I've done a lot of praying about what to say about this book. My initial concern was expressing my opinion and making a bunch of you upset. But honestly, after spending all month reading the book, researching information about the book and the authors, watching online interviews with Michael Pearl, and praying a lot about it, I feel like I need to come right out with my thoughts.
For those of you who are not familiar with To Train Up a Child, it is a parenting book that was written in 1994. It has been widely read and translated into different languages, as well as developed a very loyal following particularly in fundamentalist Christian circles. At the same time, it has also attracted some very outspoken critics from Christian circles. It made me curious to see why it’s so divisive.
First of all, the book is an easy read as it goes. There are no difficult words, and the chapters are broken into sections that make it easy to stop partway through a chapter if necessary. Very handy. I think the ease of reading has definitely contributed to its widespread appeal.
I could beat around the bush, but let’s just get down to it: The content of the book was, to put it bluntly, very disturbing. It took me three attempts to get through it, but each time I thought about stopping, I felt that I needed to actually finish if I wanted an informed opinion. That, and I kept hoping that it would redeem itself. It was extremely difficult for me to wade through it as I kept having panic attacks. I'm talking full out heart-racing, pulse rising, panic attacks. I usually read right before bed as a way to wind down, but I got to the point where I could only read this book for twenty minutes or so before I had to put it away. There were a lot of late nights as I just couldn't get the content out of head. It did the exact opposite of winding me down.
The book focuses on the methodology of how to discipline a child into total and unequivocal submission, or as Pearl likes to put it, breaking the will and the spirit of the child. It would take me quite a bit of space to outline everything that I had issues with in the book, so instead, I’ll just hit on the highlights…if you can call them that.
- "A child can be turned back from the road to hell through proper spankings. (p.46)” While it’s true that my husband and I swat our kids, we do it entirely different than anything this guy writes in his book. I think there is a place for spankings (licking outlets, dancing on coffee tables, running into the street, inflicting bodily harm on a sibling, etc), but this guy goes WAY too far. Like so far that I can’t even put his spankings in the same camp with our spankings.
- “If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate…Hold the resisting child in a helpless position for several minutes, or until he is totally surrendered (p.49)” Okay, first of all….what?!?! Sit on your child? The guy is recommending taking your full adult body and planting it on the kid while you strike him/her eight to ten times with a rod. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
- He flat out states that both he and his wife discipline other kids they come across, in front of the child’s parents, without asking for permission. (p.56) FYI, don’t ever try to discipline my child in front of me without my permission. If you have a problem with him/her, feel free to clue me in. I’m happy to listen and help my kids adjust their behavior to your house rules, but don’t try to be a better parent to my kids than I am. That isn’t your place.
- He cautions wives not to discuss the husband’s discipline techniques with him even if she thinks it’s getting out of hand. Instead, she should just teach the kids to avoid getting spanked. (p.58) That sounds like a great way to teach kids to fear their dad, and for wives to become a doormat in their marital relationship. There is clearly no partnership here, and I can easily see this becoming an abusive situation.
- He goes through the book referring to moms who don’t follow his parenting advice as “guilty mothers. (p.59)” I beg to differ. I do the very best I can as a mother, and don’t feel guilty at all for not sitting on my kids or whipping my one year old eight to ten times with a piece of plumber’s supply line (Again, couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)
- “If you have duties outside the home that prevent you from properly rearing your children, give your duties back to the Devil. (p.63)” He underlined it in the book for extra emphasis. You know what? It’s probably those guilty mothers who aren’t following his parenting techniques that are having these issues anyway. In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, he thinks that all moms should not work outside the home without taking into consideration that some families have differing needs.
- “All children’s dolls should be BABY dolls, not “Barbie” dolls. The fantasy arising from playing with baby dolls causes the child to role-play mother. The fantasy arising from Barbie dolls causes a child to role-play a porno queen. (p.65)” Again, his emphasis. Really? I played with Barbie dolls while growing up, and I can say without a doubt that I’ve never role-played as a porno queen. Actually…this quote just makes me laugh! It’s so far out of right field, I can’t even believe it.
- “Even today, without looking at the children, I can snap my finger, pointing to the floor, and they all (including the ones over six-feet) immediately sit. (p.72)” I guess don’t understand why he can’t make eye contact and ask nicely? How sad that his full grown adult children are so conditioned to be treated like animals that they don’t even question it. And yes, in his interview with Anderson Cooper, he said that children and animals have to be trained the same way.
- "If a parent starts at infancy, discouraging the first crying demands, the child will never develop the habit. (p. 84)” and “If he is old enough to pitch a fit, he is old enough to be switched. (p.83) Crying is how infants communicate. By taking that away, he is already forcing them into an emotionless existence. Also, I fear for the children with sensory issues who have been spanked repeatedly for things that they simply can’t help. Our Ellie cried a ton when she was an infant, but it was because she had specific sensory issues. Under Pearl’s instruction, Ellie should have been spanked for that. And that makes me angry.
- “When little children are cute in their prayers or religious imitations, they should be totally ignored. (p.99)” That’s just absurd. Cut the four-year-old some slack! He is still learning how to talk to God (aren’t we all??)!
- In his chapter, Homeschool Makes No Fools, he says, “Never even consider sending your children to private Christian schools, much less the public, automation factories. (p.101)” He goes on to say in that chapter, “…if you want a son or daughter of God, you will have to do it God’s way and in God’s choice of location—the home. (p.102)” For the record, I’ve come across plenty of foolish homeschoolers, so I took issue with the title immediately. I, myself, was homeschooled, and statements like this just embarrass the heck out of me. No wonder the world at large thinks that homeschoolers are a bunch of half-wits! For the record, I haven’t seen anything in the Bible which says not to go to public or private school. For this man to announce what God wants when there is no scripture to back it up is outright arrogant. Plus, my hubby went to public and private school, and I hardly think he was going against God’s way.
I think, though, that the most disturbing thing (beyond sitting on a child) is his complete disregard for the feelings and emotions of children. With his parenting techniques, children have to remain emotionless for it to work. They literally aren’t allowed to have any feelings except to show the “happy Christian” face that we’ve come to find in so many churches across the country.
And lest you think that people won’t take him literally, I have to disagree with that. Pearl assumes that his readers will literally follow every step he has outlined. He tells a story on page 88 about a discipline issue at church and says, “the church was having dinner on the grounds (This is not eating off the ground. It is eating together outdoors.)” I like to think that most people would understand the way that “grounds” is used in this context without further explanation, but clearly he thinks and expects everyone to take his writing literally. Again, I think back to his instruction to sit on a child…
The book was so authoritarian that I started taking notes about a third of the way through it. I wish I had started sooner. There was so much more in this book that should make the list above, but due to space constraints I’m going to stop here. However, I think the above quotes pretty accurately reflect on the book as a whole. He never allows room for discussion or disagreement in the book, but rather commands his way through it as the only right way. Without any hesitation, he twists scripture to support his own twisted logic. He even goes so far as to call himself a “benevolent dictator.” I’m always so careful with wanting complete context surrounding a quote, but I promise you, with Pearl writing this literally, you have all of the context you need to know that this book needs to be avoided.
This book is a perfect recipe for physical and emotional abuse under the guise of raising good Christian children. Will you raise outwardly good Christian children using this method? Undoubtedly, because they will be so terrified and so conditioned that they won’t be able to do anything else. There is no room for grace, individual situations, personalities, or childish explorations with this method. That is very sad indeed.
Let me end with this though: This book was recommended and lent to me by a very dear friend of mine. I know for a fact that she is a great parent and thankfully doesn't use this book the way it was written. I greatly respect her, her husband, and the adorable family that they are raising together. I know that I have some readers who use this book because of how prevalent it is in some Christian circles. Far from telling someone how to parent, I'm simply asking that you examine your techniques and make sure that they do indeed line up with scripture and aren't a bunch of rules that a man has made. Ultimately, as parents, we are held accountable to God for how we choose to raise our kids. Sean and I aren't perfect and make mistakes every day, but I hope that by praying we can avoid some of the very dangerous pitfalls that books like this recommend.