Why I would fail Michael and Debi Pearl’s parenting class

I read a very disturbing post on Patheos by a woman named Libby Anne who grew up with parents who were influenced by the parenting philosophy of Michael and Debi Pearl. The Pearls are very popular in the homeschooling world; they could be described as an extreme version of Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson. The idea is that your most important task as a parent is to break the will of your child so that they will be obedient. My four-year old Isaiah is a very strong-willed child, and I often let him get his way, so I would fail Michael and Debi Pearl’s parenting class if I were taking it.

I. Hope’s story

Libby Anne shares the following passage from Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child which represents his core assumption about how parenting is supposed to work:

Be Assured of Two Things

First, almost every small child will have at least one time in his life when he will rebel against authority and attempt to take hold of the reins…. This act of stubbornness is profound—amazing—a wonder that one so young could be so dedicated and persevering in rebellion. It is the kind of determination you would expect to find in a hardened revolutionary facing enemy indoctrination classes. Parents who are trained to expect it, and are prepared to persevere, will still be awed at the strength of the small child’s will.

Second, if you are consistent in training, this attempt at total dominance will come only once in a child’s life, usually around two years old. If you win the confrontation, the child wins the game of character development. If you weaken and allow the child to dominate, the child loses everything but his will to dominate. You must persevere for the sake of the child. His will to dominate must be dominated by the rule of law (that’s you.)

Based on this assumption about what parents are supposed to do with stubborn children, Libby Anne’s parents got into a standoff with her little sister Hope when she was 18 months old. Hope had just learned how to say “peez” before getting a bite of food, so her parents wanted to train her in this basic foundation of table etiquette by prompting her to say “peez” each time they fed her.

Well one night, she refused to say it, and her parents said uh oh, this is the decisive moment when we’re supposed to break her will, so they didn’t give her any food that night. Later when her mother prepared a bottle of milk for her for bedtime, she asked Hope to say “peez” but she wouldn’t do it. So she didn’t give her the milk. The next day, there was no “peez” either so Hope’s older siblings were panicked. They tried really hard to get her to say it. Finally she said something like “peez” that night so she got a six ounce bottle of milk. The next day, there was no “peez” either which meant no food or drink. Libby Anne shares:

By this time, my parents were becoming extremely concerned about the situation. In some sense, they were stuck. They believed, based on the Pearls, that if they gave in and gave Hope food or a bottle they would be allowing her to conquer them—they would be submitting their will to hers rather than the other way around. The Pearls teach that even giving in once—just once—will set back everything that had been gained and even threaten to ruin the child forever.

That night, Libby Anne’s mother had a dream that Hope had died. She decided the dream was from God, so she gave her daughter food and drink and the story had a somewhat happy ending. They kept on parenting with the same philosophy of dominating the child’s will, but they never again did anything that threatened the physical health of their children.

II. Isaiah the emperor of the universe

My four year old son Isaiah is the emperor of the universe. His need to control what other people do is at a much higher level than other kids his age. It’s genuinely pathological, perhaps some variation of OCD. He breaks into tears if I drive the “wrong” route home from his occupational therapy appointment.

We have a very specific and exhausting bedtime routine that includes a piggy back ride through at least three rooms in the house and then throwing his blankets on top of him one by one so that they cover his face. He keeps on trying to add elements to the bedtime routine like pretending he’s a rock under his blankets that I accidentally trip over because I did it once and he thought it was hilarious, so now it has to happen every freaking night.

He is also an extremely picky eater. If we tell him something is for dinner that he doesn’t like (i.e. everything except cheese and peanut butter), he says, “I don’t want dessert,” because he knows that he won’t get dessert without dinner.

We have tried with varying degrees of effort over the past couple of years to set good boundaries for him. He and I had a battle of wills over chicken nuggets about a year ago. It had nothing to do with whether he said please or not. I’d just had enough of him only eating cheese and peanut butter so I decided that the chicken nuggets he didn’t eat for dinner would be his only option for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next day. They got pretty nasty after a while. I can’t remember who won the battle. I had a running commentary on Facebook.

Lately, I’ve been lazy. When I have to be in charge of dinner, I just give him what he wants pretty much. When he said he didn’t want dessert because we were having chicken on Monday night, I didn’t want him to be hungry so I told him I would give him a peanut butter or cheese sandwich but he still wasn’t going to get dessert since he didn’t eat what was offered. He said he wanted both peanut butter and cheese on the sandwich at the same time, and furthermore, he wanted chocolate peanut butter. I guess I shouldn’t admit that I agreed to that; I’m not sure why I did. He got it all over himself, but at least he was eating outside.

On Tuesday nights, we take my older son Matthew to gymnastics. It’s become a ritual to run holding hands back and forth across a metal sheet that’s about 30 yards long. Well, it started raining so I dropped Matthew off at the door and went to park the car. Of course Isaiah didn’t care that it was raining. He wanted to run on the “bwidge.” I’ve always been somebody who thinks that umbrellas are silly because a light rain is actually somewhat pleasant, so I ran on the “bwidge” with him.

When Matthew was done, we came outside and it was raining even harder. Again, no raincoats or umbrellas. My car was parked a lot closer to us than the “bwidge” was. For a second, I thought about doing the reasonable thing, but both Matthew and Isaiah hollered, so we went and ran on the “bwidge” anyway and got pretty wet as a result. And yet when they wanted me to drive over to the train station and park for ten minutes to wait for the train to go past, I put my foot down and they only whined for a minute or two about it. I think what I’ve decided is that I’ll accommodate my emperor son’s wishes as long as it’s something I enjoy doing anyway.

This past December, I felt differently. I was tired of Isaiah being bossy, so after we went on the Santa train and he wanted to climb around on one of the cabooses by the train station, I said, “No! We’re leaving!” not because we didn’t have time or I didn’t want to, but simply because I wanted to force him to learn how to cope with not getting his way, He cried for 20 minutes. I felt terrible. I even drove by the caboose to see it as a consolation but there was no consoling him.

It didn’t work for me as a daddy to contradict him for the sole purpose of breaking his will when there wasn’t any reason other than that to refuse his request. So I decided from then on that I would honor his requests to do things like drive on the roller coaster road, go through the tunnel (the bank drive-thru), etc. as long as they weren’t a major inconvenience to me or create socially awkward situations.

III. What’s the difference?

I think what creates the fundamental difference I have with James Dobson, the Pearls, and other conservative evangelical homeschooling world parenting gurus (bracketing aside the question of corporal punishment) is that obedience is not my only goal in parenting and rebellion is not the only paradigm for which I understand the nature of my child. I believe that children have a worshipful nature that adults have lost partly because we’re overly obedient to a ton of different social influences and expectations that have evaporated our spirit.

Obedience isn’t my goal for my sons. It’s inspiration, which is a different way of framing obedience. Inspiration means literally to be “breathed into.” To be inspired by God means you have to listen for God and be willing to do what You hear Him say, so it really is obedience, but it’s submission to a God who speaks in a still small voice and allowed Himself to be represented by a Son who submitted to our sin on the cross. That’s different than wilting under the fierce totalitarianism of a father who wants to be known for laying down the law above else.

I want my sons to worship God so organically that their lives look like Jesus’ depiction of inspired life in John 3:8: “The windblows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

This is not to say that I want them to be self-indulgent. That’s a very shallow, unimaginative way of living. I just don’t want them to deny themselves on account of feeling like they’re supposed to prove to a cruel slave-master Father that they put Him first, because that’s what makes people into bitter Pharisees like the older brother of the prodigal son (Luke 15:29). I want my sons to choose the rich beautiful mystery of letting God breathe His vision into their lives because they are inspired by the beauty of God’s kingdom.

My hope is that running across the “bwidge” in the rain with them now will lay the groundwork for a relationship of trust in the many kingdom-seeking adventures we will have together in the future. I do need to set better boundaries for my sons when my laziness is what’s getting in the way as opposed to a genuine open-mindedness. But I’ve decided I really am okay with being a reject as a parent according to the approach of Michael and Debi Pearl.

18 thoughts on “Why I would fail Michael and Debi Pearl’s parenting class

  1. Morgan, I don’t mean to alarm you, but my son has Asperger’s syndrome, and his behavior at that age was much like your son’s. But that’s irrelevant to the post. The Pearls are contemptible.

  2. Children aren’t dogs who have to be housebroken, nor adults who have the capacity to guide themselves. Best book on parenting I’ve read is “How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk.” Completely changed the way we raise our three boys.

    BTW – Thanks for representin’ on huffpo this week. Your article on complimentarian culture in the church was dead-on.

    – Brent (fellow UM Associate Pastor)

  3. When it comes to eating, what we ended up doing was leaving their food on the table and if they wanted a snack later, that’s what they get. Often, they end up eating it. The younger one even says now when he’s done, “if I want to eat later, you’ll leave this here for me”. It’s still frustrating though, because they always want SNACKS, not meals!

  4. The idea of breaking wills breaks my heart. It makes me wonder what these guys think composes the “will”. Parenting should be about shaping the will and guiding the will. I want to shape my daughter’s will to delight in God and to enjoy a fundamental part of the image of God – creativity. Honestly, I find my own will needs to be reshaped just as much or more than hers.

    Will must be some sort of combination of appetite, memory, and reason. It might be some sort of appetite of the intellect or something else. This means that it is formed and shaped by appetite and memory or even the strain of thought that we are engaged in. It takes creativity to even begin to mold this will intentionally, and quite a bit of molding occurs on the side lines. It also means that my will is involved in the process by learning who she is, by engaging in mutually enjoyed play, by eating chicken nuggets and running over bridges with my daughter. How else can I learn to listen to her? How else can I get to know her? How else can I have a relationship with her?

    I think there can be dangerous power dynamics with in relationships. All intimate relationships remake our wills into something else. We cannot stay the same after engaging in a truly intimate relationship. With my wife, I am still having to learn how to communicate and live and adapt as part of a team. All of that is changing in my life, and even considering marriage as a choice to submit to a corporate will over and even against things that I may desire, it has been a positive transformation. Parenthood is less of a choice. We either get a kid or not on our own time or not, and when that kid gets here we have no idea who they are or what they are going to become. Yet here is another relationship that will transform us. We do not even have a choice. In the relationship I have with my daughter, I am truly at God’s whim and Jane’s whim, and I will be for the rest of my life.

    Even as I shape her will, I am shaped, and even though I sometimes strive against it, I’m glad.

    I’ll admit, 1 year and 2 months might not give me any practical wisdom to share. Jane is definitely hard headed, a trait I gave a fair share of my genes to, but I can tell you already this crazy thing called parenthood has destroyed and remade parts of my self image and will. And I’m ecstatic about it! I have experienced more eudaimonia or blessedness or happiness in the last year and two months than in my entire life together, and I’ve always had a lot of fun. Praise the Lord! My will is getting changed! I wish the Pearl’s had that attitude. It makes things a lot more fun!

  5. Was far stricter with first child than with the fifth. (The oldest thinks we let the youngest get away with murder.) All are grown (21 to 33) and all are great unique people. Our four boys are all happy and successful in business together. Our daughter has our two grandsons and is successful in her business. (Wouldn’t believe how laid back I am with grandkids 😉 ) Long view is that love with guidance as needed is better than a heavy hand and confrontations.

    • I was definitely harder on my older one than my younger one at first, but I’m trying to get better know that the younger one knows better.

  6. 🙂 SO enjoyed this! I fed my middle child the chicken nuggets he demanded for an entire year to have that blessed one hour of peace during family dinner! To this day he speaks of how Momma “avoided the middle child syndrome” (two older brothers and twin bro/sis younger) by making him feel so special. Some day I’ll reveal I was totally being selfish!

    • Yeah it’s funny how when we’re kids, we can’t imagine that our parents would have their own ulterior motives for the choices they make.

  7. I was astounded at the “logic” employed in the examples posted above. But then, I was fortunate enough to pick up a tract by an unknown writer, addressed to expectant fathers.

    As best I remember what was written, it went like this: “Just realize as the father – or mother, of this child coming into your life that you have signed on for five years to teach your dear one how to act in public with others. It will not always be easy, but if you do what is being asked of you, the rewards will exceed your greatest expectation.

    It might help that you discuss this matter with your parents; ask them how you behaved and ask them if was difficult to bring you around to their way of thinking and behaving. You may discover that you were – in fact, a troubled child and they had to employ many different methods to win you over to their way of thinking. But the truth of the matter is this, they were successful, made evident by the fact you are taking the time to read this pamphlet.

    There is a saying – “Love conquers all”. It is factual. Love your child and help them to discover the benefits of acting properly. And when there are problems, take the child in your arms and remind them of how much you love them and the benefits of doing things the right way from the start.

    You might even be amazed by the fact that your investments in their proper behavior from the start are now paying huge dividends.

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