To Break Down a Child: A Call for Stories about Pearl-Style Discipline

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To Break Down a Child: A Call for Stories about Pearl-Style Discipline

By Shaney Lee, HARO Board Member


Hana Williams.

Sean Paddock.

Lydia Schatz.

What do these three children have in common? All of their deaths were linked to the abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl in their book To Train Up A Child.

If you weren’t homeschooled growing up, it’s possible, even probable, that you’ve never heard the names Michael and Debi Pearl before. Their success with their publishing efforts are largely due to word-of-mouth through fundamentalist Christian churches and homeschooling communities.

It is estimated that over 670,000 copies of To Train Up A Child are in circulation. That’s at least 670,000 too many. Much of that word of mouth has largely been enabled through homeschooling communities. Their books have been prominently featured in the homeschool editions of Christian Book Distributor’s catalogues, been recommended on homeschooling forums, and handed from parent to parent at homeschooling conventions (not to mention sold in some of the booths).

The Pearls don’t just advocate spanking as a method of child discipline. They advocate a method of discipline that puts the child’s will in direct defiance of God’s will and of the parents’ will, that makes the breaking of a child’s will the ultimate goal of child discipline, and that puts parents in a position to believe that if they are not 100% successful in their discipline, they risk their child’s very soul.

And yet, when these teachings are linked to the death of multiple children, there are thousands who speak up in defense of the Pearls’ teachings.

Enough is enough.

It is time for those of us familiar with the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl to speak up and speak against these abusive methods. It’s time to show that the damage of the Pearls’ method goes beyond just a few parents who got out of control. It’s time to show that it’s justifiable for the Pearls’ teachings to be linked to these horrible outcomes.

If you were raised with the Pearls’ methods, it’s your time to speak. If you’ve read the Pearls’ books and are against what they teach, it’s your time to speak. If you are a parent who previously used the Pearls’ methods, it’s your time to speak.

Even if you’re not normally a fan of what Homeschoolers Anonymous does, I ask you to join us for this series.

Because this issue is bigger than any disagreements we might have about homeschooling. It’s about preventing another Lydia, or Hana, or Sean.

This is not about whether spanking is a legitimate form of discipline (that’s a whole ‘nother discussion in and of itself!). This is about taking a public stand against a method of teaching that is extremely harmful towards children. Any system of childrearing that views children as rebellious little souls whose wills needs to be broken — rather than as small humans who are learning to live and thrive in the world — dehumanizes children and will always be harmful in the end.

Hana, Sean, and Lydia can’t speak up for themselves. It’s up to us to do it for them, to stand up for children who still have a chance. While it is the homeschooling community that has largely enabled the Pearls, I strongly believe it is the homeschooling community that is most equipped to fight against their abusive teaching.

So let’s stand up for our children. They deserve better.


To contribute your story or thoughts:

As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly.

If you interested in participating in this, please email us at

The deadline for submission is September 15, 2013.


  • I completely agree with what you’re saying. My hurdle has been how to prevent things of this nature. Consider the problem:

    You have a group of religious people who have a distrust of much of scientific progress. These people believe that there are things god does not want man to meddle in or to understand. They also believe in the direct, intervening hand of god; if a sick child gets healthy, they emphasize that it was god’s will and working and downplay the influence of the doctors making a diagnosis or the medicine prescribed. Finally, this group of people views anything that contradicts their understanding of god’s word (whether it be from their direct reading or from what someone has told them) as wrong. Thus any conclusions or facts, no matter how rigorously generated, are invalid if they contradict Scripture or a Scriptural application.

    This is important because psychological studies have repeatedly shown that physical discipline of a child is mentally harmful to that child. However, because some religious folk have such a strong belief that the Bible support physical punishment (Pr. 13:24, 22:15, 23:13, 29:15), they immediately discount any study that says “spanking is bad” because it runs contra to their beliefs. Add to the mix the myriad success stories of people who have used various methods of physical discipline, and this group views the science as in direct opposition to their beliefs and religion. Add in a healthy dose of the “Christian worldview” that tells these people that anything of the world (ie. Science) is their enemy and fueled by Satan, and you generate a group of people who will always believe that spanking is an essential part of child-rearing.

    So the problem essentially becomes that it is nigh impossible to convince these people that what they are doing, that something like the Pearl’s method, is unhealthy for a child and actually is physical abuse. We’ve all seen the furor in the religious right when Congress considered ratifying the UN Child’s Bill of Rights; imagine what would happen if the Federal government, or even state governments, tried to pass laws that outlawed physical abuse of a child. Also, abuse can be a subjective term; if legislation were to pass that prohibited abuse, it would have been very specific about what was and was not abusive.

    While it’s great to tell our stories, to shed light on the problems that exist within various homeschooling methods, it would beneficial to turn these discussions towards how to fix the problem. How do you prevent parents, especially those within a movement that eschews any governmental intrusion, from being able to abuse their children? And how do we take these ideas and make them reality?

  • I’m relieved that HA is doing this series. Too much trauma and heartache has come from the Pearl’s advice to parents.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    So the problem essentially becomes that it is nigh impossible to convince these people that what they are doing, that something like the Pearl’s method, is unhealthy for a child and actually is physical abuse.

    “The Dwarfs are for The Dwarfs! We Won’t Be Taken In!”

  • My parents began reading this book when I was five or six. I was beat over ten times per day quite regularly and watched the same happen to my younger siblings, one of which was only a few months old. I was a victim of this book, this man is pure evil. This book has to stop being sold!! Homeschooled no way to contact the outside world, this is dangerous.

  • Pingback: Considering Adoption Reform | Why Not Train A Child?

  • Hello from Israel – I have a free ebook which may be of interest to some relative to this post. Thanks for raising this important topic. – – Download it here –

  • i was homeschooled for a short time as a child and attended christian schools where we were hit with a wooden paddle for simply not putting away our glue at the exact moment the teacher said to. my dad raised us according to Dr. James Dobsons parenting book which followed the same extreme discipline that you are speaking of and now that i am an adult i think why didnt anyone help me and put an end to that child abuse.

  • interesting, though I was not raised in a Christian home and “the belt” and “the switch” and even “the hanger” were frequently used on me. Yes, it was very authoritarian, and no, it had nothing to do with the Pearl book, which probably wasn’t around in the 60s. I am pretty sure that authoritarianism is not unique to “homeschoolers” and I don’t really think that I am screwed up in any way. But I am older now, and getting whipped was common, and everyone actually was raised that way. This is not a “fundie” thing but rather an “old fashioned” thing. Child abuse is child abuse. It happens in EVERY community. And I don’t think that whipping kids is child abuse at all. Some people overstep the bounds and it becomes abusive. I know a woman who pays boys to babysit for her and pays them with sex and then pistol whips her kid. Is that because she is a homeschool parent? No, it is because she is a crack whore. And I know kids who were hit with a wooden paddle for not lining up straight in kindergarten. Oh, yeah, that was ME and in public school. Just sayin.

    • Amy, Pearl-style discipline goes beyond just the use of “whipping” to discipline children. As I said in the article, this goes beyond whether or not spanking is an appropriate way to discipline a child. It is a whole philosophy that enables and justifies abusive tactics. I would suggest you read the stories this upcoming week and listen to people whose parents actually used these techniques and judge for yourselves whether this was the same “whippings” (which I put in quotes because the vast majority of child development specialists nowadays agree that is child abuse, just fyi. “Spankings” are different than “whippings.”) that used to be commonplace, or if they were something more than that.

      Homeschoolers Anonymous is a place for people to share their individual experiences with homeschooling. As such, the question of whether abuse happens in public or private schools (which it does, of course), is completely moot. HA is and will continue to be a safe place for people to share their homeschooling-specific stories.

      Put in other words: Your comment is inappropriate for this space, and future comments in this vein will be deleted. Consider this your one and only warning.

      • Ah! I forgot to mention, there is not only the physical damage but the psychological one: you know what it is when every time you do something wrong your parents tells you that satan is who is dwelling in you? That god the mighty is who is telling your parents to do so? Where you mess up everyday ( like someone mention here 10 or 20 times a day?). Poor kids, you are underestimating the horrors of these testimonies. parents who had scape from these religious groups or books are too traumatized for ever perhaps, for the damage they have done to their children.

    • I don’t agree with you. What happens is that as we say in Spanish “la vaca se olvida cuando fue ternera” means “cows forget when they were calf” . Something is not normal because is common, and looks like you can’t even remember what you felt and thought every time you were beaten. There is no overstepping bounds. You can’t be there saying these things because someone out there is looking for an excuse to beat their child and your comment either it doesn’t come from an specialist is enough prove since you are experienced person ( age and been beaten and saying you’re ok). Anyway, this is a site for abuse in religious homeschooling.

  • In Germany, the Perls’ book on “Training up a Child” was banned for what it is: “an open invitation to commit crimes” (i.e. child abuse). And that is against the law in this country. As a Christian, I say: Thanks God!

    • Gwen, good news that in Germany this book has been banned. I was Christian and now I’m an atheist not only because I was disappointed with the gods representatives here on earth, gods holy scriptures and being thought there that beating my kids was loving them but because I prefer to live far away of the always-win faith ( if you live thanks to god and if you die is gods will, if you have a healthy child thanks to god and if not anyway is gods gift, in everything is this ‘ logic’ – someone will say there ‘there is no logic in faith’ you see? End of discussion). sorry, I’m one of the turnarounds of the effect of the beaten for religious purpose, convert kids in Christians.

  • I had heard about rampant child abuse taking place in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century and its too complicated to explain but this link is compelling reading. I see some frightening similarities between fundy doctrine and the rise of the Nazis. Child abuse of this scale can only lead to war.

  • I forgot to post the link. Here it is. Pearl’s methods are eerily similar to some of what took place.

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