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(How Not) To Train Up a Child

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What if I told you that there is a parenting technique you can follow that will give you “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?” And what if I told you that this technique “always works with every child?” And what if I added that this technique comes with God’s own seal of approval because it is “the same technique God uses to train His children?” Such are the claims of Michael Pearl in To Train Up a Child, a book that is well on its way to selling its one millionth copy.

Let me tell you why I am reviewing this book. After I recently wrote a two-part review of Debi Pearl’s Created To Be His Help Meet I received repeated requests to take a look at To Train Up A Child, written by her husband Michael. The people who wrote to me told me of the impact the book has had on their lives and on their churches. They also told me how many copies it had sold and how many are in the hands of people who read this web site. In light of all of this, I determined that it would be wise for me to have some knowledge of it.

As I read the book, I found it a fascinating illustration of the reality that what we believe will necessarily impact what we do and how we do it. In this case, it shows that what we believe to be true about children will inevitably shape the way we “train them up.” It concerned me to see that many people follow Michael Pearl’s technique even though they believe very different things from what he believes. It is for these people in particular that I write my review. I write it not to condemn you, but to provoke you to consider what Pearl really believes about children and how this has shaped his book and your children.

There are several key claims and teachings of this book that merit a closer look. I will move through them in what I hope is a logical and helpful way. Today I will do some background work and tomorrow I will try to bring it all to a helpful conclusion.

Training Versus Discipline

Critical to the book is a distinction between training and discipline. The book’s title and purpose are derived from the well-known words of Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Pearl explains the importance and context of this word train: “Train up—not beat up. Train up—not discipline up. Train up—not educate up. Train up—not ‘positive affirmation’ up.” Training is the most often missed element in child rearing. A child needs more than ‘obedience training,’ but without first training him, discipline is insufficient.”

This is not a book about the reactive discipline of disobedient children, though this is present as a related, secondary theme. Rather, it is a book about a kind of proactive training that heads off disobedience and thus negates the need for discipline. Pearl says, “Training is not discipline. Discipline is the ‘damage control’ part of training, but is insufficient in itself to effect proper behavior.”

In the book’s opening pages he writes, “we are not talking about producing godly children, just happy and obedient children.

What is this training? Before I answer that question, let me tell you what the training is not. Pearl’s training is not moral or spiritual, which means he believes that the mandate of Proverbs 22:6 is not fulfilled by instructing your children in Biblical truths. In the book’s opening pages he writes, “we are not talking about producing godly children, just happy and obedient children. The principles for training young children to instantly obey can be applied by non-Christians as well as Christians.” Training in godliness will come later in a child’s life and is outside the scope of the training he teaches here. This training is applied to children between birth and approximately twelve years of age and can be done by Christians and non-Christians alike.

What, then, does he mean by training? According to Pearl, “Training is the conditioning of the children’s mind before the crisis arises. It is preparation for future, instant, unquestioning obedience.” His training uses a technique that “always works with every child” by conditioning the child’s mind so he will respond to any authority with instant, unquestioning, heartfelt obedience. This, he says, is “normal in the well-trained family.” To get to that point, a parent must create a training ground and “reward every transgression with a switching [discipline that involves striking a child with a switch or belt or other object].” The switching will continue until the child has demonstrated complete obedience and submission to the will of the parent in both action and attitude.

Pearl’s training is proactive and his discipline is reactive; training involves conditioning an ignorant child while discipline involves punishing a deliberately disobedient child. It will take just a few hours or a few days to train a child in some new area (going to bed without crying or not grabbing at his father’s glasses) and after training is complete, that behavior will now have to be met with discipline.

Training may come about in a couple of different ways. The first is when parents deliberately create situations in which a child has the opportunity to obey or disobey. These are situations or tasks that have no purpose other than training. Pearl suggests a typical scenario in which a parent will place an appealing object within reach of a child of twelve months and tell him “No, don’t touch that.” If he touches it, the parent should “switch their hand once and simultaneously say, ‘No.’” This is to be repeated, perhaps with an increasing number of switches, until the child obeys. Pearl offers this clarification: “Remember, now, you are not disciplining, you are training.” The particulars of a training situation will vary by family and context, but what is consistent is that parents will deliberately manufacture a situation in which they will forbid the child from touching or taking something desirable. As the child succeeds by doing the will of his parents or fails by doing his own will, he will face either good or painful consequences.

The second form of training involves situations in which a child has not acted in deliberate rebellion but may have still done something that is antisocial or otherwise inappropriate. Here is one of Pearl’s examples: “One particularly painful experience of nursing mothers is the biting baby. My wife did not waste time finding a cure. When the baby bit, she pulled its hair (an alternative has to be sought for bald-headed babies).” Again he says, “Understand, the baby is not being punished, just conditioned.” Other examples include switching a toddler who drops food from his high chair or an infant who cries when being put to bed.

In either training situation, the child’s transgression of a parent’s command or a societal convention brings some form of physical consequence that will be repeated until the child does what the parents have commanded and until he does it in the manner and with the attitude they demand. Pearl insists that this is the neglected key to child-raising—proactively training children rather than only reactively disciplining them.

Concerns With Pearl’s Training

I want to make several comments about this form of training.

First, this distinction between training and discipline seems too-fine a distinction to me and one that relies on mere semantics. To inflict pain upon a child who transgresses the will of the parent is to discipline or punish him, no matter what term the parent prefers. The main difference I see between Pearl’s training and discipline is one of agency: training involves the parent deliberately creating a situation in which he will proactively take a switch to his child whereas discipline involves the child creating a situation in which his father will reactively take a switch to him. In either case, let’s just face the truth that the child is being disciplined; he is being punished.

Second, I would caution any parent about consistently creating training grounds which will guarantee, or very nearly guarantee, that he will respond by physically punishing his child. Where is the love and justice in creating these situations that are beyond the ability of a young child to understand and then in punishing the child for transgressing what he does not understand?

Third, I am concerned by the arbitrary nature of Pearl’s training. This technique of introducing some kind of a desirable object to your child and then keeping him from it is necessarily arbitrary. While it may teach your children to instantly and completely obey their parents, it may also train them that their parents will place arbitrary demands upon them, that obedience is merely a matter of mollifying the irrational demands of a higher authority. This will necessarily eventually impact the way they understand God’s demands upon us.

The problem, of course, is that children are not animals and are far more complex and spiritual than animals.

Fourth, what Pearl refers to as training can as easily be labeled conditioning. In fact, his training perfectly fits Mirriam-Webster’s definition of conditioning: “A simple form of learning involving the formation, strengthening, or weakening of an association between a stimulus and a response.” Meanwhile Pearl says, “Training doesn’t necessarily require that the trainee be capable of reason; even mice and rats can be trained to respond to stimuli. Careful training can make a dog perfectly obedient. If a seeing-eye dog can be trained to reliably lead a blind man through the dangers of city streets, shouldn’t a parent expect more out of an intelligent child?” Between the book’s introduction and first chapter, Pearl has compared children with mice, rats, horses, mules and dogs. This shows that he advocates no moral dimension to his training; rather, he advocates a technique that will bring about instant obedience of the mind and body but without reference to the heart. The problem, of course, is that children are not animals and are far more complex and spiritual than animals.

Most Christians have understood Proverbs 22:6 to include a moral dimension, moral training that will in turn lead to behavior training. Yet Pearl believes the exact opposite, that it demands only behavior modification which will later lead to moral improvement. To understand why, we need to look to his understanding of human nature. This is where we really begin to see how his underlying theology shapes his child-raising technique; this is where we begin to see that his theology is probably very, very different from your own. I will turn there as this review continues and concludes tomorrow. (click here to read part 2)

Consider this a short appendix. Pearl’s training technique may seem a little bit abstract in the absence of clear examples (of which there are multitudes in the book), so I will provide one of them; I hope it will show that I am fairly representing what Pearl advocates and highlight each of my four concerns. He relays an example in which his wife interacts with a pouty, fifteen-month-old infant. This is not her own child, but one she was determined to train while he was in her care (the Pearls will only watch other people’s children with the agreement that they may train them while they care for them.). Debi handed this child a roller skate and “took a moment to show him what fun it was to hold it upside down and turn the wheels.” Yet “with defiance, he turned his face away” at which point she “decided it was showdown time.” She picked up a switch, placed the skate in front of him and “gently and playfully said, ‘Turn the wheels.” He refused. She told him again and again he defied. “This time, being assured he fully understood it to be a command, she placed his hand on the wheels, repeated the command, and when no obedience followed, she switched his leg.” This pattern of defiance followed by switching was repeated ten times until he surrendered his will to hers and began to roll the wheel. “A few minutes later she noticed he was turning the wheels and laughing with the other children, with whom he had previously shown only disdain. The surly attitude was all gone. In its place was contentment, thankfulness, and a fellowship with his peers. The ‘rod’ had lived up to its Biblical promise.”

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