TV and print media have pitted me against Michael Pearl, as I have been vocal about my concerns that his teachings about childrearing are dangerous. I have written extensively about Pearl in Breaking Their Will, and this is the second blog I have posted about him.
The pro-spanking, Tennessee-based Christian preacher has become a highly controversial figure, as three children have died at the hands of his followers. [Follow up: On September 9, 2013 Larry and Carri Williams were convicted on charges resulting from the death of their adopted daughter Hana and injuries sustained by their adopted son Immanuel.]
As Pearl notes both on his website and in his book To Train Up a Child, which has sold in the hundreds of thousands, children should not be disciplined but “trained”, and he repeatedly states that this can often be accomplished by spanking them. (Pearl prefers the word “spanking” over “corporal punishment”.) To back up his views, Pearl, who has had no training in child psychology, quotes from the Old Testament, maintaining that God wants parents to spank their kids.
Pearl’s methods include making children who are challenged with potty training take cold baths, denying food to disobedient children, and whipping them with quarter-inch plumbing line. Pearl sees nothing wrong with applying his techniques to infants. One expert recently denounced Pearl’s techniques as interfering with child development. Most alarming, some children have been seriously abused by adults who were followers of Pearl. Three children have been killed.
The American public has become more familiar with Pearl’s teachings, thanks to recent national media exposure. Through interviews, Pearl has reminded us that he tells parents not to spank in anger and warns against abuse.
But just how does Michael Pearl view “child training” done right? I am going to show you, using his own words.
In 2009, Pearl wrote an article on his website entitled “Child Training Marathon”. In the article, he delightedly recalls an incident that took place when he was spending time with a family after the parents had come to him for advice on how to discipline their kids. I describe this scenario in my book in a section called “Breaking Wills”.
Pearl recounts riding in the family’s car late at night when the family’s toddler son becomes upset. He was not sitting near his mother and wanted to sit in her lap. The preacher describes the boy as having “a tough hide that at times absolutely resisted all control. He would whine, and whine, and cry, and plead, and demand.” Then Pearl writes,
Mother was reaching for her baby when the father turned to me and asked, “What should I do?” Again I explained the principle: by allowing the child to dictate terms through his whining and crying, you are confirming his habit of whining and consenting to his technique of control. So I told the daddy to tell the boy that he would not be allowed to sit in his mother’s lap, and that he was to stop crying. Of course, according to former protocol, he intensified his crying to express the sincerity of his desires. . . . I told the father to stop the car and without recourse give him three to five licks with a switch. After doing so the child only screamed a louder protest. This is not the time to give in. After two or three minutes driving down the road listening to his background wails, I told the father to COMMAND the child to stop crying. He only cried more loudly.
The crying and stopping the car and spanking continue with Pearl’s approval. “This was repeated for about twenty miles down a lonesome highway at 11:00 on a winter night,” he writes. Meanwhile, no one heeds the concerns of the mother, whom Pearl describes as a woman who had been emotionally and physically abused as a child and who was, as he puts it, “a very ‘sensitive’ person”. She tells the men that the boy “doesn’t understand”. She had also remarked that he was hungry, sleepy, and cold. Pearl then writes:
I told the father to command the boy to stop crying immediately or he would again be spanked. The boy ignored him until Father took his foot off the gas, preparatory to stopping. In the midst of his crying, he understood the issues well enough to understand that the slowing of the car was a response to his crying. The family was relieved to have him stop and the father started to resume his drive.
But, according to Pearl, the child had not yet been properly trained. In his view, the boy’s behavior still required more spanking.
I said “No; you told him he was to stop crying immediately or you would spank him; he waited until you began stopping. He has not obeyed; he is just beginning to show confidence in your resolve. Spank him again and tell him that you will continue to stop and continue to spank until you get instant compliance.” He did. . . . This time, after the spanking, when Daddy gave his command, the boy dried it up like a paper towel. The parents had won, and the boy was the beneficiary.
The scenario that took place on that dark road late at night is a reminder that Pearl should not be entrusted to tell parents how to raise their kids. While he states that the parents “won”, it is clear that Pearl himself gained particular satisfaction. After all, he was able to get a father to repeatedly beat a two- to three-year-old boy until he subdued the child, one whom Pearl refers to as “a tough nut to break”.
To Pearl, and many parents who follow his teachings, the primary goal of parenting is not to support children by fulfilling their needs to feel safe and experience appropriate autonomy, but to control children. Never mind the fact that a plethora of studies show that corporal punishment and authoritarian parenting are often harmful. In the end, Pearl felt assured that he had, indeed, come upon the holy grail of childrearing.
Fortunately, Pearl’s grip on parents is slipping. National exposure of Pearl’s teachings and of the abuses that have followed are leading many Americans to abhor the preacher from Tennessee. Following the publication of a New York Times article on Pearl, an online petition urging Amazon to stop selling Pearl’s book attracted thousands of signatures.
Of course, parents who buy into the idea that Pearl has the ear of God and who are obsessed with controlling their children will continue to follow his methods. Some will continue to see Pearl’s teachings as a license to hurt, and even to kill. We should not be surprised if we hear that another child has been “trained” to death. Yet, at the same time, many more Americans realize that Pearl’s teachings are harmful and pose a risk to untold numbers of children throughout the United States and elsewhere.