An Open Letter to Debi Pearl

An Open Letter to Debi Pearl October 24, 2013

Dear Debi,

I was very excited when I read your article of this past August, titled “The Roland Study.” In that article, you began with this opening paragraph:

My grandson Roland, who just turned one, has taught me more about the development of babies and toddlers than I learned my first sixty-plus years of life. It is not that he is such a fine teacher; it’s just that, now that I’m a grandmother, not responsible for meeting the daily needs of my children, I can seriously focus on what makes him tick:  how much he understands, what causes him joy or anxiety or fear, his interests and responses—and, most importantly, what a child is capable of learning at various ages.

I am glad to know that you, like me, have become fascinated by listening to children and trying to understand what makes them tick. It’s amazing, isn’t it? I am writing because I am concerned about your husband’s book, To Train Up A Child. I understand that he stands by what he wrote there, but I have read the book multiple times and feel that the central messages of that book run contrary to what you wrote in your article.

Let me offer some examples.

First is the way one views the natural behavior and needs of infants and toddlers. You urge parents to “always assume your cranky baby is sleepy, sick, or bored, and do something to alleviate the problem or meet the need.” This is wonderful advice! Yet in to To Train Up A Child, Michael has this to say of a cranky baby:

As the mother, holding her child, leans over the crib and begins the swing downward, the infant stiffens, takes a deep breath and bellows. The battle for control has begun in earnest. Someone is going to be conditioned. Either the tender-hearted mother will cave in to this self-centered demand (thus training the child to get his way by crying) or the infant is allowed to cry (learning that crying is counterproductive). Crying because of genuine physical need is simply the infant’s only voice to the outside world; but crying in order to manipulate the adults into constant servitude should never be rewarded. Otherwise, you will reinforce the child’s growing self-centeredness, which will eventually become socially intolerable.

In other words, you say that cranky babies should be assumed to be sleepy, sick, or bored, but Michael urges parents to view a cranky baby as selfish or rebellious. Which is it? Should a parent respond to a cranky baby with love and compassion, as you urge, trying to find a way to meet that baby’s needs, or should a parent view a cranky baby as “self-centered” working to “manipulate”?

Next is the issue of actually listening to your children. In your article you write that, as a result of “studying” your grandson Roland, you felt as though you were “quietly listening to him speak before he could actually talk.” Yet nowhere in To Train Up A Child does Michael focus on teaching parents to parents to listen to their small children, whether they can talk or not. In fact, the word “listen” appears only three times in the book. It once refers to a girl listening to train whistles, and once to a father listening to his daughters sing, and the third time it is the child who must listen, not the parent:

However, if you are just beginning to institute training on an already rebellious child, who runs from discipline and is too incoherent to listen, then use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay. If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final.

In other words, you urge parents to listen to small children, to try to hear what they’re trying to say, but Michael focuses on forcing them into submission without ever mentioning listening to them. Which is it? Should parents listen to their children, even young babies and toddlers, or should children be the only ones to listen, required to “surrender” because the parent is “bigger” and “tougher”?

Finally, when speaking of your study of Roland, unable yet to walk, you state that “I could clearly see that he knew what was happening and wished he could join the parade of feet running here and there.  This baby boy was frustrated by his baby body.” Yet nowhere in his book does Michael point out that children might be frustrated, whether by the limitations of their bodies or by anything else. For instance, Michael states this:

How many times have we observed the grocery store arena? A devious little kid sits up in the command seat of the shopping cart exercising his “childhood rights” to unlimited self-indulgence. The parent fearfully but hopelessly steers around the tempting “trees of knowledge of good and evil.” Too late! The child spies the object of his unbridled lust. The battle is on. The child will either get what he wants or make the parent miserable. Either way, he conquers.

In other words, you urge parents to consider that they’re children’s actions may be the result of natural frustrations, but Michael seems completely unaware that this could be the case—or else he simply doesn’t care. Which is it? Should babies and small children be assumed to be rebellious and selfish, or should parents consider that their children’s behavior might be the result of natural frustration, like Roland’s frustration with not being able to walk? Why does Michael not address the fact that the child in his anecdote might be hungry, or overstimulated, or tired?

I know this may be hard for you to hear, Debi, but many parents who read To Train Up A Child come away viewing their children’s normal behavior as sinful and interpreting their children’s natural needs as selfish as a result. They don’t come away with the idea that they should listen to their children or try to understand what makes their children tick, because that’s not in there.

Let me take a moment to tell you a bit of my own story. When my daughter Sally was ten months old, she discovered some potted plants on our coffee table. I told her “no” but she would not give up her interest in them, and, as a result of reading To Train Up A Child, I saw that as disobedience and the beginning of life-long rebellion. So I began to switch her hand every time she touched the plants. Nothing worked, and our relationship suffered. It was only when I called the contest off and took some time to try to understand Sally’s perspective—something never suggested in To Train Up A Child, by the way—that everything changed and my relationship with my daughter began to blossom. Rather than viewing her actions as disobedience or sin or selfishness, I sought to meet her at her level and understand what made her tick.

You said in your post that you have learned more in the last year about the development of babies and toddlers than you learned in the entire first six decades of your life. Debi, I’m asking you, please reread To Train Up A Child and examine the advice given there with your new understanding in mind. Ask yourself what message parents will take away from the way babies and toddlers are portrayed, described, and represented. Ask yourself about how articles like this and this and this teach parents to view and understand children. And then ask yourself whether it might be time to pull production of the book.

Thank you for listening,

Libby Anne

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