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Child corporal punishment: spanking

The pro-spanking position of
authors Debi and Michael Pearl

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We recommend that you first read our introduction to spanking:

We have a companion essay on the anti-spanking position

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About the book and its training techniques:

The Pearls published the book in 1994. 1 It is frequently used by many conservative and sometime mainline Protestants. In her article in Christian Century, reviewer Beth Felker Jones wrote:

"Spanking is nothing less than a mark of orthodoxy for followers of the Pearls, who deem it an necessary means of dealing with sin. They insist that parents who are faithful to Jesus need to hit their children."

"In folksy, friendly style, 'To Train Up a Child' offers techniques that promise to yield happy and obedient children. This promise is a holy grail to tired, frustrated and often isolated parents, who are told that their anger will be eliminated when they follow techniques that produce 'immediately obedient' children. The book also appeals to parents' concern for their reputation -- happy, obedient children will save Mom and Dad the public embarrassment of having intractable children. It's a tempting promise: perfect domestic peace, a kind of Martha Stewart flawlessness reworked for Christian families."

"The Pearls compare children to stubborn animals: both have the same predictable responses to unpleasant stimuli. The book advocates a consistent behaviorism that involves switching a child's bare skin until the child's will is broken. The result? A model child who is completely compliant: a model parent who is a conqueror." 2

Children are prepared for "future, instant, unquestioning obedience."

The book's description on the web site states:

"These truths are not new, deep insights from the professional world of research, rather, the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules, the same technique God uses to train his children." 1

The review also explained:

"This book is not about discipline, nor problem children. The emphasis is on the training of a child before the need to discipline arises. It is apparent that most parents never attempt to train a child to obey. They wait until the child becomes unbearable and then explode. With proper training, discipline can be reduced to 5% of what many now practice. As you come to understand the difference between training and discipline, you will have a renewed vision for your family—no more raised voices, no contention, no bad attitudes, fewer spankings, a cheerful atmosphere in the home, and total obedience from your children." 1

"A couple, stressed out with the conflict of three young children, after spending the weekend with us and hearing some of these principles, changed their strategy. One week later, they exclaimed, 'I can't believe it; we went to a friend's house, and when I told my children to do something, they immediately, without question, obeyed'."

Beth Felker Jones outlines the training techniques:

"The authors advocate tempting an infant by putting an appealing object within reach and compare the object to the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. ... When the child reaches for the object, the parents lash the child. The suggested switch for a four-month-old child is a branch 12 inches long and an eighth of an inch wide. Rulers, belts and tree branches are recommended for older children. In the Pearls' world, crystal bowls, other breakable treasures and even loaded guns can be left around the house because curious toddlers can be trained to 'complete and joyous subjection'." 2

In most jurisdictions, the police take a very dim view of loaded guns left in the open. All or essentially all child protective services would consider whipping a 4 month-old infant a serious form of child abuse.

Jones continues:

"The pursuit of flawless children is a cruel sort of domestic idolatry. Children are a gift from God, not a battlefield. Yet the Pearls tell parents: 'You hold an eternal soul in your hand.'  In an especially disturbing turn, they claim that corporal punishment will absolve the guilt of sin for children who are not old enough to understand substitutionary atonement.

The Pearls cite Proverbs 20:30 -- 'Blows that wound cleans away evil' -- as justification for hurting a child. Ironically this text has traditionally been read as a reference to the wounds of Christ -- not to any human effort -- as the only means of cleansing." 2

'Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney, UK wrote about the book in the British newspaper The Guardian:'

"... there remain those determined to turn back the clock. 'We are told that in England it is a crime to spank children,' writes Debbi Pearl from No Greater Joy Ministries, following a row that has erupted over the distribution of their literature in the UK. 'Therefore Christians are not able to openly obey God in regard to biblical chastisement. They are in danger of having the state steal their children'." 3

"The Pearls are evangelical Christians who believe corporal punishment is 'doing it God's way.' With a mailing list of tens of thousands of parents, the Pearls say that the justification for their approach is in scripture: 'He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes'." 4

"Chastening begins early. 'For the under-one-year-old, a little, 10- to 12-inch long, willowy branch (stripped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient,' writes Michael Pearl. With older children he advises: 'After a short explanation about bad attitudes and the need to love, patiently and calmly apply the rod to his backside. Somehow, after eight or 10 licks, the poison is transformed into gushing love and contentment. The world becomes a beautiful place. A brand-new child emerges. It makes an adult stare at the rod in wonder, trying to see what magic is contained therein'."

"... as evangelicals, the Pearls believe that salvation only comes through punishment and pain. God punishes his Son with crucifixion so that humanity might not have to face the Father's anger. This image of God the father, for whom violence is an expression of tough love, is lodged deep in the evangelical imagination. And it twists a religion of forgiveness and compassion into something dark and cruel."

horizontal rule customer reviews:

Amazon encourages its customers to write brief reviews of their books. The ratings range from 1 star (the poorest rating) to 5 stars (the highest). As of 2007-MAY-12, there were 644 reviews. Almost all of the ratings were 1 star -- by those who hated the book -- or 5 stars -- by those who loved it. The former were far more numerous. The average rating was 2, an unusually low value.

Some comments:

bullet "A boy in NC died because his parents followed certain teachings of the Pearls. ... Babies should not be hit. I'm sure they mean well, but this is not the only way to 'Train' your children. If you are going to read it please do so cautiously and prayerfully."
bullet "I grieve for any world where striking an infant, who is so wholly helpless and dependant on their caregivers, is ever OK. Some people read the book and overlook those most offensive bits, and others see nothing but those words."
bullet "I have watched so many children go wild. My wife and I read this book several years ago and it has GREATLY helped us raise our children. We actually have control of our children and they do what we say. Imagine that!! "
bullet "... not often in this current era do I find a text about child-rearing so completely and utterly archaic and ridiculous. The Pearls do not hold any professional qualifications to write child-rearing text or give anyone any advice about how a child should be reared...oh, sorry,...trained (as in a dog or mule?)."
bullet "Parents are instructed to whip their infants daily for no reason to teach them submissiveness from the very start of life. ... They encourage parents to whip their children 10 times several times a day starting at 3 months old. This makes me so sad and sick."
bullet "In a society where we raise spoiled, self-centered children and adults, I do not expect this book to be well-received. ... When will America realize that we are only hurting our children when we allow them to 'freely express' themselves. That's why we have drug addicts, rampant teenage pregnancy, and endless violence."
bullet [To] those who have children and have no understanding or desire to understand the real needs and natural development of children, these people give you an easy answer to how to discipline. Drill them with dog training-like commands, and when that fails, hit them with a "rod." Don't worry, it's OK. It's in the Old Testament." 1

'(Grammar spelling and punctuation corrected)'

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About the authors:

According to

"Michael Pearl has been a pastor, missionary, and evangelist for 35 years. He and his wife Debi have 5 children, all homeschooled. The children have grown up to become missionaries and church leaders. Though holding a B.S. from Crighton College, when Michael is asked for his credentials on child training he points to his five children." 1

Michael & Debi Pearl published "To Train Up a Child" in August 1994. By mid 1999, over 250,000 copies were in print. Then the Pearls started publishing the newsletter, "No Greater Joy," to address the many questions received in the mail each day. Due to the demand for back-issues the newsletter articles were then put in book form titled: "No Greater Joy" Three volumes were published by 1999.

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References used:

  1. Michael & Debi Pearl, "To Train Up a Child," No Greater Joy Ministries, (1994). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

  2. Beth Felker Jones, "Christian child abuse: Spanking away sin," Christian Century, 2007-MAY-01, page 8 & 9.

  3. Giles Fraser, "Suffer little children: US evangelists are twisting the Bible to say that beating the young is a Christian doctrine," The Guardian, 2006-JUN-08. Online at:

  4. Proverbs 13:24.

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Copyright 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Sections from the article by Beth Felker Jones are copyright 2007 by the CHRISTIAN CENTURY.
Reproduced by permission from the 2007-MAY-01 issue of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097.
Originally posted: 2007-MAY-12
Latest update: 2007-MAY-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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