Last time, we talked about patterns of extreme child abuse in some very isolated families. However, a different level of child abuse exists among typical fundamentalists. Rather than criminal abuse, however, this abuse is centered around parenting practices promoted by several authors.
Popular Fundamentalist Parenting Practices
These practices are very popular among fundamentalists and involve corporal punishment (hitting the child) as a primary way to gain control and secure obedience, which many consider abusive (and I agree with them).
Perhaps the most read and referenced authors of these parenting books are Michael and Debi Pearl. A visit to Amazon’s customer reviews of the Pearl’s book, To Train Up a Child is very revealing. Out of 3000+ reviews, 33% are 5-star (favorable) and 62% are 1-star (unfavorable). All the top reviews are 1-star—and worth reading. Yet the Pearls remain popular among fundamentalists; their book has sold more than 1.2 million copies in twelve languages.
Why do so many people object to this book? Let’s take a look at some of their principles and techniques.
What Does To Train Up a Child Advocate?
My copy is the 1994 version. The Pearls released an updated version in 2015; Amazon’s description states that, “There has been no editing to modify their stance on spanking. To the contrary, due to the media attacks, they have expanded and strengthened their arguments for traditional, biblical child training.”
From the introduction Michael tells us, ‘This book is not about discipline, nor problem children. The emphasis is on the training of a child before the need to discipline arises.’ Then further: ‘These truths are…the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules.’
Note that the book title is not so much about rearing children as about training them. He talks throughout in terms of animal training.
Training doesn’t 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…proper training always works with every child. (page 2)
The objective in child-training is instant and consistent obedience. The method is to use a switch on their hand and say, ‘No!’ until they learn from the pain to respond to ‘No’. Michael explains in chapter 1:
Most children can be brought into complete and joyous subjection in just three days…by obedient, I mean, you will never have to tell them twice…Once you train an infant to respond to the command “No,” then you will have control in every area of behavior where you can give a command…swat his hand with a light object as to cause him a little pain…the child will associate the pain with the word “No”.
My Personal Response to Michael Pearl’s Advice
One might think after reading this, ‘Well that doesn’t seem too bad—a little switch; a little pain—and instant obedience is the reward!’ Who wouldn’t like that kind of control over their children!
I am no expert in parenting, but I don’t care for the concept of ‘training’ a child like an animal; and we read repeatedly that, even in animal training, use of pain is not considered the most effective method. Parenting experts say the same—that corporal (bodily) violence is not the most effective method of raising children.
I prefer child development over child ‘training’—development based on partnership, inclusion, and support between parents and child. Michael says that young children cannot reason, and I don’t disagree, but I think getting their attention with focused visual contact and saying ‘No’ is as effective as using a switch. I think using switches and pain is adversarial and a violation of genuine partnership.
Partnership is not adversarial; it is not a parent against a child. Partnership is acceptance, trust, and belonging. We can express clear boundaries by discussing them at the child’s language level, along with a code word as a reminder. Respect a child’s integrity and they will respect it too. Part of this respect is to answer their questions about boundaries; they have the right to ask why—and an authoritarian ‘Because I said so’ is not an answer.
I have friends who think children should be seen and not heard; they become very irritated when children act like children. But I say we should allow a child some room to be a child (and a person). Children are curious; they like to explore. And sometimes they like to touch things they don’t need to touch, but we can set and enforce boundaries without switches and pain.
Michael opposes child-proofing a home; he thinks it is more important to ‘train’ a child not to touch. Michael wants complete control and power over the child, which he does by switch training. But while I want to develop good behavior in a child, I don’t want to be the ‘boss’. I want to develop the child as a person.
I think child-proofing a home makes it easier for the child, though boundaries are still needed. Our family has shelves and shelves of books; you can’t child-proof for that many books. One day when my son was very young, he pulled a very significant book from the shelf and tore a page. Even though he was very young, I explained to him, at his level, the importance of books; and he never damaged a book again.
I Appreciate Much of Michael Pearl’s Approach
Let me be clear that I am not a Michael Pearl basher. He say’s a lot of good stuff—like his stance against yelling at a child or expressing anger. He says to actually drop your voice when you say, ‘No’. I agree that yelling does not promote partnership and does not result in willingly obedient children, but I disagree with his recommendations on hitting children in any way.
We will talk more about his good advice, along with his advocacy of corporal punishment, next time.