Long before the tragic deaths of Sean Paddock, Lydia Schatz, and Hana-Grace Rose Williams, Christians have been raising concerns about the parenting and theological teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl.
In spite of the folksy encouragement to “tie heartstrings,” the underlying philosophy of the these teachings miss out on the place of the Gospel in parenting the littlest disciples in our families. I am re-posting an email conversation I had with a young woman several years ago, because I believe it can help people who are upset about these children’s deaths understand that larger, harmful philosophical context of the Pearls teachings. Similarly, I think it can help parents who have only gleaned a few good ideas from the Pearls understand why so many other parents find the overarching message to be harmful.
Originally posted March 2005 and again May 2008:
This is an e-mail conversation I had with a young woman not long ago about the Pearls and their highly punitive parenting ideas. Although I’m more concerned about helping parents see the problems with Ezzo, I decided to make available here some of my thoughts about the Pearls/To Train Up a Child/No Greater Joy.
Hello, TulipGirl. My name is *******, and we’ve crossed each other’s paths on a board by a woman named ********* talking about the book To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl.
I remember you from *******’s blog. *grin*
I’ve been researching all I can about the Pearls, and I’ve come across your name a couple of times.
Research is good. I’m sure you’ve found a mixed bag of people who are thrilled with TTUAC and those who aren’t–as well as those who are rational about their opinions about TTUAC and those who are very emotional or accusatory. The Pearls aren’t my “pet issue” so I’m a bit surprised you came across my name a few times. I looked back through some things I’ve posted online and realized I had written more than I thought about them.
First, I’m interested to know what you (and others) find so objectionable about the Pearls.
The heart of the issue is that they are teaching something they claim is Biblical, but is instead based on Behaviour Modification and building a subculture. They are very persuasive, especially to young parents. I believe their underlying philosophy goes against applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our family life.
One way this comes up is, while there is mention of “tying heart strings”, there is far more that leads parents/children into an antagonistic relationship. The parent/child antagonism is one of the key problems I have with the ******** site, in spite of the many professions of love and delight in children. The attitude behind “ambushing” children is antagonistic. The attitude of “power struggles” and “outlasting” is antagonistic. And, I believe, unsupportable Biblically.
Galatians 6 talks about discipline. . . “Brothers, if someone is caught in sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. . .” Restoring gently, being careful yourself–that sounds nothing like the Pearls.
This antagonistic attitude towards children also comes across in things like their constant comparison between children made in the image of God and likening them to mere animals–horses, dogs, etc. For example:
“Training does not necessarily require that the trainee be capable of reason; even mice and rats can be trained to respond to stimuli. Careful training can make a dog perfectly obedient. If a seeing-eye dog can be trained to reliably lead a blind man through the obstacles of a city street, shouldn’t a parent expect more out of an intelligent child? A dog can be trained not to touch a tasty morsel laid in front of him. Can’t a child be trained not to touch? A dog can be trained to come, stay, sit, be quiet or fetch upon command. You may not have trained your dog that well, yet every day someone accomplishes it on the dumbest mutts.”
TTUAC, Chapter 1
“I became anxious and started pushing him to perform. He was making me look silly. “What right does he have to do this to me? Me, of all people. My family would have thought I was so smart, and now I look dumb. Stupid dog. Must be inbred.” Sensing my disapproval, he started to shy away from me. To get my approval, he must make me look good in public. After all, what is a dog good for, but to elevate his master?”
TTUAC, Chapter 18
Of course, the Pearls were talking about their dog here–but in the context of training children. The message is “What is a child good for, but to elevate his parent?” The focus shifts from discipling the little blessings God has given us, to placing our children’s worth on how well they perform. As well as deriving our worth as adults on our children’s performance.
Sadly, I know a lot of Christian parents who fall into the trap of thinking that way–that our children must be perfectly behaved, especially around others–and that leads parents and children into legalism, rather than into building a stronger relationship with one another and trusting in God. Pride and trusting one’s “child training” can sometimes quench one’s trust in God.
Another problem I have with the book is the theology. As Doug Wilson aptly said,
“The innate sinfulness of the child is denied, which leads the Pearls to sharply distinguish training from discipline. Training is what the innocent infants and toddlers get, and is identical to what puppies get when they don’t go on the newspapers. Discipline supposedly comes later when sin enters the picture. While this is not a book of theology, a Finney-like Pelagianism runs near the surface. And while there are some similarities between animal training and child-discipline, the distinctions between the two are not adequately maintained in this book. The result of this confusion is not only heretical, but also offensive to any parents who value the dignity of their children.”
I believe our parenting should be shaped by our theology–and I’ve found as I’ve grown in my walk with the Lord and in studying theology that it has impacted my parenting in a very big way.
I read a passage in the TableTalk devotional recently that pointed out to me, yet again, how theology impacts parenting.
“God is Father (James 1:27) and therefore loves His children deeply. Yet God is Judge (James 5:9) and thus is required to punish sin. God’s love and righteousness, we know, motivated Him to accomplish redemption for us based on the sacrifice of His perfect Son who suffered the punishment we all deserve.” –Robert Rothwell, TableTalk January 2005
Our children are part of the Covenant, and I believe Christ has already suffered the punishment for their sin on the Cross. I do not need to “punish” them when they do wrong. I do need to discipline them, disciple them, help them see their sin and repent, as well as help them learn the “rules” of living in polite society. I am not permissive. But I do not think that using a rod to spank my toddler, ala Pearl, will cleanse them of sin. Nor do I see any command in the Bible for parents to punish children for their sin–I do see many commands to disciple, discipline, teach, love, train and chastise.
I did a study on the Fruit of the Spirit several years ago. One of the things that surprised me was that in so many passages that talked about gentleness, it was linked with discipline. God puts the two together. There are other things related to what I’ve studied in the Bible and theology that leads me to have concerns about the Pearl’s parenting, but I don’t want to overwhelm you.
As I posted before, I don’t agree with 100% of what they say,
Is there anyone that we would say we agree with 100%? *grin* I’m curious what you disagree with that they teach?
But their principle – that children should obey their parents – seems sound.
Biblical, even. *grin* Btw, it isn’t “their” principle or even that (obedience) which is what is controversial about what they teach. I’m not sure whether I mentioned over at ******’s or not, but I started my parenting journey with a strong view that I was required to make my children obey. Now I believe that I am called to help them obey, as they become the people God has created them to be. There is a world of difference between the ideas make and help.
And, a look at Ephesians 6 reminds us that God is talking to His littlest disciples in that passage, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” That’s quite a difference from if it read (as many seem to assume) “Parents, make your children obey you, for this is right in the Lord.”
And again, while sometimes they go overboard, I think their style of parenting – strict – works in the long run.
In what ways do you think they go overboard? Are you aware that there are many parents who are strict who don’t embrace a Pearl parenting style? You’d probably agree with a “mean what you say and way what you mean” attitude in parenting. Are you aware there are parents who do that without resorting to either “ambush” swats or bribery?
I mentioned on xxxx that according to one study, children who had strict boundaries were less likely to end up taking drugs as teenagers.
Firm boundaries, I believe, are a good thing. The Pearls don’t have the corner on the market for that. That is not unique to their teachings. One friend of mine, Joanne, is very firm in her boundaries but enforces those boundaries in a way that isn’t laced with Pearl-esque Behaviour Modification. Take a look Joanne’s Discipline Resource Center (now defunct).
One characteristic of those teens who did take drugs was that their parents had difficulty punishing them as children.
I’d be interested to know what is meant by “punishing.” I no longer punish my children. Christ has borne the punishment for their sins on the Cross. I do enforce boundaries and discipline my children. Personally, I have wider boundaries than I used to have with them–but they are older now and I’m less of a control freak than I was when I was a younger mom. *grin*
Second, I think a lot of people tend to lump Pearl and Ezzo together in the same boat as a knee-jerk reaction.
Knee jerk? Some people online do seem to be a bit reactionary, don’t they? *grin* The vast majority, though, seem to understand the issues either from experience, evidence-based concerns or the Bible.
I usually see Ezzo and Pearl discussed separately–only linked when misuse of the Bible is being talked about in the context of parenting teachings (or, like over at ******, when one is presented as an alternative to the other.)
I respect a parent’s decision never to spank, but somehow to me the anti-spanking movement has become a bit of a cult: Thou shalt not spank.
I can’t defend the anti-spanking movement as I’m not part of it, per se.
And somehow the anti-Pearlers, and anti-spankers in general, seem to take a “more enlightened than thou” approach:
I think we need to clarify before going on. While anti-spankers will almost always be anti-TTUAC, not everyone who has serious problems with TTUAC is an anti-spanker. Lumping them together may lead to people not seeing the concerns in TTUAC as valid. (Saying this to clarify that I know spankers who do not like TTUAC in the least.)
that they, not the parents of that particular child, know what’s best for somebody else’s family.
That’s interesting. I hear more “This is the only way to raise Godly children” from people advocating the Pearls, the ******, the Ezzos–and a lot of condescension to those poor mothers who don’t know any better or are too “afraid” to spank.
To be honest, I would love to see more grace and patience shown to mothers with different values in parenting from all involved. I am completely convinced that parents who embrace a Pearl style of parenting are doing so out of love for their children.
However, love is shown by actions as well as attitudes, and the actions the Pearls advocate are very often unloving.
The final thing: the “Pearl” method of parenting is similar to that our parents and grandparents used, to some extent, and which they still use in some countries today. It’s hard to believe that modern-day North American kids, who are less likely to be physically punished, are really so much better off psychologically than everyone else.
Likely, we will all be psychologically messed up in one way or another by mistakes our parents made. I believe a mother’s love and God’s grace cover a multitude of mistakes.
Having known people both brought up in a Pearl manner, as well as talking with the older generation you appeal to, well, I see plenty of problems.
One friend (parents were Pearl followers) continues to be estranged from her parents. Another (older generation) person I know, a dear believing woman, has gone through much counseling and spiritual growth in dealing with the constant “you don’t measure up” messages from her childhood. (And while the Pearls may deny that is what they say, they are communicating performance-based worth to their children.)
Another guy I know was the poster child for Pearl parenting. He courted a young lady, they did everything “right”, were married and divorced two years later. Only then did it come out that he had been living a double life–the “good kid” around the homeschool groups and church, and the rebellious adult he had become. Good, godly, strict parents. . .
Another family’s oldest son started sleeping around at 12 (again, a family who was doing everything “right” by the ideals taught by the Pearls and related subcultures) and is still involved with drugs at 25.
These were dear, praying, active Christian families who were strict and didn’t “spare the rod” but were sure to use it. They were consistent, involved in church, homeschoolers (all of them) and definitely “tying heartstrings”. I’m sure you can find good results to balance each of these sad results–but that’s not the point.
The point is the almost-blanket-guarantee that is given by the Pearls is just not sound. Early child training through quick swats when kids disobey will not guarantee an obedient child, a non-rebellious teen, or a spiritually secure and emotionally healthy adult.
I suppose the only way to “test” the Pearls’ method would be to compare, say, 100 families who used the Pearls’ method and 100 who did not. And even this would be difficult because the two groups of families would probably differ in many other ways too. Most of the anecdotes I hear about the Pearls are positive, so in some ways I don’t know why if it worked for others it would not work for me if I had kids.
*L* Well, I guess I got ahead of the flow of the e-mail with the above descriptions of some problem-child Pearl scenarios.
Whether or not it “works” is in large part determined by how you define “works.” My goal is to help my children become the people God has created them to be, with an emphasis on them relying upon God’s grace for their daily living. I want to help them learn to recognize their sin and turn to God in repentance. I want to model for them what it looks like to lean into God when we are struggling.
Meeting these goals is how I’ll eventually be able to measure whether my parenting choices are “working.” But, I can tell you now, that the teachings from the Pearls will not “work” for meeting these goals.
So I guess I just wanted to know the reason for your animosity towards the Pearls (and I’m not advocating the Pearls; I’m just curious as to why some people are so vehemently against them).
I hold no personal animosity towards the Pearls. I do oppose their teachings because they teach Behaviour Modification and call it “Biblical training.” I oppose their teaching because while it may seem to “work” in the short term for some families, it sets up an antagonistic parent/child relationship based on control. I oppose their teachings because it leaves little room for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of the parents or children, and does not turn the children towards the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Grace and Peace,
Other Related Resources:
Authoritarianism and Isolationism Among Us
Parenting Freedom: Discipline
Biblical Discipline: Conclusions
Why Not Train a Child?
Free E-book: Parenting in the Name of God: Review of No Greater Joy Child-Training Doctrine