On October 29, 2013, Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro Woolley, Washington, were sentenced to 28 and 37 years in prison, respectively, for causing the death of their adopted daughter Hana Williams just after midnight on May 12, 2011. She was approximately 13 years old. She died of hypothermia and malnutrition after being systematically beaten, starved, and forced outside in the cold by her adoptive parents as punishment for her “rebelliousness.”
The Williamses had adopted Hana just three years earlier in 2008. The last year of her life was particularly brutal. In that year she lost 30 pounds due to her parents withholding food from her as punishment. Weighing only 78 pounds at the time of her death, her body was covered with welts and bruises from the beatings her parents had administered. They regularly punished her for such “offenses” as refusing to stand in a twelve inch circle that they had ordered her to stand in.
- Sean Paddock, 4, of Johnston County, North Carolina, died of suffocation at the hands of his adoptive mother, Lynn Paddock, on February 26, 2006. She had been systematically spanking her children according to the Pearls’ advice.
- Lydia Schatz, 7, of Paradise, California, died on February 6, 2010, as a result of hours of beating by her adoptive parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz. Her “offense” in her final beating was that she had mispronounced a word in her reading exercises.
All three of these families believed in the child-raising principles advocated in To Train Up A Child. And though they went far beyond what the Pearls advocate in the book, the deaths of their children were linked to beliefs and practices inculcated in them by the Pearls’ book.
In To Train Up A Child, the Pearls advocate “training” children to absolute obedience by systematically hitting them with instruments such as a plastic plumbing supply tube whenever they disobey commands—including contrived and arbitrary commands—given by their parents.
Michael Pearl runs a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called No Greater Joy Ministries. To Train Up A Child is its best-known product. He preaches at a small fundamentalist church in the town of Pleasantville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Debi live.
He claims that the methods of corporal punishment (or “spanking,” as he prefers to call it) in To Train Up A Child are based on the Bible. But as we will see, his methods are more like the behaviorism of atheist scientist B. F. Skinner than they are like anything found in the Bible.
Spare the rod and spoil the child?
First, let’s get one thing straight. The widely known phrase “spare the rod and spoil the child” does not come from the Bible. It comes from the satirical poem Hudibras, by Samuel Butler, which was first published in 1662.
The closest statement that does occur in the Bible is found in Proverbs 13:24, which reads, in the King James Version:
He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
Did King Solomon, the traditional author of Proverbs, believe in literally beating children with a rod?
Probably. Though there are other interpretations.
Blogger Beth McDonald points out that Solomon’s father, David, was a shepherd. The true meaning of the rod, she says, is as an instrument of guidance and protection for the sheep. And I do believe there is merit to this idea. In the Bible, “the rod of correction” is used not only literally, but also metaphorically as a symbol of discipline, training, and guidance for the young and for the foolish.
However, here are several more verses about “the rod” from the book of Proverbs—which is the main Biblical source used by Christian fundamentalists to justify corporal punishment. These quotes are also from the King James Version, which is the overall favorite among fundamentalist Christians.
In the lips of him that hath understanding wisdom is found: but a rod is for the back of him that is void of understanding. (Proverbs 10:13)
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. (Proverbs 22:15)
Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. (Proverbs 23:13–14)
A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back. (Proverbs 26:3)
The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. (Proverbs 29:15)
Based on these verses from Proverbs, it’s hard to argue that the book of Proverbs doesn’t advocate literal beatings with a rod, in addition to metaphorical meanings as found in various other passages from the Bible. Here are just two such metaphorical passages:
If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. (Psalm 89:31–32)
Is God literally going to beat wrongdoers with a rod and with stripes? No. The Psalm speaks metaphorically of disasters and hardships that will come to those who break God’s commandments. An example of this is found in Isaiah:
O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. (Isaiah 10:5–6)
The passage in which these verses occur is a prophecy against the Assyrian empire, which God had used as a “rod” to punish his wayward people of Israel by attacking them and taking the whole northern kingdom of Israel into captivity and exile.
And yes, in the beloved 23rd Psalm we read of the sheperd’s rod being used as a comfort:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
In short, the Bible uses “the rod” both literally and figuratively. And figuratively, it refers both to punishment and to guidance. It is likely that in Bible times, “the rod of correction” was literally used to beat the backs of both children and adults as a form of discipline and punishment—just as it still is in many parts of the world today.
Beating is not a Christian form of punishment
And yet, as the harshness of Old Testament times gave way to the faith, hope, and love that characterize the New Testament, the harsh and punitive use of “the rod” also began to give way to more humane treatment both of children and of malefactors.
Systems of corporal punishment such as those advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl can claim some basis in the practices common in Old Testament times. (Though as we will see, they are really not Biblical, but behavioristic.) However, they do so only by ignoring basic spiritual changes that Jesus Christ brought about in the New Testament.
For example, in To Train Up A Child, the Pearls say:
The unwritten common-law of retribution pervades all of man’s thinking. Regardless of the age, religion or lack thereof, education, or philosophy, all intuitively know that wrongdoing deserves and can expect punishment.
First of all, the law of retribution, or lex talionis, as it is referred to in Latin, is not unwritten. It was specifically commanded in at least three passages in the Old Testament that are the source of the common phrase, “An eye for an eye”:
If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:23–25)
Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. (Leviticus 24:17–20)
If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. (Deuteronomy 19:18–20)
Sounds like an open-and-shut case, right? The Bible clearly teaches the law of retaliation.
But wait! Listen to this passage from the New Testament:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38–42)
The speaker is Jesus Christ. And in this passage, he specifically nullified the law of retaliation as taught in the Old Testament. Another example of Jesus nullifying Old Testament law is found in the famous case of the woman caught in adultery as told in John 8:2–11.
The fact is, in Christianity, many of the laws given in the Old Testament are no longer binding. These include not only the ritual laws of sacrifice, but many of the laws of behavior and of punishment prescribed in the Old Testament.
A common error of fundamentalist Christian authors such as the Pearls is to ignore the fact that Jesus Christ raised religion to a higher level. Another common error of fundamentalists is to selectively apply certain Old Testament laws that they happen to agree with, while ignoring others that they don’t agree with.
If the Pearls and other “Christian” advocates of corporal punishment truly believed in following the laws laid down in the Bible, why do they routinely ignore this actual law given in the Old Testament for the treatment of unruly and rebellious children?
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21)
The Pearls’ methods may have been justifiable based on the Old Testament if the New Testament had never been written. But they are not justifiable based on Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ. Christianity made a decisive break with the harsh, retaliatory methods of discipline taught in the Old Testament. Christianity is a religion of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13), not a religion of harsh application of rigid laws as was the ancient Judaism of the Old Testament.
In short, corporal punishment as advocated by the Pearls in To Train Up A Child is not based on the Bible as seen from a Christian perspective.
To Train Up A Child is based on behaviorism, not the Bible
The Pearls believe that their system is based on the Bible.
However, a closer analysis shows that the fundamentals of their system are based, not on the Bible, but on behavioristic principles such as those developed by atheistic scientists Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner.
Pavlov is known for developing the practice of “classical conditioning,” in which actions on the part of the test subject (usually an animal) become associated with pleasure or pain administered by the trainer. Once an animal has been trained in this way, its human owners can cause it to act in a certain way simply by, for example, ringing a bell.
Skinner is famous for developing the “operant conditioning chamber,” popularly known as the Skinner Box. The purpose of this apparatus is to cause animals—usually lab rats or mice—to act in a certain way based on rewards given for correct behavior and punishments given for incorrect behavior.
Based on their theories and teachings, both Pavlov and Skinner are classed as “behaviorists.” They generally reject human free will as a concept, believing instead that our actions are based on the conditioning brought about by our previous experiences of pleasure or pain in response to our various actions.
What does this have to do with Michael and Debi Pearl’s book To Train Up A Child?
Well . . . the Bible never uses the word “condition” in the sense given to it by Pavlov and Skinner.
By contrast, To Train Up A Child uses the word “condition” over twenty times in that sense. For example, the Pearls write in reference to children:
Before they can DECIDE to do good we must CONDITION them to do good.
The Pearls say that it is similar to training soldiers in the military:
The maneuvers “Right flank, Left flank, Companeeey—Halt” have no value in war except as they condition the men to instant, unquestioning obedience.
(Incidentally, they’re wrong about this. Soldiers are not trained to obey without question. In fact, they are trained to disobey illegal orders.)
And in a favorite analogy, the Pearls advocate training children the same way horses, mules, and dogs are trained. For example, they write:
You must anticipate and train the horse for all potential occurrences. This is done in a controlled environment where situations are created to test and condition the horse’s responses. The horse is first conditioned by being taken through paces. As you hold the bridle and lead the horse, you say, “Whoa,” and then stop. Since you have a tight hold on the bridle, he must stop. After just a few times, the horse will stop to just the command.
Never mind that the best animal trainers rely far more on rewards for good behavior than on punishment for bad behavior. The point here is that the central idea of To Train Up A Child is based, not on the Bible, but on the 19th and 20th century conditioning techniques of behaviorism.
It doesn’t tell the full story to say that the Pearls use the word “condition” in a behavioristic sense over twenty times in their book. When they use the word “train,” as in the title of the book, it is usually being used as a synonym for “condition.” And the word “train” occurs over two hundred times in the book.
To Train Condition Up A Child
This concept of “training” is foreign to the concepts of human training and education found in the Bible. The Bible is based on humans being free moral agents who can choose for themselves between good and evil, and who will then experience the consequences of those actions.
The training of children by the Pearls’ behaviorism-influenced methods, on the other hand, bypasses human reason altogether, and uses purely physical response and stimuli to achieve the desired results. The Pearls write:
Training does not necessarily require that the trainee be capable of reason; even mice and rats can be trained to respond to stimuli. Careful training can make a dog perfectly obedient.
We’ll get to the concept of perfect and unquestioning obedience in a few minutes.
For now, let’s look at how the Pearls advocate “training” children. Their methods do not simply involve spanking children when they do wrong, as might be expected. Rather, the Pearls teach parents to set up artificial situations specifically to “train” (really, condition) their children to obey their parents instantly and without question. Here is an example from the book:
There is much satisfaction in training up a child. It is easy and challenging. When my children were able to crawl (in the case of one, roll) around the room, I set up training sessions.
Try it yourself. Place an appealing object where they can reach it, maybe in a “No-no” corner or on an apple juice table (That’s where the coffee table once sat). When they spy it and make a dive for it, in a calm voice say, “No, don’t touch it.” They will already be familiar with the “No,” so they will pause, look at you in wonder and then turn around and grab it. Switch their hand once and simultaneously say, “No.” Remember, you are not disciplining, you are training. One spat with a little switch is enough. They will again pull back their hand and consider the relationship between the object, their desire, the command and the little reinforcing pain. It may take several times, but if you are consistent, they will learn to consistently obey, even in your absence.
B. F. Skinner would be proud! The methods used for this “training” have nothing to do with punishing wrongdoing. They are simply an adaptation of the “Skinner Box,” used to artificially condition children to obey by punishing behavior arbitrarily deemed by the parent to be undesirable for the purposes of the training.
These behavior modification techniques have nothing to do with developing morals or conscience in children. They can just as easily be used to train children to do harmful and destructive things as to do helpful and constructive things.
In short, the system of “training,” or more accurately, conditioning children that the Pearls advocate in To Train Up A Child is based on amoral behavioristic principles that are completely foreign to the principles of freedom, personal responsibility, and the natural consequences of good and evil actions that are taught and exemplified in the Bible.
It is often (but not always) possible to condition children to engage in “correct” behavior as defined by their parents using the conditioning and behavior modification techniques described by the Pearls. But having successfully done this, all that has been accomplished is to create children who are unthinkingly obedient to authority figures.
And that is not what the Bible teaches or exemplifies.
The sloppy Biblical scholarship of the Pearls
When I began reading To Train Up A Child, I was looking for the supposed Biblical basis of the principles taught in the book. And the very first substantive use of an example from the Bible showed that the Pearls play fast and loose with the Bible text. In fact, they’re just plain sloppy in their reading of the Bible.
Here’s what they write to justify the “training” sessions described above:
When God wanted to “train” his first two children not to touch, He did not place the forbidden object out of their reach. Instead, He placed the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” in the “midst of the garden (Gen. 3:3).” Being in the middle of the garden, they would pass it continually. God’s purpose was not to save the tree—rather, to train the couple.
For the full story of why this is a mistaken and sloppy reading of the Bible, see the article “Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?” Here is the short version:
Genesis 3:2–3, which the Pearls refer to as saying that God placed the “forbidden object” in the middle of the garden, reads as follows:
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:2–3)
However, it was Eve, not God, who placed that tree in the middle of the garden. The actual command that God had given to Adam was:
And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for on the day that you eat of it, you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16–17)
God said nothing about the tree of knowledge of good and evil being in the middle of the garden. In fact, when God first planted the garden of Eden, God put the tree of life in the middle of the garden. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is just sort of tacked onto the end of the sentence, without specifying where it was planted:
And Jehovah God caused to grow from the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. And the tree of life was in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)
Ironically, in placing the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden, the Pearls are falling prey to the same illusion that Eve fell for. The serpent focused Eve’s attention on the forbidden tree so much that instead of thinking of the tree of life as marking the center of the garden as God had made it, she began to think of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as marking the center of the garden.
The Pearls’ methods contradict God’s methods
But here’s the kicker: In using the example of the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the Pearls underline the contradiction between their behavioristic teachings and the methods of God as described in Genesis chapters 2 and 3.
The next sentences in the Pearls’ book reveal that their practice is very different from what God did in Genesis:
Note the name of the tree was not just “knowledge of evil,” but, “knowledge of good and evil.” By exercising their wills not to eat, they would have learned the meaning of “good” as well as “evil.” The eating was a shortcut to the knowledge, but not a necessary path.
It just takes a few minutes to train a child not to touch a given object. Most children can be brought into complete and joyous subjection in just three days. Thereafter, if you continue to be faithful, the children will remain happy and obedient.
Did you notice it?
According to the Pearls, God made a simple, fatal mistake!
According to the Pearls, it would have taken God “just a few minutes,” or at most “three days,” to train Adam and Eve not to eat from or touch the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Then Adam and Eve, like “most children” would have remained happy and obedient.
Why didn’t God do that? Why wasn’t God as good a parent as Michael and Debi Pearl? If God had only followed their advice, the “Fall of Man” would never have happened, and we humans would still be living happily and obediently in the Garden of Eden.
The Bible story that the Pearls quote to support their behavioristic training regime teaches the opposite of what they advocate.
In the Bible, God does not use behavior modification techniques to train instant, unquestioning obedience into his “children.”
Instead, God puts the choice of good or evil in front of us, tells us about the positive outcomes of choosing the good and the negative outcomes of choosing the evil, and then leaves the choice up to us.
This is how God actually did “parent” Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3. The result was not a blind and slavish obedience, but morally free human beings.
There are no arbitrary “training sessions” in the Bible. Rather, there is story after story of human beings making choices, good or bad, feeling the effects of those choices, and then either repenting and changing their ways, or not repenting and continuing to engage in prohibited behavior and defy God’s will.
This Biblical principle of free moral choice and the consequences of our choices is made clear in Deuteronomy 30:11–20:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
The results of choosing death are not some arbitrary consequence meted out by God for disobedience, like the “spankings” advocated by the Pearls for disobedience. Rather, they are the natural consequences of violating the laws of God and of nature. For more on this, see the article, “Curses or Consequences: Did God Really Curse Adam and Eve?”
God does not treat us like horses, mules, and dogs whose behavior must be trained to conform to their masters’ desires. Rather, God treats us like free, responsible human beings who have the ability to make moral choices between good and evil—and if we are willing, to learn from the consequences of our choices.
The message here is not that we shouldn’t discipline our children. But discipline as exemplified in the Bible has little to do with the conditioning techniques developed by Pavlov and Skinner, and given a “Christian” veneer by the Pearls. Rather, it has to do with teaching our children right from wrong, providing our own example of good and right behavior, and letting children feel the consequences of wrong behavior.
Sometimes those consequences will be punishments of various kinds determined by the parents. But the farther children go in life, and the closer they come to adulthood, the more the consequences will simply be the natural results of foolish and destructive behavior. The best kind of “training” is the training of cause and effect that God has built right into the fabric of the universe and of human society.
Christianity goes beyond mere obedience
Aside from the surprising reliance on Skinnerian style behavior modification techniques in the Pearl’s book, what is most striking about To Train Up A Child is the heavy emphasis on absolute, instant, unquestioning obedience.
Yes, the Bible does talk about obeying the commandments of God. But what the Pearls advocate in their book goes far beyond anything presented in the Bible. The Bible focuses on teaching and training children so that they will know the difference between good and evil, and on exhorting toward the good. Only when people flagrantly violate the law does the Bible advocate punishments.
Here is an example of how the Bible speaks of training children:
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. (Deuteronomy 11:18–21)
There is no talk of unquestioning obedience here. Rather, it speaks of teaching God’s words to their children so that they may have long and prosperous lives.
The emphasis on instant, unquestioning obedience in To Train Up A Child is one of the most disturbing aspects of the book. And it is another area in which the Pearls depart from the principles of the Bible, and especially from the principles of Christianity.
It is true that in the Old Testament, obedience to the law is heavily emphasized. Those who obey the law are rewarded, and those who violate the law are punished. Keep in mind that these were not highly educated people, let alone highly spiritual ones. Most people in those days lived very earth-centered lives focused on acquiring and enjoying (or not) the basic, physical necessities of life. Humanity was at a low ebb spiritually in those days. Most people didn’t understand much beyond physical punishments and rewards.
However, as humankind developed morally and spiritually, we began to rise to higher levels. Jesus’ teachings represented a paradigm shift, lifting his followers to a new way of being spiritual that went beyond mere obedience to law.
It’s not that laws are no longer relevant. It’s that for Christians, following the law of God is not just a matter of obedience in order to avoid punishment and receive rewards. In Christianity, spirituality moves from mere obedience to faith and love. Yes, Christians will still experience pain and punishment if they flagrantly violate civil and spiritual laws. But in essence, Christianity involves living a spiritual life because we believe it is the right way to live and because we love God and the neighbor.
In other words, Jesus Christ neither requires nor desires the absolute, instant, and unquestioning obedience that the Pearls’ methods train into children when they are “successful.” (And despite the Pearls’ glowing promises, those methods often fail spectacularly, as Sean Paddock, Lydia Schatz, and Hana Williams testify from their graves.)
The higher we humans rise spiritually, the more we can leave behind the literal use of the rod in an attempt to beat our children into good behavior. Instead, we can increasingly understand the “rod of correction” as a metaphor for teaching and guiding our children away from self-centeredness and greediness, and toward loving God and the neighbor as taught by Jesus Christ (Matthew 22:36–40).
To train up a child from a Christian perspective involves teaching our children well, providing them with our own personal example of love and faithfulness, correcting them with appropriate but merciful punishments when they persist in behavior that they know is wrong, and guiding them toward the life of faith, hope, and love that is the message of Jesus Christ and of Christianity.
For further refutation, from a secular perspective, of the Pearls’ methods by someone who was raised with those methods but repudiated them as an adult, see “To Train Up A Child,” by Libby Anne, on her blog “Love, Joy, Feminism.” The linked article offers links to the full text of To Train Up A Child, and to additional detailed commentary on the book.
For further refutation of the Pearls’ methods from a Christian perspective, visit the website “Why Not Train a Child?” It provides “A clearinghouse of information and Christian arguments against the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl.”