Hana is the third in a string of deaths linked to the use of training methods outlined in Michael and Debi Pearl's book, "To Train Up a Child". The deaths of seven-year-old Lydia Schatz and four-year-old Sean Paddock were also attributed to the use of these teachings. The siblings of all three children were found to have been struck repeatedly with plumbing supply line, the tool recommended by the Pearls for "training" children as young as six months old.
Are the teachings in the Pearls' book inherently abusive? At first glance, perhaps not. They wrap their message up in pretty bows, encouraging parents to "tie strings" and develop mutual respect and trust. A cursory read-through by a well-meaning parent may raise only a few easily-ignored red flags. But what happens when these teachings are followed religiously and taken to their logical conclusion?
The horrifying affidavit filed after Hana's death paints precisely this picture. For months, Hana had been regularly beaten, denied food, forced to shower under cold water outside, locked in a dark closet, and permitted to use only the lavatory set up for her behind the barn. She ultimately succumbed to hypothermia when left outside in the rain. Her adopted brother had endured similar abuses, including being hosed down in cold water when his documented medical condition caused him to urinate in his pants.
The Pearls would deny that any such abusive actions had any relation to the teachings in their book. And yet according to the affidavit:
"Other forms of discipline taught in this book include cold water bathes to assist in toilet training or putting the children outside in the cold weather, having them miss meals and sleeping on the floor or outside as forms of punishment."
The book itself further substantiates these claims:
"So, my suggestion was that the father explain to the boy that, now that he was a man [at all of three years old], he would no longer be washed in the house. He was too big and too stinky to be cleaned by the babywipes. From now on, he would be washed outside with a garden hose. The child was not to be blamed. This was to be understood as just a progressive change in methods. The next dump, the father took him out and merrily, and might I say, carelessly, washed him off. What with the autumn chill and the cold well water, I don’t remember if it took a second washing or not, but, a week later, the father told me his son was now taking himself to the pot. The child weighed the alternatives and opted to change his lifestyle. Since then, several others have been the recipients of my meddling, and it usually takes no more than three cheerful washings."
"If a child doesn’t like what is on the table, let him do without until the next meal. A little fasting is good training."
"If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final."
"Use your own judgment as to what is effective. I found five to ten licks usually sufficient. Sometimes, with older children, usually when the licks are not forceful enough, the child may still be rebellious. If this occurs, take time to instruct and then continue the spanking. A general rule is to continue the disciplinary action until the child is surrendered."
Continue the disciplinary action until the child is surrendered...or dead.
After Lydia's death, Micheal released a statement saying that he "laughed at his caustic critics". A child is dead, and Michael laughs. He concludes his lengthy mocking statement with the following:
"Even my chickens are laughing...well, actually it is more like cackling, because they just laid another organic egg for my breakfast and they know that it was that same piece of ¼ inch plastic supply line that trained the dogs not to eat chicken."To put this into perspective, consider author Stephen King's response when actual school shootings were linked to his book "Rage". Far from laughing, King expressed deep remorse and had the book pulled from further publication. That is the human, compassionate response to death. Michael Pearl laughed.
But there is hope. These deaths are not going unnoticed. As these children rest safely in the arms of their Heavenly Father, others are questioning the Pearls' methods. CNN recently a ran a two-part series on Michael Pearl and Lydia Schatz (Part 1 and Part 2), which was later followed up with their report Ungodly Discipline and interview Faith and Discipline after the death of Hana Williams. The New York Times has also reported on the Pearls and their role in Hana's death. Although the reports thus far have failed to truly unearth the severity of these teachings, they are a hopeful beginning.
Others are speaking out against the Pearls' abusive teachings as well:
- Why Not Train a Child has explored why blame the Pearls at all?, a question explored further in Part 2. The blog continues to follow the unfolding story and the many reactions it has elicited.
- Elizabeth Esther wrote about another dead child, the cognitive dissonance of "biblical" child-training, and why the Pearls must be held accountable.
- Free by His Grace has asked, Hana Williams: “Rebellion” or Reaction to Abuse?
- TulipGirl wrote about Hana Williams and the Pearls and parenting.
- A member of No Longer Quivering shared her own heartbreaking experience with using the Pearls' materials in her article Corpses Don't Rebel.
- Christianity Today writer Rachel Stone read the book for herself, discovering that the line between the Pearls’ “child training” and child abuse is blurry at best.
In memory of Hana, I will be devoting next week to a three-part exploration of the "rod verses" in Proverbs. While the issue at hand isn't limited to corporal punishment - even many who spank find the Pearls' teachings to be horrifying and cruel - it is the Pearls' twisted use of Scripture that so many supporters, both fervent and reluctant, hold out as evidence that what he teaches must be biblical. It is my hope that the idea of physical chastisement as a necessary, or even acceptable, part of "biblical" discipline will continue to be questioned by those who learn of the tragic results of such twisted theology.
As I've asked before: How many more? How many more children need to die before the teachings of the Pearls are seen for what they really are? How much longer will this needless abuse happen behind closed doors, not at the hands of monsters, but those of well-meaning, loving parents who have been taken in by the Pearls' promises of godly children? This is not a case of taking away nuggets of gold and leaving behind the small part that tends to the extreme - no, this is a case of digging through a garbage dump in hopes of finding one small fleck of gold. Perhaps the Pearls are all the more insidious for that very reason: for all their advice of "tying heartstrings", the practicality of carrying out what they put forth achieves anything but attachment.