’s autonomy, the love he offers is conditional. He’s setting up a conflict in which the child’s trust in the parent is limited at best, and more likely broken deeply. I would expect this to push children either into rebellion (which may not become open until the child is too big to push around or has left home), or into self-immolation – to rage, focused either outwardly toward parents and society, or inward, toward the self. Sometimes both. Neither is particularly healthy.

    His advocacy of “instant, unquestioning obedience” is anathema to me. I want my children to question me – sure, that can be really frustrating, but it also forces me to ensure that my reasons for asking something of them are based on reason and include consideration of their own needs as well as mine. Sometimes that means I have to compromise, or even flat out change my mind. That builds trust. And they know that they are loved unconditionally, because that love flows no matter how frustrated we both become. It’s not always easy, but over the course of 13 years we’ve stayed close and connected, and my kids appear to be as emotionally healthy as I could ask for. It’s definitely worth the hard work and frustration.

    • jhlee

      THIS. The Pearl method and its ilk force kids to choose between their parents and themselves, except that they have no choice, ha ha. It’s guaranteed to tear a rift in the child’s soul AND the child-parent relationship.

      The rebellion from that rupture can be overt, but it can also be covert and passive-aggressive. I still struggle with procrastination, which was often the only way I could control my life (or gain a false sense of control) in the face of parental dictates. My brother admitted to purposefully lowering his grade in at least one exam, and who knows how many times he consciously or unconsciously sabotaged himself.

      Obviously both my brother and I are responsible for our own actions. It’s just that we didn’t get much help from our upbringing, where we seldom had responsibility for setting our own course but plenty of blame for failing to follow orders. Ugh, the memories.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    Michael has such a need to present himself as independent, strong, manly, ect, and I just wonder about this drive to completely break his children. Did his parents do this to him? It looks to me like he is a complete dictator in every area of his life, inside ans outside the family. One set of rules for him, another for everyone else.

    • Sally

      I recall his saying that his father raised him this way. I don’t remember if that’s from an earlier post of Libby Anne’s or elsewhere.

      • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

        Interesting. Thanks for telling me.
        I do wonder about it. Why the heck is he so incredibly hardheaded if his parents suceeded in breaking him? I tend to think Michael redefines things. I also think parents intent on breaking a child are not unlikely to produce someone like Michael – a insecure person with deep control issues.

      • aletha

        I think part of it is the whole submissive wife issue. I knew a couple who were more or less normal when they got married. She faithfully practiced Debi’s book, and now, 9 years later, he’s a petty dictator and she’s a fake-smiling, dead-eyed wife. Apparently having a sycophant does horrid things to some types of people.

      • MargueriteF

        “Power corrupts.”

      • gimpi1

        Absolutely, Aletha. Even a reasonably normal person who finds themselves involved with a doormat will sooner or later start wiping their feet. Mindless submission never creates anything but tyranny.

      • Lyric

        I dunno, sometimes I think there’s a Law of Conservation of Rage. All that anger that you choke down when you’re being hit—it comes out somewhere, somehow. Maybe you scratch yourself. Maybe you become a crusading social worker who’s enraged with what the homeless have to go through in this country. Maybe—with a hefty dose of callousness and a total lack of self-awareness—you devote all your energy to beating smaller beings who refuse to match your imagination.

      • Olive Markus

        I think you’re absolutely correct. I was attempting to say exactly the same thing to my mother last night – when discussing my dad. You simply said it wonderfully.

        My father was badly abused as a child – and neglected all the way through adulthood. He has no self-awareness and no ability to process his emotions. He’s generally a GREAT human being, but his anger comes out towards his grand children, and it makes no sense (unless you understand exactly what you’re saying). He isn’t abusive, but he’s not kind to them at all and it almost borders on hatred. I really feel as if he’s projecting all of his past hurts and anger onto them – without being aware. He ignored us as children and was very absent, and then doted on us as teens and adults. Even now, he treats me like I’m the most important person in the world. I just think he can’t handle being around kids without all of his emotion exploding. If he were aware of himself he could work through it, but he’s not.

        Emotions exist and they have to go somewhere. I don’t know if I could say “it is up to us” to do something with them, as it’s not often in our conscious control. However, something is done with them, positive or negative, consciously or unconsciously.

  • Rosie

    It’s certainly possible for a child raised with these (or Dobson’s) methods to lose a sense of his/her own desires and needs. I sure did. Which later on caused me more trouble than if I’d simply learned to fake it. It took at least ten years of concerted effort for me to figure out how to know what I want. I’m not sure if it’s personality that made that difference for me, or if something else was going on that I don’t remember, or what.

    And I guess I’ve probably mentioned this before, but relatively recently I was reading a book that recapped Erikson’s stages of development (which he framed as “crises”), and realized that not only did I “fail” them all (the first time around; they can be made up later), but that the parenting methods advocated by Dobson and his ilk, not to mention Michael Pearl and his, intentionally deny children in stages 2 and 3 (toddlerhood) the affirmative feedback they need to develop well. Generally in the name of “conditioning” them to be obedient to God later on.

    Well, that verse in Proverbs is often taken as a promise from God: “do this and this will happen”. It might even work sometimes. But I tend to think, “train up a child in the way she should go (Biblically), and sooner or later she’ll realize she’s been sold a bill of goods.”

    • Sally

      “train up a child in the way she should go (Biblically), and sooner or later she’ll realize she’s been sold a bill of goods.”

    • Alice

      Yes, any Bible teacher should know that proverbs are general principles, not guaranteed promises. Heck, anyone with common sense, because it’s pretty obvious that a gentle answer doesn’t /always/ turn away wrath. Same with training children. There’s even proverbs that directly contradict each other.

      • Whirlwitch

        “There’s even proverbs that directly contradict each other.”

        YES. Because the book of Proverbs is exactly that, a book of proverbs. I sincerely wish more Christians would understand that simple fact. It’s a collection of sayings, mostly already so old at the time of inclusion that nobody knows who/when/where they came from. It’s not a cohesive book by a single author, and it was never intended to be divine revelation. Just human viewpoints that somebody felt were wise or true enough to include in the collection, with, almost certainly, multiple somebodies involved.

        (And my next big revelation is about Psalms.)

      • Brennan

        When I was 18, my intro college literature class read “Things Fall Apart,” and one of our in-class discussions centered around the use of traditional Igbo proverbs in the characters’ dialogue. A couple of my classmates had their minds blown; they’d only ever encountered the capital-P Proverbs in the Bible. Before we could talk about how Achebe used proverbs, we had to define what the word actually meant. And this was at a private, secular college in the Mid-Atlantic, too.

      • Conuly

        So, wait, they never heard things like “a stitch in time saves nine” or “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” or “a sunshiny shower won’t last half an hour”?

      • Brennan

        They knew the basic concept, they’d just never heard those called “proverbs.” “Aphorisms” maybe.

      • Jolie

        I thought proverbs are anonymous/popular culture and aphorisms always have an actor?

      • Nancy Shrew

        People don’t tend to make those distinctions when speaking informally.

    • Val

      I think it depends on what part of the Bible you base your opinion of “the way he should go” on – Old Testament, or New. Personally, I think that if you raise a child on the teachings of Jesus, you won’t be selling them a bill of goods. Teaching your kids to love people, to be kind, to forgive those who wrong them, to not judge other people, not to stress out about the future but to enjoy living in the moment, are good things. I think it’s more of a problem to raise kids with the Old Testament ideals of a vitriolic condemnation of wrongdoing in others, belief in a God who is easily angered and waiting to punish harshly, a very staunchly black-and-white sense of morality that is heavy on Puritanical standards and light on grace…that kind of thiing absolutely turns kids away once they reach adulthood and get out of the house.

      • Rosie

        There are problems in the NT as well, though mostly not in the Gospels. The apostle Paul seems to have been a firm believer in women submitting to men and being silent and generally “keeping to their place”, and that’s no good either.

      • Gillianren

        No, the person who forged documents in Paul’s name believed in that. The epistles that were probably actually written by the historical Paul assume a lot more gender equality than was typical pretty much anywhere else in the world at the time. Then, a hundred years or so later, someone came in and wrote a few letters saying, “Did I say that? No, I totally meant keep your head covered and be silent!”

        It’s funny; my opinion of Paul is higher now than it was when I was still Catholic, because I’ve learned what history teaches us, not what the Bible teaches us.

      • Rosie

        Well, yeah, Paul didn’t write it and God didn’t inspire it, because He doesn’t exist (imho). But the same people who are apt to take unpleasant OT injunctions seriously (and proverbs literally) will also find a way to take the less pleasant parts of the NT just as seriously.

      • Gillianren

        Oh, true enough. I just believe in accuracy in a way that they don’t, and it’s important to make clear that the historical Paul wasn’t as raging a misogynist as I thought he was before I knew the history of forgeries in the Bible.

      • Hilary

        That **MASSIVELY** depends on interpretation and application of the Old Testament. There are healthy and loving Jewish families, that right now are getting ready for four holidays over the next four weeks: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah. The first three are based from the Torah, the Old Testament, and the last celebrates the yearly cycle of reading the Torah.

        Bottom line: there are healthy and functional Jewish families and Christian families, and unhealthy and dysfunctional Jewish families and Christian families. I don’t know how much it matters which scripture you use, Torah or Gospels, both can have good or bad families, followers, use, interpretation and application.

      • smrnda

        I also recall a line from the Talmud somewhere that no one should strike a child with anything heftier than a shoe-lace, which appears like a backhanded way of saying ‘don’t hit kids’ by presenting some absurd but permissible way of doing it.

        I’m suspecting a great deal of Christian child-beating is owing to the concept of Original Sin, which really isn’t a thing in Judaism as far as I know.

      • Hilary

        I think it depends on the absolutes of fundamentalism, which is toxic as hell and can be violently damaging in both religions. I’ll never say “No True Scotsmench” that there aren’t problems in Judaism or Jewish families. But I do think not having Original Sin does make a difference. Personally I think it is the biggest difference between the two religions, but that is another conversation.

        98 out of 100 times I don’t react when Christians or atheists talk about the Old Testament. But this time, and here, I figured it was worth pointing out that interpretation and application matters more than which scripture parents use.

    • The_L1985

      I’d argue that the Pearls’ methods (and the closely-related garbage spewed by the Ezzos) also deny stage 1 infants a very important lesson: trust. When an infant cries, it doesn’t just mean “I’m hungry” or “I’m sleepy” or “I need a new diaper;” it’s also a way of making sure that Mommy and/or Daddy can be trusted to come running when Baby needs help. Trust is absolutely vital for infants because they can’t yet do anything for themselves.

      Spanking or ignoring a baby for crying doesn’t teach them anything good. It teaches them “The world is a scary and unpredictable place, and expressing needs or desires will only get you hurt.” That’s a horrible thing to teach a baby.

      • Rosie

        Yes. I agree whole-heartedly.

        And even if the parents are fairly caring in stage 1, one of the dangers of the next stage is that a child may learn that its desire for choice is in conflict with whatever safety was built up in Stage 1, that the act of choosing is inherently threatening to one’s very existence. And by the time a child has “failed” stage 3 (by over-controlling and over-constricting itself to the point of self-obliteration, as James Fowler puts it), there’s not much hope left for further personality development until the situation changes drastically (upon leaving home, for example).

  • Ymfon

    No. No, no, no, NO.

    You know what you get if you break children efficiently enough, Michael? BROKEN PEOPLE!

    • The_L1985

      Seriously, you’d think that the word “break” in there would be a major clue that this parenting mindset is damaging!

    • Alix

      You’re assuming they see children as people.

      They don’t. Children are ornaments reflecting the glory and desires of the parents/father.

  • Val

    That sounds horrifying. : ( I want my kids to obey me when I ask them to do things like clean their rooms, not put a stick in the dog poo on the lawn, or stop hitting their sibling. But I don’t need to “break their wills” in order for that to happen. My kids are strong-willed and stubborn, but I think that’s a good thing, because it helps them stand up for themselves and one another. The idea of breaking them – *breaking* them, like a horse, or a beautiful vase – makes me sick. I don’t want robots. I don’t want unthinking, unquestioning obedience because I don’t deserve to have that kind of authority over them…they aren’t my property, they’re people, and sometimes I AM WRONG. I would take my stubborn, not-always-obedient kids over kids who’ve been trained to unthinkingly, unquestioningly obey any day, because at least this way they aren’t mentally beaten down and emotionally shattered.

    Obedience should not come at a cost to your child’s wellbeing.

    • Jolie

      One thing I really appreciated about how my parents raised me:
      My mom always admitted she doesn’t always have all the answers; sometimes she would explicitly ask me “I don’t know, what do you think you should do?” even if she did have the answer, to teach me how to think. I bet Michael’s head would explode… (Or not, since I turned out to be a godless, gay-friendly spiritual humanist with a degree in Gender Studies) :P

  • lauraleemoss

    Michael only cares about the man. He wants a peaceful home for the man, women and children be damned.

    • Jolie

      Actually, this bit reminded me a lot about Debi’s piece on the Ahmed guy- the one when she tells the wife never to complain again about her abusive husband, and then concludes, since she doesn’t hear her complaining, that he suddenly stopped being abusive and all must be fine and dandy.

      • lauraleemoss

        Right. If no one complains, has an honest opinion, or acts like a human, Michael will be fine. We just need to pretend so the man is fine, and help him along the way.

        I want to feel sorry for Debi because I think she is an abused woman. I hate how she and her husband explain to women and children to swallow their abuse though. Stomaching either Pearl is impossible.

  • Rose

    For all his referring back to animal training methods, has he ever seen what happens to a dog when it’s “trained” in the way he suggests? It falls under animal cruelty laws for starters (at least in my part of the US it would) and it creates anti-social, aggressive, fearful or apathetic animals. Beating animals NEVER produces effective results and often causes anti-social behaviors. Why would anyone think it would work on children?

    • Lucreza Borgia

      That’s where the Pearl’s get tricksy. They deny that their method entails beating and that anyone beating a child is doing it wrong. You will see that they redefine words or leave things murky enough for plausable deniability.

    • ako

      My parents adopted a dog who’d been hit by the previous owners (although probably not as frequently and severely as the Pearls would recommend). The hitting caused difficult behavior. (Scare a dog enough and it will literally piss itself with fear if you lift your hand the wrong way.) You know what helped the dog? Patience, redirecting, lots of healthy exercise, and gobs of cuddling. (Also figuring out that the dog is deaf, and isn’t able to respond to verbal commands, despite being the most desperately eager-to-please dog I’ve ever seen in my life.)

      • InvertIntrovert

        Aww. I want to cuddle your parents’ dog too. Poor thing.

  • Machintelligence

    This sounds like Calvinism dialed up to 11. A quote from John Stuart Mill comes to mind:

    It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is Self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable, is comprised in Obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise; “whatever is not a duty is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. That is the theory of Calvinism…


    • Sally

      Interesting. Thanks for sharing that.

  • Unbeliever Prime

    One thing that needs to be mentioned is that no true trust can exist in authoritarian setups like this.
    For instance, in a marriage where both the husband and wife believe truly believe that the woman must be completely servile and devoted to her spouse, how can the man ever really know if his wife is happy with him or not?
    Her merely acting like she’s happy and satisfied with the arrangement means nothing, because they both expect her to act that way regardless of how she’s feeling (or how he’s treating her).
    There might be some men who are arrogant or self-centered (or perhaps simply stupid) to never ask themselves such questions (I suspect Michael Pearl falls into this category) but I suspect many men in extremely patriarchal marriages must wonder (even if not on the conscious level) whether the woman their married to even likes them (and in many cases the answer is probably no).
    Frankly, I think this also encourages men to cheat (along with the fact that such men know they will face no consequences from their wives for infidelity).
    Because they have been taught to expect constant submission, affection, and approval from their wives it won’t mean much to them.
    Whereas having an affair with a co-worker would seem far more exciting and authentic. Because the OTHER WOMAN is under no obligation to be affectionate towards, sleep with, or even like him.

    • Kate Monster

      I think the surface relationships are what really matter to people with this and similar conceptions of the world. As long as you do the right things, it doesn’t matter if you’re truly happy–because that’s what the next life is for. Suffering as a gift that brings us closer to God. Self-denial (real or perceived) as a virtue. A husband doesn’t need to know whether his wife is happy because her happiness is irrelevant as long as she’s following the rules, just as it’s okay for him to be a dictator so long as he’s a Godly one, and beating children with plumbing supply line is okay if you’re doing it to bring the kids to Jesus. The ends justify the means.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        In one of his Father Brown Mysteries, Chesterton makes a contrast between “Heavenly Virtue and Hellish Respectability.”

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    One last thing. Note the pairing of “happy and obedient.”

    That brings to mind a scene in an older B&W movie set in World War 2, “Is Paris Burning?” In the scene, the German occupation forces are making an example. Young happy obedient faces come into the light on-camera, the SS runes on their collars and the NSDAP shield on their stalhelms, all young, happy, sparking-eyed, and cheerfully obedient. Then the order is given, and the massacre begins.

  • Becca

    Some parents, when they think about wanting happy children, really want children that make them and their friends and acquaintances feel like they (the children) are happy. They’ll spank the happy right into you.

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