Robert B. Simpson: Children at risk

November 24, 2013 

By now, it is clear that the three children shared several factors in common: They were quite young -- Hana Williams was 13, Lydia Schatz was 7, and Sean Paddock was 4 -- and they were all adopted. Each was being home schooled. Each was being brought up by parents who followed the child-rearing guidance of a Christian fundamentalist preacher with no formal training in child development. They had all been brutalized. And they are all dead.

Michael Pearl and his wife Debi Pearl run a non-profit organization called No Greater Joy. The organization reportedly takes in more than $1.5 million a year from the sale of various items such as books, CDs and DVDs and from donations. The Pearls claim they take no cut and that this money goes to support their ministry. I have found no evidence that this is not true.

Almost 20 years ago, the Pearls wrote and self-published a book called To Train Up a Child. While there is no official proof of the sales they claim, well over half a million, it is clear that they have given the books to churches and other religious organizations and have shipped some of them to military personnel around the world.

Apparently drawing from Old Testament sources and his own self-validated parenting techniques, Michael Pearl advocates physical punishment for children starting as early as six months. This includes switching bare legs and pulling their hair. The idea, as I gather from reading excerpts, is not to set an example and provide encouragement to the child so much as it is to pound the emerging personality into submission. On page 46 of his book, Pearl advises parents "If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring, and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally … A general rule is to continue the disciplinary action until the child has surrendered."

No, this is not a joke. This is his sincere advice, with dozens of similar vicious bits sprinkled through the text. And the best tool to use? Plastic plumbing tubing, available at most hardware stores. A short section of this, he says, should be pre-positioned in every room, as well as in all your vehicles. That way, you are ready at a moment's notice to beat a child who dares to deviate from your rules. A special advantage of the plastic tubing is that it is too light, he claims, to cause permanent tissue or bone damage, and it is unlikely to leave marks to be noticed by nosy acquaintances or child protective services.

Not only must you force the child into a submissive, compliant, passive nature, but you should set traps to cause him or her to deviate from your rules and then inflict punishment. Put an attractive but forbidden object in the child's sight, then pounce and punish when the child goes for it.

Here are some random samples of the Pearls' child-rearing wisdom. When a child screams, "Never threaten and never show mercy. One squeak of a scream gets a switching." "Rebellion and self-will should be broken in the six-month-old when it first appears." For a little girl who won't get into her car seat, take the seat into the house and strap the child in it "for two or three hours." Of the description of a baby being repeatedly whipped on the hand for pushing away unwanted food, Michael Pearl says, "I loved it. It was beautiful."

I know there are differences of opinion regarding physical punishment of children, and I have no wish to engage in that discussion. I would hope there are no differences of opinion regarding child abuse, torture, and outright criminal acts inflicted upon small children. I also know there are different interpretations of the Bible and its teachings, and as I am no theologian, I will pass on that discussion, too. But I have to wonder: How can these two nut cases claim the mantle of Christian leadership while ignoring the central idea of mercy propounded by the one whose title they appropriate, the one who said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me"?

And even in a society large portions of which readily swallow the most egregious nonsense as long as it appears, unsupported, on a computer screen, I have to wonder, how can you turn for guidance to the rantings of a madman, simply because he calls himself a Christian, in the care of the most precious treasures in your life?

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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