Homeschool Commentary, parenting

The Pearls, abuse and a false gospel

I’ve been reading over several posts regarding the case of little Lydia Schatz being beaten to death by her parents in the middle of the night.  Her loving, cheerful family, full of all the promises Michael and Debi Pearl make throughout their literature.  For Michael Pearl guarantees happy, obedient children in just two days.  (Blockquotes in italics are from Angry Child, posted at No Greater Joy.)

I could break his anger in two days. He would be too scared to get angry.

Too scared.  Beaten too severely.  For there is no upper limit on the number of spankings given a child.  No “three swift swats and sent to his room until supper.”  Instead, he is beaten until he is without breath to complain.  Beaten until he is utterly dominated.  And if he runs?  You walk through the house laughing at his vain attempts at escape.  And just to drive the point home, you place these “rods” conspicuously about the house and wear one ever about your neck so that the little child may always see and remember.

On the third day he would draw into a quiet shell and obey.

I’ve seen children in that shell.  It is a role many children (and adults) fall into when their lives are governed by fear.  And remember, we’re on day three.  Day three!  Two days of beatings?  Stalkings?  Standing emotionless, pushing the child away, denying affection, denying love?  For they emphasize in another essay: When they do something lovely, then you can love them. How heartwarming is the thought of conditional love?

When an abused child is first placed in protective custody, there is a brief period (usually about a month) known as the “honeymoon.”  The foster parent tends to feel like the child believes he is safe.  The child is actually in a state of shock.  The first stage of grief.  And it results in remarkably compliant children who are too scared to do anything but obey.  Sadly, Lydia did not survive long enough to retreat into a quiet shell.  Her sister Zariah almost didn’t, but thankfully has been released from the hospital.

On the fourth day I would treat him with respect and he would respond in kind. On the fifth day the fear would go away and he would relax because he would have judged that as long as he responds correctly there is nothing to fear. On the sixth day he would like himself better and enjoy his new relationship to authority. On the seventh day I would fellowship with him in some activity that he enjoyed. On the eight day he would love me and would make a commitment to always please me because he valued my approval and fellowship. On the ninth day someone would comment that I had the most cheerful and obedient boy that they had ever seen.

And how many times was that said of the Schatz children?  Different to other cases I have read and discussed here, people are coming out and saying they knew this family.  That they were a loving, caring, Christian family.  That their children were happy and well-behaved.

We’d been to their house a few times for church related functions, and once just Paul and I were there, for dinner. We ate shepherd’s pie, and the children were a delight [emphasis mine]. They showed us how to milk their goats.  The husband also had always taken time to reach out to Paul, who in person is extremely reserved and tends to be overlooked, and so Paul was fond of him as well.  Beauty for Ashes

No one saw it coming.

On the tenth day we would be the best of buddies.

This is what is so insidious about this teaching.  Yes, insidious.  Well meaning, loving parents can be driven to abuse, torture and even murder based on a few anecdotes supported by misapplied and misinterpreted Scripture.  I reflect on the testimony of another Christian woman, one who fortunately did not go quite so far.

And to believe that this doctrine of perfection is practically attainable not only wrung the joy out of this family, extinguishing this Mama’s heart of love and grace for my children, it led to excessive, harsh, unbiblical discipline.  Holy Experience

I do not believe it is insignificant that the child that was murdered and the child that was hospitalized were both adopted, nor that little Sean Paddock was adopted.  Children with a history of abuse will not respond the same to a spanking as a child brought up in an otherwise stable home.  And thinking back on it, working as a family support worker for a foster care agency was when I first encountered the pseudo-Christian sense of “mercy” regarding the orphans of our world.

Most felt called into other ministries, or just couldn’t picture themselves in that role, but the responses of a select few were perhaps more telling than I realized at the time.

We would love to host these children in our home, but cannot until the state will let you discipline them.

Which of course refers to spanking.  Because the state does “let” you discipline a child.  In fact, they require it.  I never saw red flags go off in a caseworker’s eyes so fast as when presented with a family that did not seem to address any misbehavior.  Is the parenting repertoire in these groups really so narrow that discipline is equated with spanking and there is no other acceptable parental response to misbehavior?

Of course, those outside Christianity are quick to pounce on this case.  It is everything they seem to want to believe about Christians.

But I’m going to argue that the continued debating over the line between forcing someone to submit and overt abuse that goes on in this world completely misses the point.  When you define entire classes of people, whether children or women, as existing to submit and suggest that willfulness is an evil brought upon your family by the devil, then abuse is inevitable.  The idea itself is abusive and dehumanizing.  Everything else that follows from it is simply logical.

I’m struck, when reading right wing Christian child-rearing advice, on how much the advice resembles the tactics that wife beaters use against their victims.

But here’s the thing.  This teaching isn’t extremist.  It isn’t fundamentalist.  It isn’t even “right wing.”  All of these terms imply that we are somehow all on the same spectrum, with similar beliefs and a fine little line somewhere that most of us choose not to cross, while others debate about precisely where to draw it.

Michael and Debi Pearl preach a different gospel, one in which sinless perfection is possible in this world.  Without Christ, even, as he shares in the opening chapters of To Train Up a Child where he points out that it is about raising obedient children, not Christian children.  It is from this philosophy, this philosophy of 100% perfection, this perfection that Michael Pearl claims to have been living in for years, that this philosophy is derived.

Not from scripture.

Not from watching Amish men and their mules.

Not from the fact they swatted their children and they presumably turned out alright.

If you apply their perfect teaching to your imperfect children, you will achieve perfection.  No need of redemption.  Only continual conditioning, a methodology I actually find much better placed within the secular behaviorist model.  Read up a little on B.F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism and then read To Train Up a Child.

In effect, the Pearls advocate making the home into an operant conditioning chamber. Not a model of mercy and grace, love and respect.  As Spunky pointed out, they have afforded the rod all the power the Gospel normally gives to Christ:  that of redemption.

More on this case, if you can stomach it:

Tragedy in a Homeschooling Family
When Parenting Kills
Senseless Deception

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23 thoughts on “The Pearls, abuse and a false gospel

    1. Thank you. It was difficult to write because there was so much I wanted to say, but I was already a little fearful that no one would read it through to the end as it was!

  1. What a lesson for all of us. Yes, I require my children to obey, but at what cost? The loss of my temper has only ever resulted in screaming, but is that excusable? No, not at all. It makes me cringe to even think about it. But we work through it and learn about love and forgiveness together. Yes, we all need that redemption you mention, even mama. Especially mama.

    And I guess that is partly what is so insidious in this case. The methods that you describe aren’t the result of being out of control. They are calculated and planned out. Step by step the child is treated like an animal, worse than an animal. Does anyone really set out to train an animal to cower in fear?

    Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not excusing ANY behavior that harms a child. My yelling is not excusable, but it is an isolated event. I realize my sin and ask for forgiveness. My children embrace me and I wonder at their mercy. These precious little ones are so willing to cover up wrongs. May we never take advantage of that…

  2. Ugh. My last post title relates to this comment, but it’s just a silly look at my own personality. It seems entirely inappropriate after discussing such a serious topic. Please disregard it. Thank you.

  3. I have two extremely well behaved children and I don’t believe in physical punishment. I don’t understand how people can treat their children (regardless of DNA) like this – it totally escapes me.

    1. I’ve seen children with histories of abuse and difficult behaviors improve dramatically through consistent parenting, with no physical punishment. If it is possible for a ward of the state living in a group home, certainly it is possible for a child who has known nothing but love and (relative) consistency since birth?

  4. You know we don’t really think of the horror of the term “whited sepulchre”: a nicely painted building in which a body rots, with all the stench and gore that that entails. This is EXACTLY what the Pearl’s spread. “Presentable” families with “acceptable” children, while rotting and dead inside. It’s horrific to read, I can’t imagine living it.

  5. Good term, April. I remember doing nursery duty at a small church, once. We met in a school, and our nursery was a classroom with a carpet on the floor. We were supposed to keep the babies on the carpet.

    A mom walked in, laid her infant on the floor and pointed at the edge of the carpet. “No!” she signed and said firmly, then walked out.

    For 45 minutes, that baby stared at the edge of the carpet and didn’t move.

    I found it a little disturbing, but didn’t know what I was watching. Now I think I know exactly what was going on. 🙁

  6. Excellent commentary.

    1 John 4:19 We love Him[b] because He first loved us.

    Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

    1 Corintians 13:1-13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, it profits me nothing.
    4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
    8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
    11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
    13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

    1 Peter 4:8 – Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.

    John 13:35 – By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

    Looks like the Pearls focus with near exclusivity on corpral punishment as the primary tool for raising compliant children.

    I would much prefer an imperfect child that showed the capacity to fully love, because unconditional (agape) love was modeled for them.

    Lord, break our hearts… and in all things… teach us first, to love.

    God is love…

    1 John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

    12 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.

    17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 THERE IS NO FEAR IN LOVE; BUT PERFECT LOVE CASTS OUT FEAR, BECAUSE FEAR INVOLVES TORMENT. bUT HE WHO FEARS HAS NOT BEEN MADE PERFECT IN LOVE. 19 We love Him[b] because He first loved us.

    1. Wonderful verses to remind us of our relationships, Robert! And I agree. The capacity to love, even those that seem unlovable, is more important.

      It bothers me that they redefined simple words. They define “training” as laying a temptation before a child and switching him for falling for it, then go through the bible pulling out the word “training” as proof the bible teaches this.

      But I’ve never seen training defined that way anywhere else.

      They say discipline shouldn’t be necessary if training has occurred correctly. But what is discipline? They define it as a severe switching.

      I’ve never seen discipline defined that way anywhere else. Discipline is the whole walk, from loving touches, conversations by the wayside, gentle instructions and, yes, correction.

    2. “It bothers me that they redefined simple words. They define “training” as laying a temptation before a child and switching him for falling for it, then go through the bible pulling out the word “training” as proof the bible teaches this.”

      Ephesians 6:4 And, you fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

      I don’t know about young women… but I know from first hand experience that a childhood characterized by “training” as define above with a heavy dose of corporal punishment will produce a young man consumed with wrath and a difficulty being emotionally intimate with or trusing of others.

      On the outside though, he will look right as rain.


  7. For emphasis…

    Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. 18 THERE IS NO FEAR IN LOVE; BUT PERFECT LOVE CASTS OUT FEAR, BECAUSE FEAR INVOLVES TORMENT. BUT HE WHO FEARS HAS NOT BEEN MADE PERFECT IN LOVE. 19 We love Him[b] because He first loved us.

    Blessings and warm regards,

  8. Sorry one more quick note…

    I do not want to suggest that there are not ANY situations where corporal punishment of some fashion does not have a just application.

    I do mean to suggest that it absolutley should not be used with such supremacy, frequency, or severity that your child genuinely fears you.

    I also mean to suggest that I would much rather be seen as someone erring from time to time on the side “love is kind” than on the side of “not sparring the rod” at every convenience.

    Love is patient.


  9. Love is patient.

    There is a scene in one of their writings…I believe it is To Train Up a Child, but maybe not…where a young child (maybe 3?) is playing with a doll. She flips it over and spanks it severely before displaying any affection.

    I was horrified that the spanking is such a part of this child’s life that she doesn’t know how to interact with a doll without it. My children tickle their dolls toes, gobble their tummies, cuddle them, nurse them and tell them they love them “oh so much.”

    The Pearls used it as a glowing example of how the parents have trained their child correctly. I couldn’t help but wonder what a therapist would think of such a session.

    1. My youngest daughter sometimes stomped on her baby dolls as “punishment.” This is in no way something that happened in our home. She rarely got spanked because at that age (2) she believed everything we said was the absolute truth. If I said “It’s time for bed” her routine had been established as far back as she could remember- she would put away her things she was playing with, get her bear she slept with and her blankie and get on her bed, waiting patiently for me and her Dad to come read her a story and say prayers before turning out the light. I was at home and always with her, so no- no abuse as happening to her whatsoever. It was just something she did for a little while, and she stopped doing it once I mentioned how “we love our babies- we don’t hurt them.” She accepted that as truth and ever did that again. She’s now 11, and she loves the Lord and she loves her baby dolls (still). Does she sometimes get angry? Yes. Has she been known to push her older sister? Yes. Is that acceptable? Absolutely not, and she knows it. We have spanked her in the past for outright disobedience, but never beaten. I find it curious that first, all children are born with a sin nature- it’s not something you “catch” like a disease, or learn to have. We are all born with it, and second- that we cold assume that a child cannot come up with certain wrong ideas on their own. My husband and I are interracially married (I am black, he is white) and my oldest daughter was afraid of some of my family members who were very dark- THE FIRST TIME SHE MET THEM!! How could she feel fear of someone who is darker than her? How could she establish this type of racial prejudice? She never was “taught” that. She did eventually get over it, and loves all of our families, but still- children are human. I can’t just assume that because a child spanks her doll that it came from her upbringing.

    2. Just to be clear, I was not trying to say that children cannot come up with bad ideas all on their own, nor that every interaction with a doll indicates how they are treated at home.

      It was just an example from the book that the Pearls found to be exemplary while I found it a little disconcerting.

      But that is something else. The Pearls don’t really believe we are born with a sin nature, per se. They talk about imputed sin, and the ability to attain sinless perfection in this world.

  10. What a shame! I read a book on submission for a wife from Debbie Pearl and I sorry to say I am not surprised at the distortions for parenting as well. When I read the part of a woman going “mad” or crazy because of not submitting to her husband and the Debbie’s response to it, something like: “God sometimes does things like that…” (Sorry do not know exact quote) I freaked. When I showed it to my husband he told me that he wanted me to not read ANYMORE of that book. The distortion and twisting definitely made us both feel very uncomfortable and now I know not to seek parenting advice there either…thank you for the information.
    (Have some of the websites cited been taken down? I could not get connected to them…)

    1. Yeah, I read a little of it and it seemed “out there” as well. Don’t know what happened with the links. They are all working for me. Maybe it was just a temporary glitch. I know a couple of the sites are getting a rather high volume of traffic, and that can bring a site down for awhile.

  11. Interestingly, both of these articles showed up on my Facebook home page today. I thought I would pass this on to you… I hope it helps clear up some of the confusion :0)

    Editing this comment because it contains a lengthy article copied from another site. It is unclear whether permission to copy has been granted, but the article may be read here:

    [squidoo (dot) com/Pearls_2Train_Up_A_Child

    1. Of course the couple are fully responsible for their actions. Nowhere in this entry have I said they are not responsible, nor advocated they get lighter sentences because of the influence of another ministry.

      I have read the materials I discussed, including TTUAC. And yes, there are indications here and there about abuse. I do not deny that. In fact, I point them out in other entries where I discuss the Pearls.

      But that does not mean that we turn a blind eye to the influence of this ministry, nor that all is right with it. What is frightening is that otherwise loving parents (everyone around them was shocked, and couldn’t quite believe that the reports were true…the children were everything the book promised: well-behaved and cheerful.)

      Yes, they talk about love and building relationships. The switching comes first.

      Page 25…a quarter of the way through the book, we hear that your anger and frustration need to be under control. However, by the reports at the moment, it sounds like the parents in this case were quite calm as they beat their children.

      Page 33 talks about pride and impatience? What has that to do with beating a child? And do we know that the Schatz’ were suffering in this area?

      Actually, not one of the quotes in this article seem to apply. You can calmly beat a child to death.

      And please note: when they say this book is about child “training,” they define “training” as switching a child in order to teach them.

      They still recommend that a child be struck until he is “without breath to complain.”

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