"To Train Up a Child" is a 1994 parenting advice book written and self-published by independent Baptists Michael and Debi Pearl. The book has generated significant controversy for encouraging practices that many have labeled as child abuse. Endorsed by the Institute of Basic Life Principles, the book gained notoriety after methods recommended were found to have contributed to several high-profile cases of child death.
Background of the Authors
Michael Pearl, born in 1945, is an American independent Baptist preacher and author. After graduating from Mid-South Bible College, he worked with Union Mission in Memphis for 25 years. His other publications include "No Greater Joy Magazine," "Training Children to be Strong in Spirit," and "Created to Be His Help Meet". Michael married Debi Pearl in 1971, and together they wrote "To Train Up a Child," self-publishing it in 1994. Their teachings on physical discipline were endorsed by the Institute in Basic Life Principles, and they were briefly covered in the documentary series "Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets".
Teachings in the Book
The teachings in "To Train Up a Child" are rooted in a strict, authoritarian approach that often likens children to animals in need of training. The book's philosophy emphasizes obedience and submission, advocating for methods that many have criticized as cruel and inhumane.
Training Children Like Animals
The Pearls' approach to child-rearing draws parallels between training animals and raising children. They argue that children, like animals, respond to consistent stimuli and can be trained through repetition and reinforcement. In the book, Michael Pearl writes: "A dog can be trained not to touch a tasty morsel laid in front of him. Can't a child be trained not to touch?"
This comparison reduces children's behavior to mere instinct and ignores the complexities of human development and individuality.
Cruel and Creative Methods of Punishment
The book is notorious for its advocacy of harsh physical discipline, recommending various objects and methods for punishment. Some of the most controversial aspects include:
Use of Objects: The book advises using a 0.25 in (6.4 mm) diameter rod or other objects like a plastic plumbing supply line for spanking. Michael Pearl states: "Select your instrument according to the child's size. For the under one-year-old, a little, ten- to twelve-inch long, willowy branch (stripped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient."
Creative Punishments: The Pearls suggest creative methods of punishment, such as cold-water baths, withholding meals, and confinement. One example includes: "If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he surrenders. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing."
Infant Training: The book even extends its teachings to infants, advocating for punishment as early as infancy. Debi Pearl writes: "Training does not necessarily require that the trainee be capable of reason; even mice and rats can be trained to respond to stimuli."
These teachings have been widely criticized for their cruelty and lack of empathy, with many child welfare experts and psychologists condemning the methods as abusive.
Deaths and Child Abuse
The teachings in "To Train Up a Child" have been linked to several high-profile cases of child death and abuse. The methods advocated in the book have been criticized for encouraging child abuse, and the tragic outcomes have led to widespread condemnation.
Sean Paddock: Sean Paddock was a young boy who died due to suffocation after being wrapped tightly in blankets as a form of punishment. While the specific details of the case may not directly reference the Pearls' teachings, the strict disciplinary approach aligns with the book's philosophy.
Lydia Schatz: Lydia Schatz was a seven-year-old girl who died after being beaten by her adoptive parents, who followed the teachings of "To Train Up a Child." The parents used a quarter-inch plumbing supply line, as recommended in the book, to "break her will." Michael Ramsey, the district attorney who prosecuted the Schatz case, called the book "an extraordinarily dangerous book for those who take it literally" and "truly an evil book."
Hana Grace-Rose Williams: Hana Grace-Rose Williams, a teenager adopted from Ethiopia, died from hypothermia and malnutrition after being subjected to cruel punishments, including being forced to stay outside in the cold and being denied food. The New York Times quotes that the Williams' discipline tactics involved the Pearls' advice taken to extremes, such as "a little fasting is good training."
Quotes from the Book
The book's teachings include the use of objects like a 0.25 in (6.4 mm) diameter plastic tube to spank children and "break their will." It also recommends other abusive tactics like withholding food and putting children under a cold garden hose. Some quotes from the book include:
"Select your instrument according to the child's size. For the under one-year-old, a little, ten- to twelve-inch long, willowy branch (stripped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient."
"If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he surrenders. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing."
Reactions and Defense
Michael Pearl has reacted to the deaths by listing quotes from the book that warn against abuse and emphasizing the parents' responsibility to love and properly care for their children. He argued that the size of the plastic tubing he recommends is "too light to cause damage to the muscle or the bone" and called the murder of Hana Williams "diametrically opposed to the philosophy of No Greater Joy Ministries and what is taught in the book."
In our pursuit of raising well-behaved and morally upright children, it is essential to recognize the fine line between discipline and abuse. The most vulnerable among us, our children, deserve to be nurtured with love, empathy, and understanding. The application of the Pearls' teachings, as evidenced by the heartbreaking stories of Sean Paddock, Lydia Schatz, and Hana Grace-Rose Williams, can lead to irreversible harm and loss of life.
Furthermore, the endorsement of such teachings by groups like the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) movement raises serious ethical questions. The IFB's alignment with these methods may contribute to a culture that takes advantage of grooming children, manipulating their innocence, and suppressing their individuality. This cult-like behavior not only threatens the physical well-being of children but also their emotional and psychological development.
As responsible members of society, parents, educators, and caregivers, we must approach child-rearing with caution, wisdom, and compassion. Embracing teachings that advocate violence and cruelty towards children is not only morally reprehensible but also legally questionable. We must be vigilant against those who espouse such beliefs and work tirelessly to protect our children from harm.
The teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl, and those who support them, should be viewed with extreme caution. The lessons learned from the tragedies associated with "To Train Up a Child" must guide us towards a path of love, respect, and protection for our children. Let us commit to safeguarding their innocence, nurturing their growth, and ensuring that they thrive in an environment free from fear, abuse, and manipulation.