This is my personal account of my experiences with following the advice of Micheal Pearl, author of To Train Up A Child
I had many fears and apprehensions about parenting even before my first child was born. Many of them had to do with discipline. I was all too aware of what would be expected from me as a parent/disciplinarian and what types of behavior would be expected from my children by friends, family members, church and school figures, etc. As I waded nervously past the 6-month mark with my first son, I experienced the challenge of setting boundaries for a very mobile and emotionally intense little boy. I began to try out different approaches–relying heavily on the religious and cultural common knowledge of my society, and following the advice of authors/teachers who were endorsed by the circles in which I moved.
Some of the books I read, such as Dobson’s widely-heralded Dare To Discipline, left me feeling confused and powerless. He recommends spanking as the response to most misbehaviors, but prohibits it for children under 18 months of age. He speaks of showing grace toward childish, age-appropriate behavior, but paints children themselves as wicked, rebellious creatures who are bent on mounting a willful–even malicious–challenge to parental authority. He provides very few solid, specific suggestions for dealing with normal developmental behaviors (other than encouraging parents to require absolute obedience). He pulls his readers into an adversarial stance toward children with stories of “little tyrants” whose unchecked behavior holds their trembling, pathetic parents hostage. Parents are repeatedly drilled on the necessity of utterly defeating the enemy–their children.
Pearl was different. Although many of the basic premises he taught matched up with what I had heard and believed my entire life, Pearl offered something that was missing from the other books I had read–something very significant to me as a young and totally inexperienced mother. He offered detail. Pearl straight-forwardly addressed all the common baby and toddler issues that were cropping up with my young son. He gave example after example of behaviors that I was seeing first-hand in my everyday life. He offered a simple and all-encompassing solution to each and every one of them–“training.” He pre-emptively diffused my concerns about age-appropriateness and my questions about my son’s level of understanding by (initially) adopting the theme of “training–not punishment.” His extremely behavoristic approach and the wide age range over which he applied it did cause me some consternation and hesitation. It set off some warning flags in the heart of this mother who had thus far sought to listen, respond to, and nourish the entire being of her child.
Pearl had made provisions for these types of reservations as well. His writings are laced with reprovals for tender-hearted mothers. He preys upon the natural concern that many parents already have over raising children, whipping it into a frenzied anxiety with predictions of hellfire and destruction for any child not raised according to his parenting gospel. He disparages the character of anyone who feels incapable of administering his brand of discipline and he assigns lack of spirituality to those who cannot “overcome” their own abusive pasts enough to implement his regimen of pain-based negative conditioning.
Unhealthy teachings nearly always include elements of truth–sound, palatable, commendable concepts that lend credibility to both the character of the teacher and the philosophy as a whole. Pearl is no exception. He communicates with an air of good ole country common sense and next-door neighbor friendliness, and his intentions seem honorable and sincere to many first-time readers. He urges parents to tie “heart strings” with their children and warns against undue harshness. Many of the statements he makes in this (comparatively short) section of his first book are ones with which I still whole-heartedly agree. Unfortunately, he expands on those relationship-centered thoughts by exhorting parents to exact merciless control over their children’s behaviors and attitudes.
In retrospect, I can identify some things that made me susceptible to his message. First, I had no experience whatsoever with babies or children and felt tremendously unqualified to relate to my own child in matters of discipline. Second, I came from a rather legalistic church background, and was drawn to a system that followed a formula–defining for me exactly how to deal with infractions. Third, I was already indoctrinated into the paradigm of controlling children’s behaviors via punishment. I viewed discipline as practically synonymous with punishment/spanking, and believed that corporeal punishment was Biblically ordained and mandated. It was not a far reach to extend that pre-existing belief (spanking is the correct parental response to disobedience or defiance) into a similar but subtly different approach (spanking is an appropriate and acceptable way for parents to pre-emptively condition young children to display desirable behaviors).
I spent several weeks pouring over Pearl’s books, debating sections that concerned me, questioning whether my discomfort really was due to spiritual weakness or ineptitude (as Pearl implies), reading excerpts to my husband. I tentatively tested bits of the method. I reviewed other perspectives for comparison, but dismissed any that did not endorse spanking–believing them to be unbiblical at the core. The mainstream Christian resources I considered presented ideas or methods (or both) which seemed like watered-down versions of the same doctrine Pearl taught. After a couple of false starts–due mostly to my struggling with strong instincts against the method–we finally started “training” our son in earnest. I followed Pearl’s advice faithfully and consistently over a significant period of time.
The results were disastrous, damaging, and nothing at all like the peaceful, orderly family life Pearl describes. He asserts that most children, especially young ones, can be brought into “joyful submission” after 3 days of consistent training, and that the need for spankings will diminish once the parent establishes her authority. This did not prove true for us. Weeks and months went by. My not-quite-2-year-old son became increasingly combative, jumpy, and fearful. He seemed to have developed a “fight or flight” response to me–poising himself to run away at the drop of the hat, covering his bottom when he thought I might disapprove of what he was doing, or bracing himself for battle when he sensed that he was “in trouble” and there was no where to go. He physically battled and verbally protested every spanking and fought back fiercely against every hint of perceived injustice. Even though he could not yet verbalize with words, he expressed his confusion, fear, fury, indignation, and emotional pain with every resource available to him at the time.
Pearl–and other authors who embrace the same ideals–would have me interpret these reactions as rebellion, defiance… a sinful “bad attitude” to be purged by means of more punishment. He advises parents to persist at all costs, to have no mercy, to use whatever physical force is necessary to subdue the will of a child who fights back. (In a similar sense, though with fewer descriptive examples, Dobson instills the mantra of “winning the war” against our children–using spanking as the primary weapon) Pearl urges parents to sit on a struggling child, if necessary, in order to administer this Biblically mandated act that he claims is a vital element to cleanse their souls, clear their consciences, communicate spiritual principles, and restore a loving, connected relationship. He insists that the parent must not relent or back away from continuing to spank until the child has utterly submitted to the parent’s desire in both attitude and action–no matter how many sequential and increasingly intense spankings are required to do so.
When the basic training approach delivered less than 100% compliance and, indeed, actually inflamed my son’s negative behaviors, I found myself faced with following the escalation procedure. Spank more.. harder.. with a larger implement… don’t relent until they obey. I am grieved to say I started down this path for a time. There came a point of “critical mass” where every part of me cried out against what was happening… where I could no longer accept that this was the only right way to parent… where the doubts and questions and frustrations in my heart refused to be silenced for a moment longer. I began to question my long-held belief that spanking was a special, “God-ordained” type of striking (as opposed to “real” hitting)–not a form of “real” violence. I struggled to define for myself the difference between a Christian parent who hits in obedience to what they think the Bible says, and an unbelieving parent who hits simply to control. I tried to discern the distinction between repetitive striking that was godly and repetitive striking that was simply abusive. I was forced to admit to myself that I could not identify exactly what the difference was–other than the intentions and beliefs of the person doing the hitting. That scared me. I knew in my heart that each day I followed this punitive, formula-centered advice was another day I walked the slippery slope of mistreating my child in the name of God. I stopped–not yet having any idea what to do instead.
The journey that began in my life at that point has been truly amazing. God has taught me, matured me, uplifted me, convicted me, humbled me, and led me to a path of parenting I never knew existed. I am still at the bottom of the learning curve for grace-centered, spirit-filled parenting. I struggle and fail daily. The poor choices I made and the bad advice I followed early have left their marks on my children as individual people, on our family unit as a whole, and definitely on me. Having trained myself to vigilantly punish every instance of disobedience, I now struggle to let go of that critical, fault-finding outlook. It requires purposeful effort for me now to *see* the positive things my kids do, to relate to them in the light of who they are instead of whether they are doing right or wrong.
I want my children to see Christ in me, not to see me as their god. I want them to understand the grace and mercy and love that God shows to us because they’ve experienced it in relationship with their parents. I want them to learn to live by the Spirit and not the letter of the law–knowing that godliness is so much deeper than a set of outward behaviors and that our spiritual sinfulness cannot be paid for simply by our enduring a physical punishment. In fact, restitution for our sins has already been made–praise God! I pray that my parenting, above all, will reflect the gospel of Christ.