Yesterday I began to look at Michael Pearl’s To Train Up a Child (click here to read it). My interest in this book is based in part on its popularity and in part on the way in which it very clearly highlights how faulty foundational beliefs will lead to faulty actions. In the first part of the review I showed that Pearl advocates a particular method of training children and that he distinguishes this training from discipline. Today I want to show you that much of his technique flows out of his denial of a key Christian doctrine.
The Innocent Child
Pearl denies the doctrine of original sin and thus believes that children have no need to be justified and, further, until they are older cannot be justified. This puts him radically at odds with the vast majority of Evangelical Christians. Let me show you what he denies and what he believes in its place.
As Pearl lays the groundwork for the book, he says that his training is a reflection of the way God trains his people. He goes to the Garden of Eden and says that this was God’s training ground for humanity. “When God wanted to ‘train’ his first two children not to touch, He did not place the forbidden object out of their reach. Instead, He placed the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ in ‘the midst of the garden’ (Gen. 3:3).” He teaches that the tree was located in the middle of the garden so that it would be a constant temptation; with more visibility would come more opportunity for training by temptation. It was a “moral factory” meant to produce character.
It was the language of “training ground” along with some other scattered words and phrases that made me begin to wonder what Pearl believes about the spiritual state of children. I visited his web site’s “What We Believe” section to find important clarifying information. There he says,
We believe that man was created in the span of a twenty-four hour period. He was created perfect physically and constitutionally, including the moral and spiritual essence. Man, though complete and entire, wanting nothing, was, in his innocence, without character. The tree of knowledge of good and evil, a moral testing ground, was, in the wisdom of God, the perfect opportunity for spiritual development. The natural constitution of man (desire for food, etc.) became the basis for temptation. In the eating of the tree, the willful and direct disobedience to God resulted in legal estrangement from God and precipitated the curse of death on Adam and all his descendants.
He holds, then, that Adam and Eve were created sinless but with unformed character. The purpose of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was to test them and provide them a context for spiritual development. The statement of faith goes on to say this: “When a descendant of Adam reaches a level of moral understanding (sometime in his youth) he becomes fully, personally accountable to God and has sin imputed to him, resulting in the peril of eternal damnation” and later, “When man reaches his state of moral accountability, and, by virtue of his personal transgression, becomes blameworthy, his only hope is a work of grace by God alone.”
This brings all kinds of clarity to his training technique. He believes that children are born sinless and unformed just as Adam and Eve were. Their younger years are a context for spiritual development that allows the parents to train them for when they become personally accountable to God somewhere around their early teens. Any “bad” things they do in these early years are not actually sinful since they are not truly opposed to God. They are still bad, but only as measured against a standard lower than God’s. Supposing that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was placed in the Garden as a test that would provide Adam and Eve a context for spiritual development, and seeing that they fell after facing a temptation that appealed to their natural constitution, he encourages parents to do the very same thing, to create a moral testing ground and to face children with what most naturally appeals to them.
According to the implications of what Pearl believes about a child’s spiritual state, your task as a parent is to condition your child to avoid behaviors that will be sin once he is able to sin. You form him in this pre-sin state to sin as seldom as possible once he is actually able to sin and place himself under God’s judgment. Training is what a parent does until the child develops that moral understanding that then makes him personally, spiritually accountable to God.
I did a little bit of digging and found a very helpful analysis of Pearl’s teaching through the book of Romans. In that series he makes it clear what is implied in the book—that he does not believe in original sin, which is to say, he does not believe that children are born into this world with a sinful nature. When he says that the curse was precipitated upon Adam and his descendants, he is referring only to physical death; Adam has passed death to his descendants, but not sin. Therefore children are born into this world unformed, sinless and unaccountable to God, at least until they mature. This all differs radically from what the Bible teaches—that Adam’s sin is imputed to every one of us so that each one of us is born into this world in a fallen state and as a rebel against God.
Why do I belabor this point? Not only because Pearl denies what the vast majority of Evangelical Christians hold to, always something to make note of, but because this unbiblical belief is absolutely foundational to his child-rearing technique. The technique he teaches reflects this unbiblical view of humanity’s sinfulness. Understand this: If you heed Pearl’s counsel, you are following a technique that denies the sinfulness of your children and their need to be justified by the work of Christ. It passes by their hearts in order to condition their behavior.
At this point we have seen that Pearl wants parents to train their children and we’ve seen that this comes in the context of children who are not yet morally accountable. Yet children are not perfect; after all, they disobey their parents. What is to be done with a disobedient child? Pearl teaches that disobedience necessitates the rod of correction, yet he holds that the rod is not merely corrective but also redemptive.
The Redemptive Rod
Though according to Pearl young children are not morally accountable before God, this does not exempt them from guilt. Guilt is the consequence that comes when someone sees how he has failed to live up to a certain standard and “judges himself to be worthy of blame.” Pearl describes it well as “the soul’s pain … designed to give us warning, and a strong signal to change our action.” Guilt does more than make us feel emotion—it also cries out for a response: “The guilt-burdened soul cries out for the lashes and nails of justice. That is why the soul of man never rests until the conscience has been purged by a believing look at the bleeding, crucified Lamb. … Christians find release from the guilt through the Savior who suffered the curse of their sins…”
Well and good as it pertains to adults, but what of children who, by Pearl’s understanding of human nature, cannot be Christians until they have reached the necessary level of moral accountability. They will still feel guilt, but there is a problem: Guilt “is never in itself restorative.” Children will feel guilt for the actions that have defied their parents and will want to be absolved of that sin. But they “cannot yet understand that the Creator has been lashed and nailed in their place.” Since there is no gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection for children, Pearl teaches the gospel of the father’s rod. “Parents need not wait until their children are old enough to understand the vicarious death of Christ to purge their children of guilt. God has provided parents with a tool to cleanse their children of guilt—the rod of correction.” When your child does something wrong, you are to “Let the guilt come, and while the child is yet too young to understand, purge his guilt by means of the rod.” To drive the point home, he says it again: “Parents hold in their hands (in the form of a little switch) the power to absolve the child of guilt, cleanse his soul, instruct his spirit, strengthen his resolve, and give him a fresh start through a confidence that all indebtedness is paid in full.” Speaking specifically to fathers he says, “A spanking (whipping, paddling, switching, or belting) is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment.”
Do you see what he has done here? He has taken all the language of the gospel and applied it to a parent’s spanking. A parent who strikes his child with a rod removes the child’s guilt, cleanses his soul, instructs and strengthens him, and gives him assurance that his debt has been paid. Here is where Pearl’s child-rearing technique comes home to roost. Now we see whipping as something that takes the place of the cross. Now we demand that a child satisfies for his own sin. Instead of teaching a child that he is a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace, we are to teach the child that by inflicting a measure of pain on his backside we have cleansed him of his sin and absolved him from all guilt. We have taught him that sin demands atonement and we have taught him that his own suffering can atone for that sin. But all the while we have missed the far greater opportunity of teaching the child that he cannot atone for his sin, that his sin is too great for him to pay for even with an eternity of suffering. And we have missed the golden opportunity to point him to the One who has suffered for him, who has satisfied God’s just demands, and who is so willing to trade his goodness for that child’s badness. What Pearl teaches is the very opposite of the Bible’s good news. And all of this because of the denial of the child’s fallenness and moral corruption.
There is much more that could be said about this book. Let’s be clear that it is not all bad. Pearl shares some things—many things—that are both practically useful and biblically accurate. Many Christians read the book, apply those good parts, and ignore the rest. But the fact remains that the weight of the book is driven by an unbiblical view of human nature which in turn leads to the wrong emphases. In place of the gracious, loving mercy of gospel is the harsh justice of law.
In this way To Train Up a Child is the very opposite of books that encourage you to pursue your child’s heart, that teach that “the heart is the heart of the matter.” In Pearl’s view there is no heart to get to—not yet. For now there is the conditioning of poor behavior, the administration of the rod, and the purging of sin through a child’s pain.
Would you like an alternative? I would encourage you to pick up William Farley’s Gospel-Powered Parenting. It will show from the Bible how the gospel of grace shapes and transforms parenting.