Humane Child Training: Sarah’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Thomas Hawk.

HA notes: All names have been changed to ensure anonymity. “Sarah” is a pseudonym.

CW: Physical Abuse and Infant Abuse

How Horse Whisperers and Dog Lovers Freed me from Michael Pearl

I have a distinct memory of when I first opened up Michael Pearl’s “To Train Up a Child.” I was about 10 years old when I discovered the book in our library. My parents had recently introduced the switch (a roughly 2-3 foot long supple tree branch) as a “disciplinary tool”. I’m not sure if I started at the beginning or opened it at random, but I remember feeling deeply disturbed and attempting to hide the book after I put it down.

While my parents didn’t follow Pearl’s advice to the letter, I was raised in a household with a strong emphasis on obedience.

There was love, yes, and bonding and laughter, but I also knew that outright disobedience would be met with consequences, often painful consequences. If I was told to do something I strongly disliked or even feared – and if my (polite) protests were ignored – I knew I had only two “choices”, if you could call them that. Deal with it or face the punishment. Our first puppy started training with the Koehler dog training method, roughly dragged on a choke chain so that she would “know” to ignore distractions. We stopped shortly thereafter when she grew so terrified of “training” that she’d just freeze; but I’m convinced we started with that method in the first place because the principle of “obey or else” resonated with my family.

I was mostly a bookish kid, with few reasons to conflict with my parents, so I wasn’t spanked (beaten?) very often. But as a pre-teen I became increasingly upset about how “discipline” worked out for my younger siblings. My bull-headed, hot-tempered sister Tabitha often got in screaming fights with my mom, which then turned to violent spankings until Tabitha would at least make a show of submission. (To this day she has a horrible relationship with my mom.) The discipline didn’t help Tabitha learn to control herself. Instead, she learned to lie as easily as speak, and she took her anger out on our even younger siblings whenever she felt she could get away with it.

My family used the buddy system – each older child caring for a younger child – and at the time my “buddy” was my two year old brother Noah. Noah was smart but opinionated, and notorious for throwing high-intensity fits when he couldn’t get his way. I still get a sick feeling to my stomach when I remember one afternoon when Noah’s fire truck broke and he couldn’t get the ladder to go down.

He lost it, screaming and throwing things and rolling on the ground, and my Mom decided he needed to stop “rebelling.”

She found the wooden spoon and started a cycle that went on for nearly 30 minutes: spank spank spank, “Noah, stop screaming!”, pause. Spank spank spank, “Noah, stop screaming!”, pause. For a long time, Noah’s screams and flails only grew louder and more desperate. I tried to keep cleaning nearby, but as his diaper came off for harsher swats and he became hoarse from screaming, I couldn’t do anything but watch in horror. Eventually his screams became a little quieter, and she decided that was good enough. She put him to bed for a nap and left to help some siblings with school in another part of the house. I remember cradling his quivering body as he whimpered and telling him that Mom was wrong and she shouldn’t have done that.

Despite how upset I was with these situations, I didn’t yet have the experience or broader context to identify an alternative.

I was homeschooled, in a Christian fundamentalist / patriarchy / quiverful family, and was already indoctrinated with a very deep distrust of the secular “system” that I was told would try to take us away through CPS and brainwash us with secular (aka satanic) content in public schools. I had many young siblings, and I knew that it was necessary at times to control and change their behavior – one had to do SOMETHING if the toddler was trying to play with the electrical outlet, or the five-year-old was hitting a younger sibling. Physical, painful punishment for disobedience was the only way I knew how. I occasionally perused secular parenting books through the library, but I dismissed their “permissive” advice on child-rearing as non-Christian without any real reflection.

Instead, I found a different perspective from a slightly unusual source: animal trainers. I loved animals, and my preteen and early teen years were right in the middle of a revolution in humane, non-coercive training methods for animals. I was mesmerized by watching a video of Monty Roberts taming and training a wild mustang gently, without force or coercion. I eagerly read Jean Donaldson’s dog training book “Culture Clash”. She dismissed techniques that used pain and fear to train a dog as cruel and – just as importantly – unnecessary. Instead, she made a strong argument that you could get excellent obedience, robust and resilient behavioral change, using the basic principles of the science of operant conditioning: get the behavior you want and reward it. Make the things that the dog wants contingent on the behaviors that you want. From there, I went on to Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and internet forums on clicker training and positive dog training. I refrained from putting a pinch collar on my next puppy and instead trained him – very successfully – using treats and toys and praise, with a rare time-out as the ultimate punishment.

As I came to understand that you could change behavior without pain or fear, I began to apply that to how I interacted with my younger siblings.

Unlike the secular child-rearing books, I wasn’t afraid of a “satanic” or non-Christian influence from these animal trainers: how could it be un-Christian to give your dog a treat, or train your horse gently? And unlike many child-focused sources that emphasized the child’s self-esteem and psyche above all, these books gave me tools for what I needed: how to get my “buddy” to go take a nap, or put on his socks, or not put that rock in his mouth. At this point, I was a fourteen year old girl with most of my time filled with caring for my younger siblings. I didn’t have the resources to use advice on how to improve my little sister’s confidence or problem-solving abilities so she could grow up to be a strong, compassionate adult. I needed something that would help me control multiple toddlers and young children so that they wouldn’t fall down the stairs or color on the walls while I tried to cook lunch. I suspect many “quiverful” mothers and big sisters end up in this situation, and this is part of the appeal of Michael Pearl’s advice.

I want to clarify here that I am NOT advocating a parenting style that treats children as animals. Instead, I am arguing that there are lessons in humane animal training that can improve human relationships, especially when those relationships involve children – individuals who often don’t recognize danger, have challenges to communicating, don’t understand adult human rules and priorities, and most of all are vulnerable to abuse from their caregivers. Humane animal training involves a commitment to avoid the use of fear and pain as a “training tool”; respect for the animal as an individual being with feelings and fears; and knowledge of both the science of behavioral change and the animal’s instincts, wants, and needs. These are all important principles in dealing with young children.

Moreover, the success of such methods is a direct counter-point to Michael Pearl’s argument that obedience or behavioral change can only be gained by punishing disobedience.

While they shouldn’t be prioritized above other things like encouraging exploration and developing healthy independence, knowing things like coming when called can improve a toddler’s safety (and a mother’s sanity). Young children often need to learn things like not throwing food and to put toys back in the appropriate box. Humane animal training taught me that if you must change someone’s behavior, there are better and kinder ways to do so than pain and fear.

As a young teen, I was very close to my Mom. I was the oldest girl and her right hand. We spent almost all of our time together and had a “best friend”-like relationship. As I explored kinder ways of dealing with my young siblings, I talked with my Mom about those successes and even sometimes confronted her about how I thought she should change her parenting. Shortly after the incident with the fire truck, we tried a simple alternative: we responded to Noah yelling with a gentle, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand your yelling. Can you speak softly?” Speaking normally was rewarded with our best efforts to help him, and yelling (except in cases of an emergency) was ignored or gently prompted to bring the volume down. This worked beautifully without any need to get out the switch. I’m very happy to say that my Mom did make some changes over time, and as an adult with several young siblings still at home, I’m no longer afraid that they might be living through the kinds of physical abuse that occurred when I was younger.

Now? I’m living away from home, and left the quiverful / patriarchy / fundamentalist Christian mindset a long time ago. I have a dog of my own now. This dog comes when called and leaves shoes alone and lets me clip her nails. I don’t need fear or pain to find ways to help her conform to my weird human rules. I want kids someday. I know the old trope that you’re not supposed to know what you’ll do with kids until you actually have them.

Given my background, though, I’m very comfortable stating this: my children will never be beaten into submission or trained to be obedient through fear.

If I find myself in a situation where I must change their behavior – whether because my toddler wants to run into the road or handles frustration by biting people – I know there are ways to accomplish that change that don’t involve switches or wooden spoons.

5 comments

  • Thank you for your sharing your story. My problem with the Pearls has always been their behavioristic approach to child training. That mindset is not Biblical. In my teacher education training at the university in the 1980’s we learned a behavioristic approach to dealing with special needs children and when I read “To Train up a Child” I found their approach similar. They used physical punishment instead of rewards, but the idea is still to control behaviors, not reach the heart. One of the problems with evangelical Christians is we try to conform to a certain image so our families look good around others. Somehow in the midst of all this “looking good” we neglect sin in our lives. Isn’t that what the cross is about?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      My problem with the Pearls has always been their behavioristic approach to child training. That mindset is not Biblical.

      You can actually trace “the behavioristic approach” to this guy:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._F._Skinner

      Real piece of work. Just add a Christianese coat of paint and some Bible-verse Zip Codes.

  • What a brilliant parallel for you to make, the training of children and animals. I am so sorry that you have had to be a part of violent correction in your family; that clearly hurt so much. I like that you are wisely looking for ways to connect and support rather than violently disconnect and harm and in connecting as gently as you can, you achieve more reasonable results. Rue Kream’s book, Parenting a Free Child: An Unschooled Life, is a wonderful support for a sensitive and gifted heart, such as you clearly display in your writing. I would also heartily recommend Norm Lee, John Taylor Gatto, John Holt….. Well, there are so many great thinkers and observers nowadays! My wife just showed me a new book she discovered called, Natural Born Learners and the title came back to me as I read your words here. You have already achieved so much healthy, supportive vision that I am sure you will never use violence against babies or children, should you choose to be a parent someday. My very best wishes and thanks for being who you are!

  • OMG, are you me? I am also an animal lover (even work with them now) who first went to nonviolent animal training and then became convinced that it worked with children also. So much of it is about empathy – with animals you learn to see things through their eyes (knowing roughly what their instincts, physical abilities, primary senses, and desires are) and then you know how to persuade them to do what you need or want, and the same goes for children. In the old days it was a truism that every boy needed a dog and I believe this was why – having pets can teach us so much if we pay attention.

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