When Child Discipline Becomes Abuse
A Washington couple was recently charged with the death of their 11-year-old daughter, Hana, whom they disciplined by withholding food and shutting out of the house; she died of hypothermia and showed evidence of malnutrition. Last year, 7-year-old Lydia Schatz died after being beaten by her parents for mispronouncing a word during her reading lesson. And five years ago, 4-year-old Sean Paddock suffocated to death when his mother bound him tightly in blankets as a form of discipline.
A common thread linking these cases? All the parents cited as influence the teachings of No Greater Joy Ministries, founded by Christian couple Michael and Debi Pearl. Michael Pearl has issued statements condemning these parents' actions and distancing his own teaching on child discipline from them. To understand what the Pearls teach, I decided to read To Train Up a Child, the self-published 1994 book that contains the essence of their teaching on "child training." Selling over a half-million copies, the book is a "simple, biblical" plan for training children to obey "immediately, without question."
This training, not to be confused with "discipline," may be carried out something like this:
Place an appealing object where they can reach it …. when they spy it and make a dive for it, in a calm voice say, 'No, don't touch that.' Since they are already familiar with the word 'No,' they will likely pause, look at you in wonder, and then turn around grab it. Switch their hand once and simultaneously say, No.
The switching and saying "No" is a technique the Pearls recommend when a baby grabs your glasses, when a nursing child bites his mother (in that instance, pulling the child's hair is the preferred method of training), and to "gun-proof" children:
With our first toddler, I placed an old, unused and empty, single-shot shotgun in the living room corner. After taking the toddlers through several "No" and hand-switching sessions, they knew that guns were always off limits …. I didn't child-proof my guns, I gun-proofed my children.
Other suggested training sessions involved allowing a child to become deeply engrossed in an activity before calling to him and insisting that he learn "the necessity of immediately coming when called." (Ephesians 6:4, anyone?) To train a child not to go near a body of water, they suggest allowing the child to fall in, waiting "long enough for her to … show some recognition of her inability to breathe." Michael Pearl describes his own method for training his children not to touch the wood stove:
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