To Train Up A Child, chapter 15, part 1
Chapter 15 of Michael Pearl’s child rearing manual, To Train Up A Child, is titled “Training in Self-Indulgence.” Let’s have a look, shall we?
HIS WIFE, SHE ATE NO LEAN
Early habits are lifelong habits. Why is it that some fat people find themselves compelled to eat when they become emotionally disturbed? They get angry or depressed and then go to the refrigerator as a way of coping. I have been told by grotesquely obese women that they wouldn’t be fat if it were not for their compulsion to bury their disappointment under a stuffed belly.
Now, I am not attempting to define the cause of all fatness, nor even the sole cause of some; but it is at least a contributing factor in some cases. How did this connection occur? The human/animal tendency to accept conditioning is extraordinary. Every time I think of an orange and imagine eating it, I have a muscular reaction in the back of my jaws. I experience sourness when the orange is still in Orlando. Through repeated experiences, I have been conditioned that way. It is not voluntary. I can not help the programmed response.
When a baby is breast fed, there are physical limitations to how often and when he can nurse. With a bottle fed baby–even when the bottle is given after a year of breast feeding–the bottle becomes a mighty convenient baby-sitter. An emotionally disturbed child can be quieted by simply poking a synthetic nipple in his mouth. As the food goes in, the tension and anxiety go out. An angry child can be pacified by a “pacifier” or bottle. A child can be put to sleep with food. You can purchase for yourself a reprieve from almost anything through a bottle or pacifier. What are you doing to your child? Not only is he failing to learn self-control, HE IS LEARNING TO COPE BY PUTTING SOMETHING IN HIS MOUTH.
The addiction to cigarettes is not all nicotine. Have you ever noticed how a person who quits smoking will often keep something in his mouth? Many a tree has been eaten one match stick at a time.
Many fat people have no desire for food early in the day. Not until the day’s responsibilities mount up, does their nervousness drive them to the refrigerator. Late at night, when the problems of the day are backed up, the refrigerator becomes their emotional support.
I am convinced that parents who provide emotional consolation through food or the sucking sensation are training their children to be self-gratifying and indulgent. “Temperance” is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). Parent, if you not only cater to your child’s appetite, but actually employ it as a means of purchasing compliance, what are you instilling? Remember, the first human sin involved eating. The Devil’s first temptation to the Son of God involved eating. “And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite (Prov. 23:2).” There is a spiritual principle involved here that goes far deeper. To allow–much more, encourage–lack of self-control in any area is to condition the child to be generally intemperate.
I’m actually going to leave aside the discussion of whether breast fed children or bottle fed children are more likely to be obese as adults, because what little googling I did suggests that this discussion is fraught with emotion and electrified by the mommy wars. I do know that I’ve read things pointing out that even studies that find some difference (in IQ, in BMI, or what have you) find only very small differences. Regardless, “breast is best” is used to guilt and shame women who bottle feed their infants, and that is not okay. What I want to get into here are Michael’s other points.
Michael claims that bottle feeding a child provides a “convenient baby-sitter,” as the child’s parents can give the child a bottle any time she’s grumpy, and thus quiet her, and teach her to connect self-soothing with food. I’m really confused as to how he can say this without serious irony, given that his wife (presumably) breastfed their five children and he (presumably) was aware of this and how it worked. Look, I breast fed two children, and do you know what I liked about it best, after the endorphins? I loved that any time my babies were grumpy I could whip out a breast, without having to prepare milk or warm anything, and quiet my baby. The idea that breast fed babies aren’t given a nipple to comfort and sooth them while bottle fed babies are is absolute and complete nonsense.
And then there are pacifiers. Do you know what children who aren’t given a pacifier do? They suck their thumb, or two fingers, or something else. Babies are supposed to suck. It gives them comfort and satisfaction. It’s how babies work. Why do you think daycares have to clean all of the toys in their baby rooms constantly? Because babies put everything in their mouths! And frankly, Michael has had babies, he should know that! And can we go back to the part where refusing a baby a pacifier doesn’t keep them from sucking on something? Michael claims that when a baby comforts himself by sucking on something, he’s “learning to cope by putting something in his mouth,” which will lead to obesity. That’s complete baloney, and just underscores (again) how little Michael actually understands about child development.
I’ll be honest: I have no idea what expert psychologists and nutritionists suggest for ensuring that you don’t teach your child to eat for comfort. But you know what? Michael not only doesn’t know this either, he also makes suggestions that are complete bullshit. If I were to try to come up with ways to help a child develop a healthy relationship with stress and food, off the top of my head, I’d go with things like this: (1) limit the amount of high-sugar and high-fat food in your home; (2) don’t model eating for comfort yourself; (3) make sure your child’s emotional needs are met; (4) if your child is stressed, find ways to cut down on that stress; and (5) give your child healthy self-soothing tools. But no, Michael goes for “don’t let your infant have a pacifier or put things in her mouth.” Lovely.
There’s a piece I haven’t touched on yet, and that’s Michael’s note about not using food to purchase compliance from your children. It’s absolutely true that any tool for “purchasing compliance” can be overused or taken to one extreme, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t think rewarding a potty training child with M&Ms or letting a child pick out a candy for doing a good job at the grocery now and then is going to have longterm consequences. Always rewarding a child for everything they do right is going to create a problem—I’ve had to shut down the whole “if I’m good in the grocery story I deserve a treat” line more than once myself—but that has nothing to do with whether the reward is food or a small toy or what have you.
But let me tell you why I find this section concerning. I’ve met way to many graduates of fundamentalist Christian homeschool families influenced by leaders like Michael who grew up hungry, in part because of this logic—the idea that children’s appetites should be controlled, and that children who ask for food may just be indulgent. And you know what else? I’ve met way too many graduates of fundamentalist Christian homeschool families influenced by leaders like Michael who grew up watching their infant siblings cry in hunger, forced to eat on a schedule because feeding on demand (i.e. what you’re supposed to do) would create selfish children.
And that is why this is so toxic.
And this is all without getting into the way Michael discusses obesity, or the link he draws between obesity and self-soothing. There’s obviously a lot there, but I don’t feel as qualified to dig into it as I do to dig into the childrearing bits. It would be awesome if you guys could take these topics away in the comments!