TTUAC: The Promise of Perfection

TTUAC: The Promise of Perfection August 12, 2013

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.

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