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Monday, November 7, 2011

Pearls or Swine? Another Death Possibly Related to "To Train Up a Child"

The New York Times this morning reported on the front page a third child death among apparent followers of the evangelical ministers Michael and Debi Pearl (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/07/us/deaths_put_focus_on_pastors_advocacy_of_spanking.html). Mr. and Mrs. Pearl are the authors of “To Train Up a Child” (posted in its entirety at www.achristianhome.org/to_train_up_a_child.htm), a document that advocates not what most of us would call spanking, but practices like whipping of 6-month-olds with plastic plumbing supply line. I have written about the Pearls in the past (Mercer, J. [2007]. Destructive trends in alternative infant mental health practices. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 5(2), 44-58), but this third death report makes me feel that there is plenty more to say.

The Pearls are evangelicals living in Tennessee and associated with an organization called the Church at Cane Creek. According to the Times, there are 670,000 copies of their self-published book in circulation (an interesting fact when the book is readily available on line). The Pearls share an intensely Calvinistic belief system in which obedience to God is the essential correlate of salvation. Human beings are naturally “froward” or disobedient and rebellious, and those sins are the deeply serious ones that caused Lucifer to be hurled from heaven. Parents are responsible for their children’s salvation, and the first step they must take is to “break the spirit” and stamp out all rebelliousness expressed against the parents themselves. Without this step, children will not be meek and obedient before God, and therefore will be damned eternally. (There appears to be no room in this system for mercy or grace-- and Unitarians or Quakers need not apply!) The experience of pain is the natural tool for breaking a rebellious tendency, and although it may be uncomfortable for parents to cause this, it is their job to do so and rescue the child from an eternity in the torments of Hell.

In one anecdote in “To Train Up a Child”, the Pearls tell of a visit from a toddler who had never seen Mrs. Pearl before but was left with her for some hours. As he appeared unhappy, she offered him some roller skate wheels to play with-- but he “rebelliously” refused. Smiling at him, she whipped his leg with her plumbing supply line. This event was repeated ten times, at the end of which, according to the Pearls, the child played happily (I’m just reporting the news here, you know). Whipping was advised for a wide variety of early offenses like turning the head away when offered a spoonful of food or rolling off a blanket when placed there. The Pearls also approve of occasional withholding of food and of using a garden hose on a child who has had a toilet accident.

However appalling these practices may seem to many of us, it is unlikely though possible that they would ordinarily cause death or even serious injury. It is difficult to know whether the three child deaths-- all of adopted children, by the way-- can legitimately be attributed to the Pearls’ advice, although the parents in these cases are known to have been admirers of the Pearls’ practices. In each case, the parents’ behavior went far beyond the Pearls’ recommendations. To summarize from the Times article: The first death, that of Sean Paddock of Johnson County,NC, in 2006, involved suffocation of the 4-year-old child in a tight blanket wrap. The second, early in 2010, was that of Lydia Schatz, age 7, in California. She was whipped for hours, with pauses for prayer, and died from severe tissue damage, cut to ribbons by the lashing. The most recent death, last May, was that of 11-year-old Hana Williams in Washington State; according to the Times report, she “was found face down, naked and emaciated in the backyard; her death was caused by hypothermia and malnutrition… [she was] deprived of food for days at a time and [made to] sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a garden hose.” The day she died, she was beaten with a link of plastic tubing as recommended by the Pearls.

Some questions come to mind, not so much about these pitiful children, who suffered unimaginably, but about the role of parenting advice and of religious belief in the United States . The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but that freedom has its limits-- for example, it does not extend to yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Should there be limitations on advice that might be misused by parents whose mental health or intelligence limitations distort their understanding of appropriate parenting behavior? What should be the constraints placed on adoption caseworkers or other publicly-paid functionaries, whose instruction to parents may be out of line and lead to injury? Do parents’ religious beliefs allow authorities to waive the usual requirements about adherence to child abuse statutes? How do we, as a multicultural society, decide what laws to enforce for all families?

Simple and suitable though it may seem to just make the Pearls shut up and withdraw their book, and deplorable though the apparent results of their teachings may be, legislation may not be the answer here. However, the continuing silence of professional societies is of no help in this complex situation. The American Professional Society on Abuse of Children spoke out against attachment therapy in 2006. When will we see a task force addressing the intertwining of serious child abuse with religious and cultural beliefs? And when, particularly, will adoption organizations notice that it is dangerous to place older, foreign-adopted children with large families who concern themselves with “spirit-breaking”?


  1. In Massachusetts I'm pretty sure parents who practice such absurdity would end up with their kids taken away.

  2. Sure... IF their actions were reported to the authorities. But if they live in an isolated area, homeschool, and limit their social contacts to a church or other group that shares their beliefs, who will do that? No report is likely to occur until the child dies or is sufficiently injured that the parents are frightened and seek medical help.

  3. It interests me that their website includes lots of letters from parents who are writing in to say that their children have problems with low self-esteem. That couldn't possibly be related to beating and "breaking the spirit," now could it? Crazy.

  4. Where did you find that, Zev? All I've seen is the site that talks about "distributorships".