Thursday, November 10, 2011

Are the Pearls responsible?

There's this parenting book out there that gets a lot of love from one side, and a lot of hate from the other. Really, there's no one who's indifferent to it. The book is called To Train Up a Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl. The New York Times has recently brought the book to public attention again in this article. (Unfortunately, you need an account to read past the first page, so I can't comment in depth on that particular article.)

Here's the controversy. The book is extremely popular, especially in Fundamentalist Protestant families. Over 600,000 copies have been sold. But at this time, three children have died from beatings and other abuse which may be related to the book. It was found in the parents' homes, and the parents said they were following what the book said.

Of course the Pearls say their book had nothing to do with the deaths. They say that, in order for a child to die, the parents must have not followed the instructions in the book. And they claim that the parents must have lost their temper, and that sort of thing is exactly what the book warns against and tries to prevent.

However, I've read the book. My mom got it from someone years ago, and was reading it. At first she was impressed: it taught calmness and consistency -- and what parent couldn't use more of those? But then she started making a face as she read it. "It says to spank babies who wiggle on the changing table with a switch!" So I went and read the whole book.

The philosophy is pretty simple. It's based on conditioning. You condition your child from a very early age (though there's no particular age limit for starting) to obey you instantly. When they don't obey instantly, they get spanked. It should never be the hand, but always a "rod" of some sort. The Pearls recommend willow wands, wooden spoons, or flexible plumbing line. There is no specific limit on the amount of time spent spanking the child or the number of licks, but instead it is to continue until the child "submits." You can tell a child has submitted because they are no longer screaming, struggling, or trying to shield themselves from the blows, but are lying quietly and maybe softly crying.

Children raised in this system from birth do learn how to make the spankings stop. Though it's contrary to their instincts, they learn to stifle their cries and hold still so they don't involuntarily resist. And they hop to obey their parents' slightest command, because they don't want to be hit.

But there are "stubborn" children who just don't seem to figure this out. The same goes for adopted children (all three of the children who died were adopted) who are subjected to this system at an older age. They simply CAN'T stop crying or struggling. So the beatings continue. That is exactly what Pearl recommends.

I simply can't see where in the book there is any warning against the sort of things that have been killing children. The Pearls assume that every child will submit eventually. Lydia Schatz didn't. Perhaps she didn't know how. They say right out that no child will starve himself to death rather than obey, so it's fine to withhold food from a child until he "submits." Hana Williams apparently hadn't read that part. I see no evidence that the parents were angry. They Linksimply continued on with a discipline system that wasn't working, and assumed they just needed to punish harder to achieve the goal (explicit in the Pearl book) of "breaking their child's will."

The Pearls presumably were not aware that numerous small bruises release dangerous toxins into the blood and can overload the kidneys, causing death. It is possible to kill a child without hitting hard enough to break a bone or injure an organ. But since they must be aware of this now, there's really no excuse for continuing to sell this book without some kind of warning.

In other words, yes, I believe they are morally responsible for teaching people to strike their children and not telling them that they have to stop. I've heard horrible stories of people raised under this system ... stories of being locked in dark closets for hours, deprived of food for days, all because they were believed to be "obstinate." Sometimes, they just didn't know how to correct their actions. But instead of teaching them how to do better, the parents believed, based on this book, that every misbehavior is a power struggle between them and their children -- and that they must win at all costs.

I don't for a second believe that these three cases are the only cases of child abuse by people following this book. In fact, I can't quite see how following this book could be anything but child abuse. Children are deliberately placed in situations where they will disobey (tempting a toddler with a forbidden object, for instance) and then punished when they do. They are required to maintain a cheerful disposition at all times -- yes, crying could be cause for a spanking! The goal is total, instant, unquestioning obedience. No acknowledgement is made of the child's intrinsic right to free will, or the reality that he will grow up and leave home, at which point he needs to know something other than just obedience.

But the worst of it is that this book, like others of its kind, pressures parents with the fear that if they don't follow these instructions, their children will end up rebellious teenagers who are impossible to restrict or control in any way. That's just scare tactics. Obviously there is a possible medium between beating your children several times a day and letting them walk all over you. You can teach, instruct, convince, and when necessary enact reasonable, harmless consequences.

But please, please, whatever you do, don't buy that awful book. You will not ever hear Dr. Sears, or Elizabeth Pantley, or Ray Guarendi, saying, "Well, it's true that many of our readers have killed their children, but we don't think it's related to their books." You can't accidentally kill your child by rocking them to sleep or explaining why we don't hit or making them write sentences. Why not stick with what is obviously safe?


Unknown said...

Wow... I guess I shouldn't have eaten dinner right before reading this. I'm feeling nauseated. How in the world could people really believe that this is OK on any level???

Sheila said...

I know, it's disgusting. At the same time, I understand pretty well how they believe it's okay. They honestly believe it's for their children's own good ... because they are taught by their religious leaders that it's the way to instill virtue and get their kids to heaven. Surely nothing's more important than heaven, right? So you can convince yourself that anything's okay. I've read accounts of mothers sobbing as they spanked their infants, hating to do it and yet believing that they were unloving and a bad mother if they didn't -- that their children would go to hell if they didn't have the devil beaten out of them. Horrifying, horrifying stuff -- and the parents are victims, too.

I've experienced abuse in the name of religion, though never on this level (and NEVER from my parents), and it takes a lot of effort to untangle the twisted thinking that religious leaders use to convince their followers that abuse of various kinds is okay. The leaders do it to ensure total control of their followers. And the followers are swept along by the charisma and seeming rationality of their leader. But it's all a complex kind of insanity.

Manipulating people's love for God to control them is about the nastiest thing I can think of for anyone to do. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said it would be better for them to be cast into the sea with a millstone around their necks.

Anonymous said...

Oh. My. GOSH. These people sound absolutely sick and crazy. I'd like to think I turned out ok. When I misbehaved I got a light slap on the butt and somehow it cured me! And of course there is a great difference between beating and a light slap (with only a hand). I hope no one will buy this book or, God forbid, take any of it as advice! Yikes.

Meredith said...

It's horrible how people become consumed with fear and do these things. God doesn't want us to hit our babies with sticks. I feel like this is the sort of toxic Christianity that comes of using the Old Testament like a self-help manual and neglecting the Gospels.

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