“To Train Up a Child” is the revealing title of an authoritarian child-rearing manual, written by a right-wing evangelical pastor and his wife, that has been found in the homes of at least three families implicated in horrific cases of homicide by child abuse. The book, by Michael Pearl, pastor of the Church at Cane Creek in Pleasantville, Tenn., and his wife Debi, is particularly popular among Christian home-schoolers. Just think of this as the anti-Dr. Spock manual. It begins by advocating taps with switches to teach six-month-old babies not to roll off their blankets and progresses to recommendations for the use of a quarter-inch thick flexible plumbing line to strike older children on the arms, legs or back.
Pearl proudly asserts that his self-published book (sold on Amazon and other mainstream commercial Web sites) is based on “the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules.” The child-rearing suggestions in the book are of course grounded in Proverbs 29:15, “The rod and reproof give wisdom; but a child left to himself bringeth his mother shame.” This is yet another chapter in the long history of association between rigid forms of religion and corporal punishment of children.
By “corporal punishment,” I do not mean occasional spanking but a systematic effort to break a child’s will by repeated imposition of increasingly severe physical discipline. The headline over a recent account of the dispute in The New York Times, “Preaching Virtue of Spanking, Even As Deaths Fuel Debate,” is misleading. Spanking is far too mild a term for what is at issue here.
Let me say, for the record, that this is not a call for legal censorship of those who believe that parents have not only the right but the duty to use their superior physical strength to show their children who’s the boss, as commanded by the Big Boss Upstairs. The Pearls do not urge that parents beat their children to death. But their philosophy, based on their religious precept that parents stand in the place of the Lord in relation to their children (as husbands do in relation to their wives) is an inspiration to perverted parents who cannot control the dark urges encouraged by religious sanctification of corporal punishment. The belief that children are basically wild, sinful animals who need to be “broken” into obedience through fear was once the norm throughout Christendom.
The most recent terrible case of the Pearls’ book being found in a so-called home of parents charged with abuse involves Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Wooley, Wash. They were already homeschooling their own six children when they adopted a girl and boy from Ethiopia in 2008. The Ethiopian children were apparently seen as recalcitrant and in need of extra discipline. The Williams’s 13-year-old adopted daughter, Hana, died on the day she was beaten with the plastic plumbing tool recommended in the Pearls’ book.
According to a report by the Skagit County Sheriff, “Carri and Larry Williams starved Hana for days, put her in a locked closet, shower room and forced her to sleep outside in the barn in the cold. She wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom in the house, instead a porta-potty behind the barn. In addition, Hana was struck daily with a plumbing tool, a tube with a round ball in the end.”
The same type of handy-dandy tube, which, Pearl boasts, “can be rolled up in your pocket,” was used on Lydia Schatz, 7, who was adopted from Liberia and killed in Paradise, Calif. In 2010. The Schatzes apparently disregarded the Pearls’ admonition against extended lashing and whipped Lydia for hours while taking time out for prayer.
In another case of parents who thought highly of the Pearls’ disciplinary methods, Lynn Paddock of Johnson County, NC, was convicted of first-degree murder after her four-year-old son suffocated while being wrapped in a tight blanket. His siblings said they too had been beaten regularly with the plumbing tube. The Paddocks had adopted six American children, many with emotional problems.
There are actually two common themes in these stories: religious fanaticism as a rationale for extreme corporal punishment of children and criminally lax adoption standards, particularly regarding children from poor countries and older children, under which any large, ostensibly Christian family is seen as a good family. One wonders whether the children of these fanatics were adopted precisely because they came from poor, vulnerable sectors of American society or from poor countries. What better way to acquire your personal punching bag in the name of the Lord?
It should, of course, be noted that not all conservative Christian parents embrace the Pearls’ teachings. Some have started a petition asking mainstream sellers like Amazon not to stock “To Train Up a Child.” Crystal Lutton, who runs Grace-Based Discipline, a Christian blog that opposes corporal punishment said the danger of such teachings is that “if you don’t get results, the only thing to do is punish harder and harder.”
However, belief in harsh discipline for children has long been linked to the most retrograde forms of religion. Beginning in the late 18th century, freethinkers, secularists and various liberal religious denominations began to oppose corporal punishment of children. Robert Ingersoll, the leading freethought spokesman in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, always pointed out in his speeches, which were meant to appeal to religious reformers as well as agnostics and atheists, that Jesus preached the opposite. “Do you know,” he asked in his famous lecture, On the Liberty of Man, Woman and Child, “that I have seen some people who acted as though they thought when the Savior said, `Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven,’ he had a rawhide under his mantle, and made the remark simply to get the children within striking distance?”
Ingersoll’s argument against corporal punishment within the family—that it degraded the parent as much as the child—paralleled his argument against capital punishment, which he and other freethinkers consider a form of state-sanctioned violence that coarsened an entire society and thus did more damage to the public than to criminals.
Approval of spanking is much higher in the United States than in the more secular countries of Europe, and it is higher still in regions of the U.S. with a strong fundamentalist presence. Among Southerners, according to a recent ABC News poll, 62 percent of parents spank their children. Only 41 percent do so in the rest of the country. Among college-educated parents, only 38 percent spank but among less educated Americans, 55 percent do.
But again, the issue is not spanking per se. I daresay that many more parents have occasionally spanked their children than are willing to admit to the practice and that few children emerge permanently damaged by the odd spanking of an imperfect, frustrated mother or father having a bad day. What is so horrific about the historical religious justification for corporal punishment, embodied by the Pearls’ awful instructions, is that it is based on the idea that children are nothing more than the property of their parents, who derive their power from an angry and vengeful deity.
In this view, only the parent’s will can and must prevail. In The New York Times, Pearl is quoted as saying that if a verbal warning does not suffice, “you have the seeds of self-destruction.” Ah, yes. Six-month-old babies will surely destroy themselves if they start rolling off their blankets without being “trained up” by switches. Let a baby venture beyond a blanket and where does it end? It can only end with a thinking, free-spirited human being who refuses to be deprived of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. That is a result fundamentalist religion cannot tolerate.