The Heart of the Matter

I originally wrote this a couple of years ago about the Pearls and their method of discipline. There is a new story this week about parents who apparently used the Pearls’ book, To Train Up a Child, and who have been found guilty of murdering their child. Given the renewed attention that the Pearls’ method is receiving, I thought it worthwhile to repost the following article.

I read an article about the controversial discipline methods advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl in their book To Train Up A Child. As a mother of three, I have spent a reasonable amount of time considering the issue of discipline. There are so many opinions out there. In fact, has over 7000 hits on the topic. While the article, and most of the negative attention that the Pearls have received, focuses on the topic of spanking or the use of the “rod,” my concern with the Pearls’ approach goes beyond that.

My concern is with the attitude the Pearls seem to have towards children. While I certainly agree that children need to learn that the universe doesn’t revolve around them, the universe also doesn’t revolve around the parents. According to the Pearls, a three month old child who cries when you walk away is attempting to “emotionally manipulate” his parents. This behavior, therefore, should be “trained” out of the child. Imagine a parent swatting a 10 week old infant with a 1/4″ tubing because the baby dared to cry when she was placed in her crib. Her needs had been met, according to the parents, so therefore her cry was an attempt to manipulate.

Here is a short quote from an article by the Pearls “Infant Manifesto” written from the perspective of a small child:

I started lying from day one. I am ashamed of it now, but I made my sweet mother think that I was hurting or cold, when all I wanted was to be held close. I soon learned that I could make her believe that I was hungry when I was not.

Is it really a sin for a child to want to be held close? Is it wrong for a baby to have emotional needs? From what I’ve read from the Pearls, children are supposed to learn their place and not be an inconvenience. Maybe the Pearls have some good advice to give, but again and again the things I’ve read make the still, small voice inside me scream “THIS IS WRONG!!” The approach the Pearls use will lead to emotional (and likely physical) abuse. Children in many orphanage settings don’t cry, not because they don’t have needs or are especially well-behaved, but because they know no one will answer their cries.

Is that they way I want my children to be? For good or for ill, my children are going to associate their relationship with me with their relationship with God. What lessons do I want them to learn? If I discipline (or train) them to obey me out of fear, but I never concern myself with what is going on in their hearts, what will they learn about God from me? If, as some “experts” say, I need to make sure my children “know their place” in our home, what will they learn from that? If I love my children and help teach them to have soft hearts and a willing spirit, what will they learn? If I show them sacrifice and compassion, what will they learn? If I am not willing to show them the very grace I receive, what will they learn?

So, what do I think the purpose and goal of discipline should be? My purpose in disciplining my boys is two-fold. I want my boys to grow up to be godly men who live to honor God out of love for Him. I also want my boys to be people I would enjoy being around.

Basically it’s not enough for me to be concerned with the outward behavior of my children. I’m not training them like I would a dog, to sit, heel, and stay (although those can be important lessons to learn). I’m trying to reach their hearts. I want them to listen to me because they love me and because we have a relationship. I don’t want them to be obey just to keep from being in trouble. I don’t want to break their wills so that they are afraid to try new things. I want to establish good boundaries and encourage them to reach for the stars. Most importantly I want them to love God with all their hearts.

I know that I am far, far from perfect. I fail and sin even as I am asking for forgiveness. I have failed my children in many ways. I pray that I can show them grace and mercy. I also pray that they will see past my failings and see the One who is at work in my heart. May God grant me my greatest desire which is to see my children come to faith.

17 thoughts on “The Heart of the Matter

  1. sedgegrass says:

    Unfortunately, we live in a world that is often influenced by the swing of the pendulum of thought. When there is the perception of error, often the reaction is to swing the other way- often too far the other way. It is true that we live in a pretty permissible society that seems to be incubating little narcissists. It is also true that the cultural and political climate is making the option of a well deserved and wisely administered spanking, less acceptable and even risky for parents who feel that the Bible allows for this type of punishment.

    While punishment is a part of discipline, discipline is much more than just punishment. Discipline involves training and teaching, which is where your comments were aiming- how to train the heart to love God and others (the opposite of narcissism!). Punishment, without addressing the heart, will only produce a craftier narcissist.

    It seems to me, that if you want to address the heart of a child, you must understand how God made that heart- it’s need to be loved and secure. We live in an imperfect world and thinking that there is a one-size-fits-all discipline formula for parents to follow, is unwise. There will be times that it is in the best interest of a young child to have to cry a bit, if mom has been without sleep for too long and is emotionally and physically exhausted. Both mother and child will have to deal with living in a fallen world when it comes to having their needs (or wants) met or being ‘other’ centered.

    This book sounds like it is possibly the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction- again. A merciful and theologically informed heart and prayer are still the best tools for those of us who parent.


  2. Eileen says:

    Sedgegrass has wise words. When I was a young mother, it was the Gothardites. Then later it was the Ezzoites. The fact is that there is no magic formula for producing children who grow to love the Lord with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength. I wish that there had been when I was raising mine.

    I do believe that children are born in sin and remain sinners. Just like their parents. But I don’t believe that entails not having legitimate emotional and physical needs or that having needs means that one is self-centered.

    Some parents are oblivious to manipulative behaviors. Others see it in everything their children do. I found it helpful to have wise older women in my life when I was raising my children because they provided a perspective and balance born of experience which was impossible for me to have since I was in the middle of it!

    I think that God uses our children, just like our spouses, to sanctify us and to teach us to trust and love Him more. I can recall specific instances when God used my children to reveal my sinful heart which was exposed by my responses to them.


  3. Angela says:

    We should never be surprised when biblical chastisement is rejected by the world, because the world is hostile to *everything* that is biblical! Unfortunately, far too many believers are reluctant to trust the entirety of God’s Word because we are so steeped in the culture of “spanking is bad” thinking.

    Indeed, we should read and accept plainly what He has revealed when our feeble minds cannot fully understand the “why” of it. Job was not entitled to explanations, and neither are we.

    It is slippery ground to make speculations and draw conclusions based only on the critics’ assessment of Pearl’s book. It is a short book, inexpensive and easy to read. No reason why anyone should have to unfairly assume its contents, formulating an opinion without reading it firsthand.

    I have read the book, and while I do not agree with everything in it, it is clearly not the guidebook for abuse that its critics contend. On the contrary, Pearl stresses cultivating the sweet and needful bonds of parent-child
    fellowship over and above training and discipline, and strongly advises any
    parent unable to train and discipline with calm, loving self-control to forego training and discipline altogether and focus only on the bonds of loving fellowship. Proper biblical chastisement can only take place in the context of love, a point Pearl makes repeatedly.

    It isn’t far-fetched at all to believe that some will scapegoat this book as the cause of some child abuse. People intent on undermining biblical authority will run swiftly to find examples of abuse if the Bible can be implicated as its cause.

    We must be careful always to uphold scripture even when it puts us at odds with the culture. Otherwise we are left to pick and choose according to our particular tastes and sensitivities, ultimately placing ourselves in authority over God’s Word rather than submitting to it for wisdom.

    Proverbs 13:24
    He who spares his rod *hates* his son,
    But he who loves him disciplines him promptly. (emphasis mine)

    Proverbs 22:15
    Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of correction will drive it far from him.

    Proverbs 29:15
    The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraced his mother.

    Proverbs 23:13-14
    Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death. (or the NASB, which says “Do not hold back discipline from the child,
    Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. You shall strike him with the rod
    and rescue his soul from Sheol.”)

    Should we trust these verses less than any others?
    Proverbs 30:5,6
    Every word of God is flawless…do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.

    What a grave disservice neglectful parents do to their children who grow up never reckoning with real consequences for their own wrongdoing, who are never trained in self-control because their sin nature was left unchecked by loving discipline. Has God not Himself demonstrated throughout scripture that He weighs heavy consequences for sin?




  4. Rachel Miller says:

    Angela~ of course I believe that discipline is a serious matter. It would be terrible not to teach our children the consequences of sin. I also believe that spanking can be used in an appropriate way. We have read and benefited from Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heart and Ginger Plowman’s books.

    I have also read many articles and excerpts from the Pearls’ books and website. So my concern is not from what others have written critically, but from my own reading of the material. It is not the “use of the rod” that I find disturbing, but the application and the ways in which the Pearls characterize the relationship between parents and children. In particular, as I wrote in my article, the articles that the Pearls have written on emotional manipulation by our children, I find to be truly heartless. I’ve also read articles by the Pearls on how to handle low self worth in our children. It is cruel.

    I stand by what I’ve written. For every good thing the Pearls have written, there is enough disturbing material to make me wary of ever recommending them. Of course, the secular media will lump all spanking or discipline in with what the Pearls and their adherents have done or said and condemn it all. That is why I think it’s important as believers to stand strong and point out that what they recommend and what is being done by those who follow them is not what Scripture teaches.


    • Angela says:

      You say what they recommend is not biblical. They are telling parents to train their children and give examples of how. Which specific methods are unbiblical?


      • Angela says:

        I feel it necessary to repeat what I wrote earlier:
        I have read the book, and while I do not agree with everything in it, it is clearly not the guidebook for abuse that its critics contend. On the contrary, Pearl stresses cultivating the sweet and needful bonds of parent-child
        fellowship over and above training and discipline, and strongly advises any
        parent unable to train and discipline with calm, loving self-control to forego training and discipline altogether and focus only on the bonds of loving fellowship. Proper biblical chastisement can only take place in the context of love, a point Pearl makes repeatedly.

        There is nothing cruel in this. Have I missed something?


  5. Rachel Miller says:

    I agree that Pearl writes some of what he says in a way that seems reasonable. It’s when you get into the specifics (you can see these in Q&A’s on their website) that cruelty and arrogance seem to be strong themes in Pearl’s answers. Especially the ideas about the use of the rod on infants for “emotional manipulation.”

    My personal list for what constitutes a spanking offense in our house is pretty short: any behavior that will hurt someone else, any behavior that will hurt themselves (think running out into the street when you say STOP), and disrespectful behavior (because it breaks both of the first two). A baby crying because it wants to be held (when it has no means of communicating with you otherwise) does not break any of these rules. Is it possible that the baby is crying sinfully? Sure, but I can’t know that. Scripture doesn’t teach it.


    • Angela says:

      I wonder what is meant by “baby” in this context. My oldest by 13-15 months had perfected manipulation by crying. I could tell when his needs were legitimate and when he was just torqued at not having his way.

      I did not mean to come off as contentious. Nor to be the Pearls’ champion. I just know that that particular book does not advocate any type of abuse, except in the minds of those who think all spanking is wrong. The entire premise of the book is that taking the time to train children well results in very infrequent spankings.


    • Angela says:

      Hard to imagine spanking a 3 month old. I wouldn’t condone it at that age. Some folks think even 2-3 years old is too young though, and you can see how those little ones railroad their parents and run amok. I guess I could reframe my statement such that the bulk of their principles are very sound, although timing and application of those principles leave much grey area that merits closer inspection. Fair enough?


    • Angela says:

      My pleasure!

      I found most of the book to be useful, especially in a time and place where an absence of training and discipline are the norm, and parents are busy arranging their lives around the whims of children instead of preparing them for responsible adulthood. That kind of indulgence does lead to narcissism and a lack of self-government. (And is usually justified by the permissive parent as “oh, kids will be kids!) I’ve witnessed this up close and personally — what a sad harvest those parents reap.


  6. Jake Harvard says:

    Rachel this is excellent truth you have written and I wish every parent in the world understood this. Thanks to the Aquila Report for showing this to me.


  7. RussellD says:

    I know you wrote this a long time ago Rachel but I just read it and really loved it. I have 3 boys (5, 3 & 1) and so I am navigating these issues in a very real way at the moment. I have to say that my children have taught me much more about my sin than theirs.

    As you say it is not about spanking/not spanking, etc. but all about our attitude towards our children. How are we viewing them in light of the gospel? Do we have an attitude of grace treating them as coheirs of the promise (being baptized into the covenant community) or of Lording our authority over them and striking them each time the inconvenience us. I think it is important to often dig deep into our hearts. I think once we have done this and felt the shame for our law-breaking (not loving our children, who are our closest neighbors, as ourselves) we can look at the rational made public by the likes of the Pearls and see it as truly evil.

    In closing I will say that I think a huge issue is the way we have come to view children in an evangelical/heavily Anabaptist influenced context. I have heard John MacArthur talk about the “evil” in children and people in his circles say things like “we shouldn’t sing Jesus loves me to our children because we don’t know if he loves them yet.” We would do well to resurrect a covenantal understanding of our children as a helpful framework in raising them up into Christ.

    Thank you for your post. 🙂


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