Parental advisory: This article contains brief descriptions of brutal treatment
Between 2006 and 2011, three children in devoted homeschooling families died while being disciplined by their parents, professed Christians who reportedly read or followed Michael and Debi Pearl’s controversial parenting book, To Train Up a Child.
The parents are now behind bars, and their living children are with family members or in foster homes. No court has ever found the Pearls liable for child abuse, but lingering questions remain about whether there is a torturous underbelly to the parenting tactics of To Train Up a Child.
Twenty years ago Michael Pearl printed 30 copies of a patched-together book on parenting, taken from a variety of letters he wrote about how he and his wife, Debi, were using “traditional child training” with their five children. When the 30 copies were gone, he borrowed enough money to print another 3,000 copies, thinking they would last the rest of his life, “stuck away in the back of a closet full of old hunting gear,” says Pearl. He sold them for $1.50 each.
Today, the Pearls have sold more than 685,000 copies of the slim book with its 22 short chapters of no-nonsense recommendations on household rules and discipline. The book instructs parents to set strict boundaries, using the rod to “chastise” children, but admonishes parents not to discipline in anger and to build relationships with their kids. It also advocates creating a submissive and obedient will in children by “switching” them quickly and often, but not too hard and only when parents are calm.
Pearl says the method will work on any child as long as the parents are consistent and start while the child is an infant. He says his traditional advice, used rightly, will eliminate the whining and manipulation Pearl says many parents encourage from their children. He also says training is a more merciful reaction to disobedience than angry verbal berating by a frustrated parent. He says his method will greatly reduce the need for discipline as the child gets older.
But many outspoken parents and media voices call the book abusive and say it is the immediate cause in at least those three cases of fatal child abuse and torture. A petition with over 100,000 signatures is prodding Amazon to remove the book from its website.
JOY HAVLIK HEARD ABOUT To Train Up a Child when she was homeschooling six of her children, including a first-grader struggling with phonics, while also trying to keep an eye on her two mobile toddlers. She and her husband, Steve, were involved in a Great Commission Church and then a Bill Gothard homeschooling group, both of which emphasized the importance of spanking and strict discipline. Their eight children are now grown, and they are no longer involved in either group. She now says, “Some of the stuff we were taught was definitely over the top.”
A friend from Havlik’s homeschooling group told her about the Pearls’ book and she tried some of its teachings with her two youngest, but now worries that she was too harsh. She says parents should look at their motives, and remembers feeling that her family was supposed to look perfect: “It’s not just about having your family like ducks in a row. Each child is different, you don’t want them to be so overly controlled, overly disciplined that you haven’t really built a relationship with your kids.” She fears too many rules and too much control can also give kids a skewed idea about God: “They see God as a harsh taskmaster. They don’t want anything to do with God or church. That’s the tragedy.”
Havlik says parents should spank with caution and carefulness: “Stay away from formulas. Parenting is way more complicated than that.” She also approaches her kids with humility: “I want to have more talks with my kids and ask their forgiveness for times I was harsh.”
On their website the Pearls encourage parents to use a one-fourth inch plumbing supply line (a thin, flexible piece of plastic) as an instrument to discipline their children: They say it will sting skin but not cause bruising. I spoke with Michael Pearl, who said, “I have never advocated—either in private, public speaking, or in writing—withholding food from a child, forcing children to sleep on the floor or outside, constraining them in blankets (or by any other means), spanking children on their feet, faces, or backs, locking them in small rooms or tight containers, or forcing them to stay outside in cold weather.”
But three children died after parents who had read To Train Up a Child went beyond what the Pearls recommend. The parents all had in their homes the one-fourth inch plumbing supply line, and one girl died after being beaten with it. The stories are brutal:
• Sean Paddock, 4, died in 2006 of suffocation when his mother wrapped him so tightly in a blanket that he could not breathe. His mother was convicted of first-degree murder and felony child abuse. The Paddocks had adopted six children, including Sean.
• Lydia Schatz, 7, died in 2010 from beatings by her parents over a seven-hour period. Her parents entered a plea bargain and appeared remorseful. Her father was convicted of second-degree murder and torture. Her mother was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and infliction of unlawful corporal punishment. The Schatzes, who had six biological children, adopted Lydia and two other children from Liberia.
• Hana Williams, 13, died in 2011 of malnutrition and hypothermia. She was not breathing when her siblings found her face-down and naked in her family’s backyard. Her parents were convicted of first-degree assault and manslaughter. Her mother was additionally convicted of homicide by abuse. The Williamses, who had seven biological children, adopted Hana and one other child from Ethiopia.
Critics say older adopted children, especially from violent places, have special needs, but Pearl says his methods are adaptable to any child, no matter their “unique disability or psychological condition.” To Train Up a Child does include this warning: "There are always some who act in the extreme. These individuals are capable of using what has been said about the legitimate use of the rod to justify ongoing brutality to their children…. They would call themselves 'strong disciplinarians.' 'But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.' (Matthew 18.6)"
MICHAEL AND DEBI PEARL live on 100 acres in Pleasantville, Tenn. The town is a dot on the map 80 miles southwest of Nashville. The rural community, a mess of skinny paved roads and lush green trees, is home to farmers, homesteaders, and an Amish settlement.
When their oldest child was an early teen, the Pearls left their home and Michael’s job north of Memphis to start a new life. They paid cash for the land, logged their own trees with a self-made sawmill, and built a four-bedroom home, a barn, and a shop. To make ends meet they and their five children took odd jobs: laying stone, building barns, canning vegetables, milking cows, growing and selling organic vegetables. Michael says they moved to their “hardworking paradise” because he came to the conclusion that his kids “were too pampered. Furthermore, I was bored.”
Lindsay Gallegos spent some time with the Pearls in Pleasantville. She is one of eight children raised by parents who used To Train Up a Child. “We were really entrenched in the homeschool, conservative, Bill Gothard world,” she says. Gallegos is very familiar with the Pearls’ book—her mom would make her read highlighted sections when she disobeyed—but she is also familiar with the Pearl family.
Family tragedy sent her looking for an exit from the “works-based conservative” world she grew up in, so she left home when she was 21. She drove to Tennessee on two separate occasions to spend a total of three weeks with some friends who lived two miles from the Pearls’ homestead. She went to Cane Creek Church, the Pearls’ nondenominational church. She ate a few meals at Michael and Debi’s home and remembers Debi dancing around the kitchen and getting on Michael for not taking out the trash. She hung out with the Pearls’ grown kids, turkey hunting and driving to Nashville to see a movie and get dinner.
Gallegos says the Pearl family was welcoming, close, and jovial, and that their kids had a lot of independence: “Whatever they did for their own kids worked.” She is now a mother to three—ages 5, 3, and 1—in San Antonio, Texas, but she and her husband have decided not to use the Pearls’ methods because “a lot of what they have in their book is too extreme for me.”
That’s not true for others, and I tried to interview on the record parents who love To Train Up a Child, but they all declined, given concerns about potential state intervention. They all praised the results they have seen in their children, saying their application of the principles of To Train Up a Child provides clear boundaries and quick justice. They say their homes are more peaceful, their kids are more respectful, and they are not growing up fearful or timid.
The Pearls run a ministry, No Greater Joy Ministries, out of offices and warehouses owned by the ministry, and write extensively on parenting, homeschooling, and marriage. Michael Pearl doesn’t fit easy stereotypes—he has criticized Bill Gothard and the Patriarchy movement—and does not seem bothered by the negative press: “Few people take what the media says as true, especially when they are attacking Christians, conservatives, or traditional principles. … Our Amazon sales do shoot up every time we are in the news, though.”
Kirstie and Ryan Benke married young and were pregnant within a year. When their son Creed was born, Kirstie looked everywhere for advice on parenting. Her pastor’s wife, a homeschooling mom, gave her a copy of To Train Up a Child. They tried it consistently for a year. She saw spanking as a loving response to sin, a “one time and done” reaction instead of a long, drawn-out, guilt-ridden process.
But Kirstie says she felt like something was missing: “I didn’t see the gospel, I saw morality. Creed behaved better, but he was angry. I don’t think we were connecting the dots for him as to why he needed to behave this way.” Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp helped fill in some gaps: “Shepherding a Child’s Heart added the ‘Why are you spanking him?’ You don’t just want well-behaved kids. … You want to make the gospel attractive to them.”
With two sons, 5 and 2, and another on the way, Kirstie says, “I have a lot of compassion for other parents. We tend to judge each other on ‘My kid is better behaved so I must be a better parent.’ … There is definitely the gospel. You expect them to sin. But other than that, every family is different.”
Kirsten Black’s is different from some in that she has five boys and doesn’t seem to mind the football whizzing by her head as she calmly tosses a softball to her bat-swinging 6-year-old. She has short hair and funky red tennis shoes, and her husband Vince, his tattooed arm draped across their 2-year-old Uzziah, says he wants to be a Deuteronomy 6 parent, always speaking of God whether they are grocery shopping or playing in the backyard.
The Blacks moved to Fort Collins, Colo., to plant the church that he now pastors. She says she “grew up a really strong Pharisee” and not until her late 20s, when she started having kids, did she began to understand the way the gospel transforms all of life. Now the Blacks try to talk about sin openly as they model repentance and grace: “We tell them, ‘You are going to mess up. When you do mess up, when you do sin, be quick to own it, confess it, repent, and it’s done.’” Vince Black says, “We try to show them what it means to need a Savior, and that Mom and Dad need a Savior too.”
They try not to buy into any parenting book as the one answer. Kirsten says, “When we approach those books with the hope that there will be answers on ‘how to save my kids,’ we are looking for a formula and not for Jesus to do His saving work. … I need to keep the mindset that only Jesus saves.” They discipline but say it is always done in relationship—and that their goal in disciplining is instructing their sons’ hearts. “There is always restoration at the end,” says Vince.
—Kiley Crossland is a writer in Colorado