To Train Up A Child, chapter 11
In the coverage of Hana Williams, a lot of contradictory claims about To Train Up A Child were thrown around. On the one hand were claims that the book advises parents to give their children cold baths or shut them out in the cold as punishment. On the other hand were fans of Michael Pearl and his child training methods calling this a blatant falsehood and claiming that anyone who saw abuse in To Train Up A Child must not have actually read the book. I sat in the middle trying to figure out what to say. Accuracy is very important, and we need to avoid claiming that To Train Up A Child says thing sit doesn’t. That said, it is also important to understand how certain teachings can lead parents to attempt certain practices, and that intent is not magic.
This week we cover Michael’s chapter on potty training. Here is where we get to see first hand what Michael does and does not say about cold baths, and how these teachings impacted the lives of Hana and Immanuel Williams.
NO MORE DIAPERS
On a missionary trip to Central America, we were amazed by the practice of the primitive Maya Indians in not diapering their babies prior to stuffing them into a carrying pouch. The infants are all potty trained. After experimenting on our own and after further observation, we discovered that an infant is born with an aversion to going in their “nests.” The parents “untrain” them by forcing them to become accustomed to going in their pants. It is instinctive in a child to protest a bowel movement. He kicks, stiffens and complains. Being sensitive to the warning signs (after having changed 17,316 diapers with the first three), my wife tried it on our new arrivals. When she sensed that the child was about to “go,” she would go to the toilet and place the bare infant against her bare legs in a spread leg sitting position. At first, a little stream of warm water would provoke the start of an impending “tinkle.” As the child began urinating, she would say, “Pee Pee.” On other occasions, if she missed the signs and a bowel movement was in progress, she would rush the child to the bathroom to finish on the toilet, while occasionally saying, “Do Do.” Even if the child was through with his elimination, she still set him on the pot in order to reinforce the training. He came to identify the sound with the muscle function. They become so well trained to the voice command that you must be careful not to say the words at the wrong time.
Now, some disbelieving mothers have said, “You are the one who is potty trained, not the baby.” Just as a mother knows her baby is hungry or sleepy, she can tell if he wants to go potty. A three-week-old baby is doing all he can to communicate.
My mother-in-law was equally skeptical until the day my wife said to her, “Stop at the next station, the baby wants to go potty.” In a minute, when Deb came out with a thoroughly relieved three-month-old, my mother-in-law was convinced.
For a while, our bathroom became the end of a pilgrimage for those seeking faith in infant potty training. Many a time our red faced, infant girls looked up to see a great cloud of amazed witnesses expectantly hovering in our large bathroom.
Understand, the child is not made to sit for long periods of time waiting to potty. There is no discomfort for the child. An infant soon becomes accustomed to being regulated to about every two hours, or according to sleeping and eating intervals. Many others have also been successful in training their infants.
This is generally called “elimination communication,” or EC. I view it a bit skeptically and as a mother myself I am unconvinced that it is so easy to recognize when an infant is about to urinate as is claimed, but I have no experience with the method myself and I am aware that there are people who swear by it. Ironically, the first time I really seriously looked at EC was when I was researching various other parenting methods, such as attachment parenting, after dumping the Pearls’ methods. I was put off by the need for the parent to be constantly with the infant, constantly paying attention to the infant, constantly in contact with the infant as I am a full time graduate student and my children attend daycare, and I therefore never gave it a try.
But here we get into the main theme of the chapter:
A HOSE WHEN HE GOES
A good friend and neighbor had a big three-year-old boy who would sit outside driving nails with a hammer and dumping in his diaper. I suggested it was time to have a man-to-man talk with the kid about the environmental implications of making such large contributions of plastic to the city dump. The father explained that he did not want to cause guilt or stifle the young man’s personality. I well understood his concerns, for I have seen distraught, impatient parents doing emotional damage to their children through verbal abuse. So, I suggested a training exercise.
First, I pointed out that the boy’s mother, busy with the other children, would, several times a day, pick up this big kid, talk sweet to him, lay him on a bed, take off the dirty diaper, wipe him with a warm rag, rub a little lotion on the chaffed spots and then put a fresh, smooth diaper on him. Dumping in his pants was an opportunity to get his mother’s undivided attention. Now, we understand that there is no guilt or blame in this matter, especially on the child’s part, but there is something quite inconvenient—except for the kid who loved the experience and must have found it the highlight of his day.
So, my suggestion was that the father explain to the boy that, now that he was a man, he would no longer be washed in the house. He was too big and too stinky to be cleaned by the babywipes. From now on, he would be washed outside with a garden hose. The child was not to be blamed. This was to be understood as just a progressive change in methods. The next dump, the father took him out and merrily, and might I say, carelessly, washed him off. What with the autumn chill and the cold well water, I don’t remember if it took a second washing or not, but, a week later, the father told me his son was now taking himself to the pot. The child weighed the alternatives and opted to change his lifestyle. Since then, several others have been the recipients of my meddling, and it usually takes no more than three cheerful washings.
So discussing the environmental impact of diapers with a three year old would scar them but spraying them down naked outside with a hose in cold weather wouldn’t? Really?
Also, if pooping in his pants is the only way a child is able to get his mother’s undivided attention, there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. If getting a diaper change is the highlight of a child’s day because that’s the only time they get his mother’s undivided attention . . . yes, I’m beginning to repeat myself here, but this just seems so blatantly obvious and it isn’t something Michael even addresses! Is it that hard to consider that perhaps the mother spending more undivided time with her son, so he doesn’t feel like he has to poop in his pants, might be the solution to this problem? But no! Michael tells these parents to hose their son down, naked and outside in cold weather! *headdesk*
MANY SWEET RETURNS
One little three-year-old diaper dumper, when watered down with a hose, looked rather shocked, gritted his teeth, and then adjusted to the inconvenience. When it became clear to the parents that they had a tough, resolute martyr on their hands, and understanding the principles, they sought another solution. While continuing the hosings, the mother realized that, partly due to her attitude toward what she knew to be her last child, the little fellow just didn’t want to grow up. He enjoyed being the baby as much as she enjoyed it.
These parents, conscious of their children’s nutritional needs, do not provide them with many sweets. The rare occasion when they do is a real treat. This little fellow was a Spartan when it came to bodily discomforts, but he sure did love the sweets. The wise mother cheerfully said to the boy, “Son, Mother has decided that you are just not old enough to be eating sweets, so until you get a little bigger and stop pottying in your clothes, you will not be allowed anything sweet.” For a week he seemed to be as monkish about the sweets as he was the hose. Then the day for French toast came around. Not eating syrup, they were allowed one teaspoon of powdered sugar per toast. After watching the other children receive their powdered sugar, the forlorn fellow said to mama, “I sure do like powdered sugar on my French toast.” “I know you do,” she said, “but you are not old enough yet.” After his deprived breakfast of plain French toast, he climbed down, walked around to his mother, and with all the soberness of one making a revolutionary, life-time decision, he announced, “Mother, I am ready to stop wearing a diaper. Take it off.” That was it. From that moment on, he took himself to the toilet. A week later, the little man, now possessed of a more disciplined character, climbed up to the table, sat down on his dry pants and had his French toast crowned with a spoon of powdered sugar.
How this family ultimately handled the situation is very similar to how I parent Sally, but differs in one major respect. Let me explain. (Before I do so, I should note that Michael comes this close to admitting that his methods sometimes don’t work, but never really follows through.)
Several months ago Sally had a meltdown in a store (this was before the anecdote I shared in my post on solving Sally’s meltdowns). Afterwards, I told her that I would not take her back to that store until she was older, because it was just too hard for me to get through that store with her. This wasn’t a punishment, and it wasn’t contrived. It was simply true. That store had become a particular problem, because Sally couldn’t make it through it without asking for this or for that or loading my cart with baubles and then falling to pieces when I said I wasn’t going to buy them. I understood why she acted the way she did, I told her. At her age and in that store, what child wouldn’t? Interestingly, that’s all it took. Sally so wanted to go again that she promised she would behave differently, and so I took her, and I haven’t had a problem in that store since.
The difference in Michael’s anecdote, of course, is that the connection between eating sweets and being old enough to poop in the toilet was contrived. It was also about trying to make him change his behavior rather than being about trying to understand his behavior. Which brings me to my next point—different children develop at different levels, and the age at which a child is ready to potty train or, which is harder, to learn to poop in the toilet, will vary. Some children will continue to wet their bed several years past age three for purely developmental reasons.
A NOTE OF WARNING
Bed wetting or diaper dumping is not a moral or character issue. It is a natural physical function. Don’t let your pride do damage to your child. No matter how ashamed or embarrassed you are, don’t apply emotional pressure. He is a product of your training and conditioning. If you have an older child who wets the bed in his sleep, understand it is not a conscious act that can be corrected by the above mentioned methods, nor is it an attitude problem that can be dealt with by discipline. The problem may be physical or emotional. Regardless, buy yourself a set of plastic sheets and teach the kid to change his own bed covers. Don’t ever embarrass him or cause him to feel blame.
If you suspect it could be emotional, look within yourself for the problem and get yourself adjusted. The child will grow and mature in an atmosphere of love and security.
It is good that Michael recognizes that there are actual developmental things going on here! Of course, this bit is a bit odd coming right after his descriptions of hosing down three-year-olds out of doors in cold weather without any consideration of whether their delay may be developmental. There’s also the problem that Michael has already sabotaged part of this with all his talk of children being rebellious. In this section he says that an older child who wets his bed isn’t doing so consciously and shouldn’t be disciplined, but this assertion feels out of place given not only the context provided by the rest of the book but also the context provided by the rest of the chapter, wherein Michael instructs parents whose children are late potty trainers to fix the problem by hosing them down outside in cold weather.
Larry and Carri Williams, followers of Michael Pearl’s child training methods, forced their two adopted children, Hana and Immanuel, to take showers in the hose outside, even in cold weather, in response to their bed wetting problems. According to Kathryn Joyce:
Things weren’t much better for Immanuel. When Immanuel began wetting the bed after a few months in the house, he says, the Williamses accused him of doing so on purpose and forced him to take immediate cold showers outside under the hose.
If the Williamses were to go by Michael’s note of warning, they should not have interpreted Immanuel’s bed wetting as rebellion, and they should not have hosed him down outside for it. But Michael very clearly did recommend a cold hose outside for a child who is intentionally going in his pants, and again and again Michael has primed parents to see their children’s actions through a strict dichotomy of obedience/rebellion. It’s unclear whether the Williamses missed the disclaimer or chose to disregard it, but either way their actions should not be surprising given the content of the rest of the book.
It is important not to make inaccurate claims about To Train Up A Child. However, saying this does not constitute defending Michael Pearl. There is enough in what he does actually say in his book to damn him time and again. Michael Pearl cannot simply waive his hands toward a disclaimer and avoid all responsibility when the brutal parent v. child mentality that suffuses his book inevitably results in horrific abuse or even death.
Next week we begin chapter 12, “Child Labor.” Stay tuned.