There’s child abuse and then there’s … child abuse

This evening Anderson Cooper aired an interview with Michael Pearl, co-author of To Train Up a Child. And again, just as every other time I’ve seen Pearl on TV, I wanted to reach through the screen and throttle him.

Pearl and his wife Debi advocate the physical punishment of kids. Of course, they don’t call it punishment; they call it training, as in the biblical “train up the child.” Watching this man play semantics with Cooper was infuriating. Beating vs. spanking vs. switching vs. punishing vs. instructing vs. training. None of it was corporal punishment, according to Pearl. Corporal training maybe, but never corporal punishment. Nor did he see anything wrong with employing various instruments — switches, belts, paddles, spoons, rulers, PVC pipe, etc. Why? He demonstrated, striking a reporter’s leg with only his hand. See? That didn’t hurt. But it moved your entire leg and hip, so that would be beating. We don’t advocate beating. And we use something other than our hands so that it will hurt. It has to hurt to be effective.

To Train Up a Child

The instrument chosen should be in keeping with the size and age of the child. Unless Pearl provides a chart in the book, parents will have to decide for themselves whether to discipline a 5-year-old with a switch, a belt, or a length of “plumbing supply line” (which he advocates you hang in various locations around the house as reminders to the child). During the interview, if I recall correctly, he said he’d probably use his belt on a 12-year-old, because that’s a pretty big kid and besides, his belt is handy. About 15 lashes should do it. Not in anger, of course, but after a calm explanation to the child of why it was being done. For a child under a year of age, a switch would probably be adequate.

From the book:

It is much more effective to administer chastisement or punishment in a slow thoughtful fashion. Our goal is to cause the child to voluntarily surrender his will. We want to impress upon him the severity of his disobedience. It takes time and thoughtfulness for the child to come to repentance. I have told a child I was going to give him 10 licks. I count out loud as I go. After about three licks, leaving him in his position, I would stop and remind him what this is all about. I would continue slowly, still counting, stop again and tell him that I know it hurts and I wish I didn’t have to do it but that it is for his own good. Then I would continue slowly. Pretending to forget the count, I would again stop at about eight and ask him the number. Have him subtract eight from ten, (a little homeschooling) and continue with the final two licks. Then I would have him stand in front of me and ask him why he got the spanking. If his answer showed that he was rebellious and defiant, he would get several more licks. Again he would be questioned as to his offense. If he showed total submission, we put it all behind us, but if he were still rebellious, we would continue until he gave over his will.

Sounds sadistic to me. Like a torture session.

Pearl saw no connection whatsoever between his methods and the deaths in the last five years of two children who were badly abused by their parents — parents who were followers of Pearl’s methods. Why should he, he asked Cooper. If someone goes off the deep end and say, locks a kid outside in cold weather or makes them eat feces, he’s not responsible, because he never mentions those specific things in his book. Pure as the driven snow, he is.

As the conversation continued, Cooper compared Pearl’s methods to those used to train animals. If he thought Pearl would deny it or feel ashamed, he was mistaken. Pearl jumped at the chance to say yes, of course there’s a direct connection between how we train animals and how we train children. And so-and-so psychologists will say so.

I’d not been aware of the Pearls until this year. But a quick Google search reveals they’ve been in the news for at least five years because of their controversial methods. One blog noted that Barnes and Noble had pulled the book from their shelves. Amazon is still carrying it, and a look at some of the customer reviews is enlightening. More than 700 reviewers say the book is pure child abuse and should be banned, and more than 300 think it’s second only to the Bible as a guide to child rearing. (Pearl is a minister and apparently — unfortunately — that gives him more credibility with a lot of readers.)

I think the man is a wacko and his teachings are dangerous. Advocate physical punishment … er, training … of any kind and a lot of people will take it too far. Pearl would probably say there’s a thin line between a little hitting, just enough to hurt or make a point, and too much hitting, and that he only advocates the former. I was taught that any hitting is wrong.

I condone only open-handed spanking on the butt, and only as a last resort. Use of anything other than one’s hand is unacceptable. I also don’t condone corporal punishment at schools. Nobody lays a hand on my child but me. Period. Longterm, I think corporal punishment just teaches the next generation that it’s okay to hit someone to make a point or enforce your will.

As for Pearl’s comparison to animal training, apparently he hasn’t heard that modern training methods rely on positive reinforcement. Striking the animal is unacceptable.


A CNN report on the Pearls, their book, and the death of Lydia Schatz:

10 thoughts on “There’s child abuse and then there’s … child abuse

  1. M and I saw that on TV at the diner tonight. Our assessment was that Child Protective Services should pay a visit to that SOB and his wife, as well as anyone who buys the book.

  2. I completely agree with your take on this, Pied. I’m not surprised that these people are religious, though. Authoritarianism runs strong in religion, does it not?

    In remembering my own childhood, and that’s one long remember, I recall my father swatting my behind. Once. Isn’t it interesting that I recall the swat of some 70 years ago, but not the offense that occasioned it? My experience with our own boys is similar – probably once, no more than twice, and certainly not hard enough to hurt.

    I am not in favor of banning any books because there is no way to draw a line, but when people discuss issues like this I hope someone makes the point that human beings are wildly varied in their natures. Our three boys were compliant in nature, as was I, but some are rebellious and that might make corporal punishment even more counter-productive. And then there’s the factor of anger; once that’s in play, control is forfeit. I’m confident that no one philosophy will handle all, but pain should not be in the mix.

    1. I’m sure I was probably spanked at least once in my life, but I don’t remember it. I was a very obedient child and the mere thought of my daddy being unhappy with me for any reason was enough to keep me on the straight and narrow.

      No, I would never advocate banning any book either. Limiting sales of certain books to certain audiences (eg, porn to kids), maybe. As bad as banning, or worse, I think, is the “sanitizing” of old books to make them politically correct by today’s standards. The only correct form for a book is the way the author wrote it. Publishing Huckleberry Finn without the n-word, for example, is censorship just as surely as is banning. But I digress. Pardon me.

... and that's my two cents