This book should be burned

In principle, I don’t approve of book burning. But in this case, get the matches.

I found where it came from! The person who said that if you feel self-hatred, that only proves how much you love yourself.  I found it right there in a thin book on one of my shelves.

Someone had given me To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl when I was pregnant with my son. A few weeks ago, I picked it up on a whim to see if I should keep it or throw it away. I flipped to a random page, and there it was: the teaching that had haunted my childhood.

After finishing that section, I started at the beginning. As I read, my horror grew. I grabbed a highlighter, pen, and sticky notes, and proceeded to cram every page with notes. (Note for all booklovers: don’t worry, this is NOT normal behavior for me.)

This is not a fringe book. It was (and is) wildly popular among many Christians. Many fundamentalists hold it up as the only biblical way to parent. Since its publication in 1994, it has sold over 1.2 million copies in 12 different languages.

That’s why I think it’s important for us to think critically about what this book is teaching. Even if you’ve never heard of this book, it has almost definitely affected someone in your life.

Even more, if you are someone who grew up with a No Greater Joy Ministries magazine on your coffee table and faithfully followed their teachings with your children, please hear me out. You don’t have to agree with everything I’m going to say. I just ask that you consider it.

All right, now that we have that out of the way, here we go. (I’m going to try to keep it succinct, but there are SO MANY issues!)

Summary: This book is abusive in its very nature. It sets children up to have an incredibly damaged view of God, its teachings are enough to drive children into depression, anxiety, and self-harming behaviors, and opens the door for them to end up in abusive relationships as adults.

From the beginning, it sets up a false dichotomy where only two kinds of parenting exist: permissive and “biblical” (a.k.a. the Pearl’s way).

  1. Training versus discipline: Both use a switch.

Michael Pearl loves to talk about training versus discipline. If you train a child, then you won’t have to discipline them much. But the lines between the two are blurry.

For training, you use a switch. For a spanking, you use a switch. So, what’s the difference? I found myself asking this question in every chapter.

In chapter 9, he gives an example of what he calls “not discipline, but training.” In the example, a mother is visiting the Pearls with her two-year-old. The toddler hits Debi Pearl with a plastic toy wrench, and Debi hits him back “almost without diverting her eyes from the mother, and with no change of expression” (p. 56).

Pearl describes the toddler looking to his mother for help the first time Debi fe hits him. He praises the mother for not intervening, and then praises the toddler for attempting to smile through his pain. Pearl literally says: the toddler was “being taught that there were others who could give it out better than he. Most little bullies are cured by meeting a bigger bully” (p. 57).

16 blows (you read that right, SIXTEEN) are given to the toddler, each one getting harder. Michael Pearl describes his wife’s last blow as follows: “her bottom came off the couch as she drew back to return the blow; and I heard a little karate like wheeze come from somewhere deep inside” (p. 56).

 Yet Pearl insists that this is simply training, not discipline. He states that the toddler wasn’t being “angry or mean. Had that been the case, his medicine would have been the rod [discipline]” (p. 57). But the child is being hit (hard), and is probably confused. Pearl even admits, “I think he was puzzled…” (p.56).

You think?

So tell me, how is this NOT punishment? Is “discipline” simply a more intense spanking? More intense than hitting a two-year-old very hard 16 times?

The only difference I could discern is the attitude of the parent. If the parent tells a child that they are being spanked, then it’s punishment. If a parent is spanking them in order to condition the child, then it’s training.

But how are those two experienced any differently by the child?

  • Excessive discipline is bad, but…

In the first chapter, Pearl says that discipline “can become excessive and oppressive when the tool of training is set aside and one depends on discipline alone to do the training” (p. 9). (Again, how are these two things different if both use spanking?)

I’m scared to know what his definition of “excessive” would be (something he never provides), since all his examples seem incredibly excessive to me.

According to the Pearls, parents should use a foot long, one-eighth-inch diameter willow branch for babies under a year (p. 9 and 47). For older children, he prescribes “a belt or larger tree branch” (p.47).

He instructs parents to “use whatever force is necessary to bring [a rebellious child] to bay. If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered…. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise” (p.46).

If “the licks are not forceful enough, the child may still be rebellious. If this occurs, take time to instruct and then continue the spanking…until the child is surrendered” (p. 46). Later, he says that a mother should spank her child until “he is totally broken” (p. 59).

And what is rebellion? Obedience that is not instant, having anything other than a cheerful attitude in response to a command, feeling anger, moving while being spanked, or trying to defend oneself.

He tells parents to spank babies who cry when you put them down in their crib, calling them a “little grouch” (p. 60). He describes switching babies as young as four months old and pulling a nursing infant’s hair to make them stop biting. If a baby cries after being given a command or has a meltdown, then the parent should spank the BABY (p. 62).

He compares children to dogs running around an enclosure until they accept there is no way of escape (p. 79).

If that is not excessive (abusive), then I don’t know what is.

Important side note: Pearl has a paragraph addressed to mothers who think their husband is being “too forceful” with their children. He does not advise the woman to speak to her husband about her concerns (you know, like a partner in a marriage relationship would). He also does not tell her to educate herself on what abuse looks like to be able to tell the difference.

Instead, he tells her to discipline her children more, so that, when their father gets home, he won’t have a reason to.

If you’ve read any of the Pearls’ other work, you can see their hierarchical view of marriage underlying this advice.

  • Abuse defined: spanking in anger

Pearl does address abuse. Kind of.

Most of the time the word “abuse” is used, it is incredibly inappropriate. He mocks mothers as “emotionally weak” who think their husband is abusing the children. Pearl calls the previously mentioned two-year-old abusive for hitting his mother (even though the toddler is only curious). He also calls mothers who don’t spank abusive, because they are putting the child’s eternal soul in jeopardy.

Once, he acknowledges that there “are always some who act in the extreme” (p.47). He has a 3-paragraph section on “forms of abuse,” where he pretty much defines abuse as any spanking done in anger. He says that where “the child’s good is not the supreme motivation, there will be problems” (p. 48).

There are so many problems here, but I will restrain myself and name only a few.

First, the idea that abuse is about anger is a common myth. Abuse is about power and control, not anger. An abuser might use anger as a weapon to assert control over their victims (and they often do), but it is not the real problem. In fact, most abusers can turn their rage on and off at will to control and manipulate.

That is why people outside the relationship often have no idea that the person is an abuser. They see the false image he wants them to see, not the person he is to his wife and children.

And this book is all about control. Control down to a child’s very emotions (more on that later).

These few paragraphs are a weak caveat. If someone says, “of course abuse is wrong,” but then the rest of their teachings are abusive, then all their teachings are abusive. I don’t care who they are. They are not a safe person, and they should definitely not be giving parenting advice.

  • Spanking in love.

The book is very clear: parents must spank their children in love. You’re supposed to tell them what they did wrong, spank them, and then comfort them, usually with a hug.

But really, how is that any better?

The person they love and trust the most is hurting them, and they are doing it because they love them. It teaches children that love hurts. It teaches them to believe a future abuser when they tell them, “I love you so much. That’s why I had to hurt you. It’s for your own good.”

Not only that, but some children who are spanked in this way go on to experience sexual arousal issues. (I’m not going to go into that, but if you want to read more about it, check out Sheila Gregoire’s blog To Love Honor and\Bare Marriage podcast. You can find the specific blog post here).

  • Self-loathing as self-love (trigger warning: self-harm)

Here it is:

“The more one loves himself, the deeper the self-loathing…. When a child is self-loathing, he is damning himself for known violations of conscience and failure to live up to his own standards.

Again, the guilt demonstrates that by nature the child innately knows he deserves punishment for his moral failure…. A spanking (whipping, paddling, switching, belting) is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment” (p. 41-42).

If you read my previous post, you already know the damaging effects of this teaching. At the time, however, I didn’t realize the extent of this madness.

Pearl goes on to say that this is why some children engage in self-harming behavior. They “intuitively know that wrongdoing deserves and can expect punishment” (p. 42). Just like self-loathing, his cure for self-harm is spanking. He claims it will “absolve the child of guilt” and give him “confidence that all indebtedness is paid” (p.43-44).

If you don’t feel right about this advice, he warns you not to listen to that intuition: Do “not let their crying cause you to lighten up on the intensity or duration of the spanking. A parent’s emotion can stand in the way of a thorough cleansing” (p. 44).

Later, Pearl says that parents should not comfort their children when they get hurt. And if they suffer an injustice from anyone else, whether adult or child, you should not defend them or express sympathy. He warns that if you do, you might “produce a teenager, and ultimately an adult, who hurts himself when he needs attention…. I know an adult who hurts herself every time she is emotionally disturbed” (p. 86).

It is “more pleasant,” he says, “to live with a child or teenager who is not a ‘crybaby.’ Also, your daughter’s future husband will appreciate you having trained her” (p. 86).

Yes, I’m sure he will appreciate it, if he’s an abuser and doesn’t want her telling anyone how he hurts her.

I cannot express how horribly dangerous this is.

I. Cannot. Express it.

Note: There are many more instances of this horribly degrading view of women throughout the rest of the book. But this review is already overly long, so I won’t go into them.

I also am not going to go into why I do not agree that “instant obedience” should be the goal of parenting.

  • So much more, but not enough time (or emotional energy)

There is so much more to say, but I feel like I’ve hit the highlights (or rather, black holes). I know this was a looong review, but I wanted to show anyone who is willing to listen why, although I am against book burning in principle, I think every copy of this book should be heaped into a pile and lit on fire.

Note: All quotes are from the 1994 edition of To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl