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:

Godly Discipline Turned Deadly (Interesting thoughts on the Christian response)
Fundamental Discipline
Tragedy in a Homeschooling Family
When Parenting Kills
Senseless Deception