Michael Pearl’s Advice is Child Abuse (According to His Own Definition)

By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

Hypocrisy occurs when someone claims to have moral standards or beliefs to which their own behavior does not conform. If I tell you that treating your child with respect is important, and then instruct you to disrespect your child, I am a hypocrite.

Michael Pearl is a hypocrite.

This matters a whole lot because ever since high-profile cases of child murder like Sean Paddock, Lydia Schatz, and Hana Williams were linked to Pearl’s teachings, he has repeatedly claimed that those children’s parents did not follow his teachings correctly — that what those children’s parents did “is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of No Greater Joy Ministries.” They misinterpreted. They took it to the extreme. They were abusive, whereas he makes clear you should not abuse.

But Michael Pearl says one thing and then instructs parents to do another. Let me give you an example. This is from Pearl’s September 2001 article “In Defense of Biblical Chastisement, Part 2,” under the section, “When is it abuse?”:

If your child is broken in spirit, cowed and subdued, you have a problem.

This seems pretty straightforward — and in line with Pearl’s claim that there is a line between legitimate child training and child abuse. The standards are simple: if your child training results in your child being cowed and subdued, you have a problem. The problem? You are abusing your child. Hence this section being titled, “When is it abuse?” No Greater Joy Ministries itself lifts up this article as proof that the Pearls condemn child abuse.

Here is the catch: Michael Pearl gives the very opposite instructions elsewhere. This is from Pearl’s July 1998 article “Angry Child,” an article that addresses how to spank a so-called “angry child”:

I could break his anger in two days. He would be too scared to get angry. On the third day he would draw into a quiet shell and obey.

This also seems pretty straightforward. Michael Pearl proclaims his own self-mastery of godly child training: in two days, he can take the angriest of children and render them (1) “scared” and (2) “drawn into a quiet shell.”

Let us go back to Pearl’s definition of child abuse:

If your child is broken in spirit, cowed and subdued, you have a problem.

What does “cowed” mean? It means “scared.”

What does “subdued” mean? It means “drawn into a quiet shell.”

The very things that Pearl says are indicators of abuse are the very things Pearl says are the signs that one has mastered his techniques.

Let me give you another example. In the aforementioned “Biblical Chastisement” article, Pearl says:

You are abusing the child when it starts doing harm to the child.

Again, this is straightforward. Child training crosses the line into child abuse when you are causing damage to your child.

Now look at Pearl’s advice in the “Angry Child” article:

A proper spanking leaves children without breath to complain. If he should tell you that the spanking makes him madder, spank him again. If he is still mad…. He desperately needs an unswayable authority, a cold rock of justice.

Yet again, this is straightforward. Godly child training, or “a proper spanking” as Pearl says, “leaves children without breath.”

I do not mean to get super scientific, but (1) there are no lungs in the human buttocks and (2) breathing comes naturally to a healthy child. Pain inflicted on the human buttocks will therefore only disrupt a child’s intake of oxygen by spiking the child’s stress hormones to a literally traumatic level. That is to say: to spank your child to the point that they cannot take in oxygen, you have to cause nervous system dysregulation. You must overwhelm the child’s brain with pain to the point that the brain’s ability to perform normal human functions — like breathing — become disintegrated. This is why trauma is accompanied by breathing difficulties.

If you are spanking a child to the point that they cannot breathe, you are literally harming their brain. Furthermore, you are potentially disrupting many other aspect of the child’s development. While humans in general have a need for oxygen, children are particularly in need of it. The World Health Organization notes this:

Children have a dynamic physiology that is not only turned up to “high” because of growth demands, but also vulnerable to damage during differentiation and maturation of organs and systems. Their needs for energy, water and oxygen are higher, because they go through an intense anabolic process… Children breathe more air per kilogram of body weight than adults at rest… An infant has three times the minute ventilation of an adult and a 6-year-old has double.

Let us assume, simply for the sake of argument, that spanking your child with a “cold rock of justice” is not child abuse in itself. Let us assume, simply for the sake of argument, that spanking your child repeatedly — never stopping until your child submits because Michael Pearl says in To Train Up a Child that “If you stop before he is voluntarily submissive, you have confirmed to him the value and effectiveness of a screaming protest” (p. 80) — does not cause rhambdolysis (Lydia Schatz’s cause of death). Even assuming those two points, we are still left with the fact that spanking your child until they cannot breathe does physical harm to your child.

When does Pearl say child training turns to child abuse? “When it starts doing harm to the child.”

What does Pearl say child training must do? “Leaves children without breath.”

The very things that Pearl says are indicators of abuse are the very things Pearl says are the signs that one has mastered his techniques.

Michael Pearl’s advice is child abuse according to his own definition.

17 comments

  • And the doublespeak used in clever fashion by a sick abuser says that hatred is actually love. You must crush all resistance in a child, break their evil will of resistance and give them up to God, free (sic) of sinful ways.

    Michael and his wife are dangerous, very important icons of the modern, patriarchal, Christian fundamentalist in the United States. America has long been a dangerous, religiously extreme country, a vile abuser of children, so much so that it remains legal in America to harm your child physically through spanking, while all over the civilized world it has been banned. And Christianity (and all fundamentalist religion) is the primary fodder of emotional damage done to human beings: I was spanked, they cry and look at me! Look at how healthy I am! So it is that sick men become leaders like Michael Pearl, like Doug Wilson (who says he needed to be hit as a child and laughs at those who challenge this basic disrespect of children.)

    Listen, dear gentle Pearl follower: I heartily disagree with Pearl and in my heart I would like to beat him down in the same fashion he uses on little children and beat him again and again until he learned to shut his mouth. I feel that but I also know that it is unwise to live out hatred to prove love. I know this because of human experience, because I have been loved in my life. I am not a Christian, not a believer but I know it is wrong to simply beat people down into submission. It is stupid and demonstrates only that the bully is a harmed human being who must pass on their misery all the days of their lives.

    Patriarchy and Christian patriarchy codifies this harm and says it is straight from God. The Pearls and Wilsons et al know that it takes a village to raise a child in love. What a lovely statement for Sunday sermon. The truth of the statement though is doublespeak at work. It takes a village to rape a child’s spirit for good (sic). It takes a village of silent people in pews who know that a pastor abuses and ‘give’ it to God, who stand behind the authority of the church rather than beside an abused church member, who remain quiet and afraid and ‘saved’ from condemnation. Until Christianity can respect people, publicly respect women and children, it remains fundamentally flawed.

    • Brian, you’ve said it beautifully. All words have to be twisted and given new meanings for Pearl’s “logic” to make sense. Your words cut right through his knotted deceptions.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      And the doublespeak used in clever fashion by a sick abuser says that hatred is actually love.

      WAR IS PEACE
      FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
      IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
      — Three slogans of The Party, G.Orwell, 1984

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I cannot get over Pearl’s appearance with the Long White Beard.

    Like he’s auditioning for Gandalf or the artistic convention of God Almighty.

  • Only somewhat related question: I remember my parents used to believe that it was abuse when they hit us in anger, but discipline at any other time… anyone have any clue whether that was a Pearl thing, or whether that was some other abusive crackpot? I’d look myself, but I can’t spend long on the Pearls’ without having panic attacks. :/

    • The “spanking in anger leads to abuse” thing is definitely in the Pearls’ material. Though it’s in just about all the pro-spanking evangelical child training materials, including Fugate’s, Tripp’s, Bradley’s, etc.

      • Thanks, Ryan!

        It’s a little weird to me that so many people wanted to be so different from “The World” that they re-defined abuse so drastically. One would imagine that they’d just intuitively know that leaving bruises is wrong. I really wonder whether their fear of losing the culture wars outweighed their intuition.

    • Salome, like you, I deeply appreciate R. L. Stollar’s focus in this matter. His ability to share his research leads to much that is worthwhile for all of us! Thank-you, Ryan.
      I wanted to suggest to you that your parents, I think like mine, regarded ‘discipline’ as necessary in their faith-walk, but my mom used to hit a lot in anger while my dad always avoided that conflict for him, and would try to settle my mom rather than take her lead and chase us with whatever was handy.
      When I was 20, I felt that hitting (‘reasonable’ hitting) was okay IF it was accompanied by an equal amount of positive touch, hugging and caring. It seemed to me then that everybody hit kids now and again. After another while, I began to feel that any hitting was simply wrong and was done for the hitter and not the child. Another decade on, that doubled my feeling that all hitting is not only wrong but abusive. At plus-sixty years, I weep at the thought that an adult human being, especially one who uses the name of Christ in their life, would ever consider raising a hand to strike a child for ANY reason but to rescue them away from something extremely dangerous, a vicious dog or runaway vehicle. Any other hitting is basically abusive.
      Regarding strategy, I am sure that adults who hit children do so because they too were abused and it has nothing to do with planning. Intuition is magic, bullshit by any honest evaluation.

      • Oh, they definitely regarded it as a necessary part of their faith walk. But I think that it was also their fear that we’d fuck up, and not be the perfect kids and the perfect cookie cutter family, because HSLDA and the homeschooling community said that homeschoolers had to be the most winsome, thoughtful, fiery culture warriors we could be OR ELSE EVERYONE WOULD HATE HOMESCHOOLERS AND WE’D LOSE OUR RIGHTS OMG. I remember a lot of times my mom punished us/got mad at us/screamed at us when we had done nothing wrong, but had questioned her or voiced a complaint in front of other people.

        My mom periodically went through moods in which she seemed to come to her senses and feel a lot of guilt (but she never did repent, if I may use Christian terminology, and now she doesn’t seem to remember that anything happened). I just… I happen to know that my mom was really vulnerable at the time (because my mom made me what my counselor terms “an emotional spouse”), and I wonder if the Pearls and the Ezzos and Beautiful Girlhood and the Andreolas and all the homeschooler ideology fed into that and offered her a promise she couldn’t refuse. IDK.

  • This is an excellent analysis. I’ve wanted someone to break this down for years.

  • I know you did not intend it literally, but we should *never* assume that extended spanking doesn’t cause rhabdomyolysis. There have been at least two confirmed rhabdomyolysis deaths in children disciplined by the Pearls’ methods. It is dangerous and reason in itself to ban their teachings.

    • Which is why if we lived in a country where justice actually existed, Michael Pearl would be charged as an accessory to murder. Alas, we do not….

  • YourWorshipfulness

    I think I would find it much more upsetting to be hit ‘in cold blood’ rather than in anger. Maybe it’s just me, but the idea that someone controlled themselves, walked away, mastered their emotions, and then still decided to come back and physically punish me for something–that’s like some weird sociopathic mindset.

    • Things were said to me in a “calm” and “reasonable” way by my teachers that I found much more upsetting to me in the long term than the one time that, in anger and in fright, my dad accidentally cut off my breathing as he restrained me to prevent me from hurting myself. Most people would assume that the latter would have a more devastating impact on me (I don’t know about other people) than being told, very calmly, that you are self-centered and that you shouldn’t cry (ever, I assumed they meant) because it’s not good self-control. Also, the bit about crying might seem reasonable to a normal person until you consider that “out of control” in the lexicon I knew, meant “if you do this as an adult, you could get put in a mental institution”. Not to mention I was in the middle of puberty when I got told this, and it is very normal for 10 to 12 year old girls to cry over extremely minor things due to raging hormones. Ultimately, this single declaration made me so disgusted with crying that I suppressed any tears I cried over sad movies, and also, I suspect that I reacted worse to stress due to the fact that I believed that if a roommate caught me crying, they could have me put away, and if you are caught crying on a job for any reason other than a tragedy, and possibly even then, you could be fired. It took a college professor being gentle with me when i cried to make me question this. As for the “self-centered” comment, it was based on the fact that I did not react well to criticism at the time, partly due to autism, but partly because I had heard I was wrong in so many ways that I couldn’t bear to be wrong again. Oddly enough, my dad actually was more upset in the long term by his lashing out than I was.
      Also, in a way it does not make sense to say that spanking calmly is even possible, because spanking is an assault on the senses that is just as great as being yelled at. In fact, I like to call spanking “yelling with an open hand” and you could just as easily say that the Pearl’s definition of spanking, which should be called beating, is “yelling (even louder) with an object”.

      • Of course, the kind of “yelling” that spanking is is like having gibberish or generic accusations of badness yelled at you, rather than a specific insult that cuts to the heart. Spanking or yelling relatively meaningless or generic phrases can drive the wounds in deeper, though, and is often accompanied by emotional abuse.

      • Of course, when I say “yelling with an open hand, I don’t mean the kind of open hand that is a symbol of peace and generosity, but rather a slapping open hand.

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