No greater failure

Awhile ago I came across some information that just floored me because I find it so repulsive I want to scream. The topic is a book called To Train Up a Child, written by Michael and Debi Pearl. It’s supposedly popular with religious homeschoolers, and most people that interact with homeschoolers say they know someone that uses the book’s methods or advocate for it. Indeed, this is how it ended up the focus of an article in a secular homeschooling magazine that I happened to read online.

As the author outlines in her piece, at times the book reads more like a primer in brainwashing, torture or animal training than it does parenting advice. The majority of the tactics are repulsive. I found myself repeatedly cringing and sometimes near tears as I thought about the children that are being subjected to these methods.

Examples of the Pearl’s advice:

Dealing with an angry child

“A proper spanking leaves children without breath to complain. If he should tell you that the spanking makes him madder, spank him again.” … “If a child flees, don’t chase him. Wait and allow time for the tension to go out of the air. Slowly pursue him, explaining that he cannot win. If it takes a long time, that’s fine. Go to his hiding place and laugh at his frail attempts.”

On breastfeeding and biting

“My wife did not waste time finding a cure. When the baby bit, she pulled hair (an alternative has to be sought for bald-headed babies).”

Attitude training

“Use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay. If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender — no compromise.”

Water safety

“On a warm spring day I followed the first set of wobbly legs to the inviting water. She played around the edge until she found a way to get down the bank to the water. I stood close by as she bent over, reaching into the mirror of shining color. Splash! In she went. I restrained my anxiety long enough for her to right herself in the cold water and show some recognition of her inability to breathe. When panic set in…I pulled her out and scolded her for getting close to the pond.”

The book’s authors advocate pushing in children that are too cautious or coordinated to fall in on their own, and a similar technique can be used for fire safety!  Whipping, beating, and bullying are recommended to obtain obedience by kids of any age. Children should be battered into submission to the point that they recognize there is no chance of escape and stop trying.  And sadly, I am not exaggerating in the slightest. They really do advocate doing these things and openly label them that way.

I can think of no other description for their methods than disgusting. Absolutely and utterly revolting. Any yet, the people commenting on their online articles praise them and thank them profusely for their helpful advice. How can this be?? Are people that interested in having an excuse to beat their children into compliance? Using their religion (spare the rod) as an excuse? Simply lazy and can’t come up with a better way to handle their children??  I just do not get it.  The closest I can come to understanding is to speculate that people would appreciate the compliance it creates in their children. After all, I’m sure it easier to deal with them when you don’t have all that pesky childhood exuberance to deal with.

The article’s author gives examples of deaths that have happened with parents accidentally taking the Pearl’s techniques to extremes. She attributes it to the parents being unable or unwilling to think for themselves and in their inability to realize that they have taken things too far in letting someone else tell them what to do, often far past their personal comfort zone.

I think that speaks to a major area of concern with the Pearl’s approach. In addition to physical abuse, the book’s authors are out to make sure that people do not think for themselves, including the parents following their methods. There is no mercy, no discretion allowed. You must be unwavering in your position and recognize their  approach as the only way to do things.

The focus of the Pearl’s instruction is to create reliance on them (the authors) and only them as the single authority on parenting. They advocate that you extend this control into your parenting, creating this same level of dependence in your children, and suggest taking elaborate measures to make sure that kids are not exposed to outside influence.  This is where homeschooling comes in for them, but also the avoidance of media, close friends/family, and any others that don’t share your views. This includes making sure that the kids do not even have the personal time to contemplate an alternate position.

“[Your children] should always sit with you, never with their friends. If they go out to the bathroom, go with them. Never allow them to spend the night with friends or cousins. Slumber parties are sin parties. Never allow them to listen to music through headphones. Three-minute phone conversations, no chat rooms, no surfing the web for any reason. Parents should make it physically impossible for them to even access the web. We didn’t allow our children to spend time in their bedrooms unless they were working on a project or reading. Bedroom doors were always kept open, except for two minutes while dressing.”

And so it goes, on and on and on.

Reading about these types of things helps to solidify for me what I do and don’t want to do as a parent, forces me to think about how we want to raise our son. To be honest, I don’t want absolute compliance from him, especially not when it’s gained through fear.  I want him to be able to think for himself, to develop problem solving techniques, and question authority – up to and including the things  we ask him to do.  I don’t want to beat back his spirit with control techniques, ridicule him, or teach him lessons by injuring him. I want to guide him as best we can towards becoming an independent and self reliant person.

Where are the compassion, empathy and understanding for others in the Pearl’s approach? Isn’t that one of the principles of their faith?  If the parents following this advice don’t show compassion for their own children, and are willing to inflict this physical and mental pain on them, then what hope is there for their children to learn these skills?  I want our kiddo to develop into a person that has compassion for others, a man that would not use physical violence or coercion to get what he wants.  I want him to question his own decisions too, realize that it’s OK to rethink your position sometimes (and especially in situations that endanger others), and know that there is no absolute truth that should guide your thinking.

The article made me wonder, as the magazine article’s author did, What can I do about this?  Just like she, I decided to try to make others aware of these people and their repulsive work. I’ve also checked to see if our local libraries stock the book (they do not) and am prepared to discuss it should it come up with anyone I talk to in future. In a way I hope it never does.