TTUAC: Children Obey Your Siblings

TTUAC: Children Obey Your Siblings January 27, 2014

To Train Up A Child, chapter 8, part 1

This chapter is called “Selective Subjection.” In this chapter we learn that children are inwardly rebellious unless they obey every adult in their life, and even their friends and siblings, in addition to their parents.


One very irritating habit of some children is their tendency toward selective subjection. Have you ever attempted to correct a child, only to be impudently told, “You are not my Mother, you can’t tell me what to do?” (Most likely, the mother can’t tell him what to do either.) That response demonstrates that regardless of the child’s obedience to his parents, down inside he is totally rebellious. He is not under authority.

Wait. Wait. So if a child does not obey every adult who corrects her, she is “totally rebellious” and is not “under authority”? Even if she obeys her mother?

If the child perceived some devious intent on the part of the adult and was resisting abduction or something akin to it, such boldness would be in order. But don’t delude yourself into being proud of your child’s actions as if it was loyalty or caution. It is rebellion, which is as the “sin of witchcraft.” Even when another child, out of regard for the right, cautions his fellow mate, there should be subjection.

Children are to obey every adult—and even other children—or they are guilty of the “sin of witchcraft.” I do have to wonder here. If children are taught to obey everyone ever, how are they to detect “dubious intent” and thus avoid “abduction or something akin to it”? Also, not again the positive use of the word “subjection”—and in the context of one child obeying the cautions of another.

There is by nature in every child an innate awareness of common duty to the “good of being” in general. This unwritten code is expressed when one small child says to another, “You ought not do that.” The conscience that is not yet seared is constantly appealing for conformity to this innate standard. When a child rebels against the just rebukes of his peers, he is not just rebelling against his peers, but against the “rule of law” in general. No, the child is not conscious (neither are most adults) of a “rule of law.” He may not even know what the word “rebellion” means, but he is nonetheless functioning exactly as an adult functions when in a state of rebellion. The child is violating his own conscience. He is suffering guilt. He is building a barrier of pride, self-love, and will become self-loathing. A child encouraged or permitted to thus continue is destined to moral destruction.

So which is it? Is the conscience as yet unformed or is the child violating her conscience? Michael says both.

This bit can be contextualized within a wider fundamentalist culture where one is to always receive a rebuke or a correction, and where rejecting or disagreeing with that correction is considered rebellious.


My two youngest daughters, when nine- and eleven years old, were entertaining some children we were keeping. A two-year-old girl picked up an item that was off limits. Her older sister, fourteen, told her she couldn’t play with it and proceeded to take it away. The child threw a screaming fit. (That was her normal approach in paying back her parents—they considered such behavior normal).

If you were two years old, with the limited understanding and control of your that comes with that age, and someone came up to you and took away a cool toy you’d found, I’m pretty sure you’d be mad too. Children have feelings, and that’s a good thing! At that age, it helps to get down on that child’s level, to validate the child’s feelings—“you’re right! that laptop is super cool! I understand why you’re upset that we took it away. I would be too.”—and redirect the child to another activity or toy. If the child is inconsolable, it may be necessary to just let her cry herself out. Children at that age are still learning how to control their emotions.

My nine-year-old, amazed at this bizarre behavior, came and told her mother. Deb, upon investigating, found the little girl was mad at her big sister whom she considered to have no jurisdiction over her behavior. The fourteen-year-old admitted she was not allowed to discipline her little sister. My wife immediately set up a training session. She took the forbidden object and placed it back on the floor in front of the child. You may say, “But that is tempting the child!” Did not God do the same for Adam and Eve?

The child immediately stopped crying, in triumph looked at her sister and reached for the object. Deb said, “No, you can’t have it.” When the child grabbed it anyway, Deb, saying ‘”No,” spatted her hand with a little switch and left the object within inches of the child’s grasp. With the object not being placed out of her reach, she assumed it was still within limits. When she again reached, she received a spat and a calm command. After one or two more times the child learned her lesson.

Deb then handed the object to the older sister and told her to place it in front of the child and tell her “No.” As the fourteen-year-old extended the object to the child, she reached out, only to jerk her hand back when told “No.” The forbidden object was then left on the floor in the middle of the play-room where, without touching it, she played around it the rest of the day. The little girl who had previously made everyone miserable by her demands was cheerful and congenial the rest of the day.

Note that Debi is hitting a child who is not her own with a switch. I am extremely curious whether the child’s mother had given Debi permission to spank her child, much less to set up this entire “training session.” Given that Debi has already said that any adult in a child’s life should be able to correct a child and expect obedience in return, Debi probably didn’t feel the need to ask.

As for the child assuming that an object left within her reach was “within limits,” I’d say that’s a fairly safe assumption. If there is something I don’t want Bobby playing with, I put it out of reach. This is both safer and ensures that his playing space feels like his. Intentionally placing something that is off limits within reach in order to prove a point about obedience is par for the course for To Train Up A Child, and is something I’ve addressed elsewhere in this series.

But there’s something else going on here. Note how this passage relates to what came before it. What Michael is doing is setting up older children as proper authorities in their younger siblings’ lives, siblings who ought to be able to both discipline and expect obedience. Younger children, by implication, are to be in “subjection” to their older siblings. And Michael is about to make that a whole lot more explicit.


To allow your child a time of rebellion and self-will, whether it be around the other parent, grandparents, older brother or sister, baby sitter or peers, is to allow rebellion and self-will to stay alive. The seeds of rebellion will always be there to come to fruition when the external pressures are lessened. You may be controlling their outward actions, but you are not building character.

No self-will. Ever. Any self-will ever is rebellion. Only subjection and obedience. How is this healthy? Is this the sort of adult you want? One who is subservient, obedient, and has no sense of self?

Michael actually gets really close to noting something important here when he refers to the problem of discipline that merely controls outward actions and do not “build character.” But his solution is to just push children down, to require complete and unthinking subjection and obedience not only to parents, but also to other adults and siblings. His solution is to break a child’s will, not to guide and educate it. But what he apparently doesn’t see is that all his solution is is controlling outward actions. Parents who follow his methods force children to conform outwardly, but if they’re anything like I was when I was raised on these methods, they seethe inwardly. Others just give up. I’ve read many stories of children raised on Michael’s methods becoming depressed and despondent.

In a family submitted to the light of God, the children should be in such general submission to the understood principle of conduct that they are submissive to give and receive rebuke from one another. In the church, we are all accountable to one another. It should be so in the home.

Remember how I said this relates to a common theme in wider fundamentalist culture? This is actually a really good example of how spiritual abuse happens. In a spiritually abusive system, people are expected to follow the spiritual guidance of others rather than following their own spiritual leadings. Taking advice and getting other opinions can be a good thing, but in this sort of a system the ability to make one’s own decisions disappears—rejecting the spiritual guidance of others is viewed as akin to rejecting God.

Also, speaking as a young adult who grew up in a family that followed the Pearl methods, this whole thing about siblings being “submissive to give and receive rebuke from one another” frequently doesn’t work out all that well in practice. Encouraging siblings to be willing to “rebuke” each other is a recipe for sibling relationship disaster.

Furthermore, the older children will be more responsible when given responsibility with the younger children. And what a load it takes off the mother! The younger children are always allowed a court of appeal. If the older child abuses his or her authority, it is a grave offense. The younger children soon learn that to make an unfounded claim against the older child’s discipline is to receive double discipline. The responsibility given to the older child is valuable training. It also lessens tensions, since the older child is not left helpless in the presence of an unrestrained little brother or sister.

I’m having a hard time responding to this paragraph because I am so angry.

To explain, I’m going to have to tell a bit of my story. I’ve written about it before.

When I was a child, my parents gave me authority to discipline any child at least three children younger than me. In other words, as the oldest I could discipline sibling four, sibling five, sibling six, and so on, all the way down. My parents were outsourcing their discipline, because they didn’t really have the time to individually discipline each child each time. (I’ve since determined that if you have too many children to raise yourself, you have too many children.) This began when I was probably eight or ten, and continued into college. I disciplined the smallest siblings with a quick slap on the hand, and spanked the middle children with a paddle, or, if that wasn’t nearby, with my hand. Since I was frequently in charge of watching them, I frequently was the one to discipline them.

Several years ago, after I had already left home, married, and started a family of my own, I was at my family’s home for Christmas. I was speaking with siblings 2 through 5 when I learned what the middle and younger children had actually thought of me when we were growing up. “I hated you,” one of them told me. “You were a bully,” said another. They weren’t saying it to be mean. We were reminiscing, and their statements contrasted the past with the present. “You’re different now,” they said.

My mother found me later, crying. It hurt. She tried to comfort me, and I think she meant well, but she basically told me I shouldn’t have been such a bully. This as bothered me quite a bit since, because she was apparently unable to see the part she had played in setting me up as a bully over my siblings.

My authority to spank my siblings ruined my relationship with a number of them, several of my brothers most especially. Michael says that giving older siblings the authority to discipline younger siblings “lessens tensions, since the older child is not left helpless in the presence of an unrestrained little brother or sister.” What it changes is not the tension but the power dynamic. It meant that when I was annoyed with my siblings’ antics I could say “stop that right now or I’ll give you a spanking!”

My authority to spank my siblings turned me into a bully. How could it not? Michael says that “the older children will be more responsible when given responsibility with the younger children.” But how is a child to magically become more responsible when they lack the maturity to handle that level of responsibility in a healthy manner? I wasn’t ready to handle that level of responsibility. I shouldn’t have had that level of responsibility thrust into my hands. I was not capable of exercising it in a healthy manner.

Michael would probably say that the problem was me, or that the problem was that my parents didn’t do enough to ensure that I was not exercising my responsibility wisely. But the problem is not the application of the system but rather the system itself. Giving children the authority to spank their younger siblings simply cannot go well. Installing that level of a power differential fundamentally changes sibling relationships. Suggesting that younger children be allowed to appeal to their parents if the older children are abusing their authority brushes over the fact that Michael also argues that younger children should be in subjection to older children. In other words, if an older child says “stop making all that noise or I’ll give you a spanking,” and the younger child doesn’t stop, it is the younger child who is at fault. If the older child then spanks the younger child for not obeying her, the older child is in the right.

In fact, this system literally authorizes bullying. According to Oxford Dictionary, to bully is to “use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.” And in fact, research has confirmed that being bullied by a sibling can be just as damaging as being bullied by a peer. Perhaps the hardest thing about this has been watching some of the middle children repeat my mistakes. I’ve been in the situation of watching a sister stand over another sister with a paddle, saying “if you don’t pick up those markers right now, I’m going to give you a spanking.” I took a sister whom I thought might be receptive aside and cautioned her about this, telling her what I had learned. I don’t know whether or not she has taken it to heart, but at least I tried. 

And so yes, I’m angry. I’m angry because this one little paragraph rent apart my relationship with my siblings for well over a decade. I cannot get that back.

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