My rating: 2 of 5 stars
To Train Up a Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl
I’ve finally gotten around to reading something by the Pearls who have quite a following in the homeschool movement as I’ve been given to understand. Overall this book is a mix of some really good counsel and some poor assumptions.
The first three chapters are heavy on training and consistency. They emphasize proactive training before discipline. Sinful anger in parents while disciplining poorly causes angry children. Really good stuff.
But bad assumptions lurk. Most foundationally, there is a messed up view of accountability in children. “The child is not a morally viable soul.” The idea being that you condition them behaviorally until they can make moral judgments. This is not helpful. We can and should talk about moral choices with our young children, to help them learn from an early age why certain actions are wrong. Their over-reliance on behavioral conditioning seems to come from other bad assumptions: that young kids are no different than animals in the training needed; that the technique of training, the outward method, will guarantee a good result; that correct and consistent discipline does not prevent all sin.
The Pearls wax eloquent about the power of the rod to restore and comfort, and overdo the positive effect of a spanking. (I write this having seen firsthand the positive effect of a spanking.) In reality spankings often are ineffective, because some other part of the correction and restoration process is gummed up, or because it is not fitting for the situation or the child’s makeup. But Pearl actually calls the rod a “magic wand” at one point. They counsel parents to constrain (physically) and discipline the child until they surrender with anecdotes of up to 10 spankings of 10 switches each. There are usually better ways to not let the child “win” a battle of wills than these prolonged sessions. This counsel assumes that external, physical force is going to correct the child on the inside, or that external conformity now is better than dealing with the heart. Bad assumptions. Ironically, given the Pearls’ anti-modern outlook, their child-rearing outlook is the modern, technique-based, approach. Five steps to your best life now, and only 3 steps to a perfectly behaved child. It just is not that simple. If you think it is, and you have well-trained children, I would re-consider if you have children with trained hearts, or just trained behavior. Good training can lead into good heart shepherding, but they should not be seen as the same thing. There is a lot of potential pride in being a good disciplinarian reflected in the anecdotes: “I just do this, and my kids snap to it.”
Mixed in with these problems, they offer excellent (inconsistent!) counsel, too. Here’s a sample.
Outward correction doesn’t help if there isn’t mutual respect between parent and child. A child’s repentance needs to register with and be respected by the parent, or it drives the child away. “If you will cultivate fellowship with your child, you will have such cooperation and compliance that you will forget where you last left the rod” (34). Your child comes to see God as they see their parents, whether permissive or severe or balanced. Reproof is not ranting. Parents need to use the rod and reproof, both (Proverbs 29:15). If a parent doesn’t respect his own rules and enforce them with the kids, the kid gets a negative view of law and of God as permissive. Don’t let a child obey one parent but not another; be on the same page in discipline. The chapter on training children to work and do household chores was very good. “If it isn’t fun for all, it isn’t fun;” when one sibling is offending another, point out to the offender that the offended wasn’t having fun. Training them to see the sin for what it is. Great stuff.
This is a book of extremes. The good stuff is really good. Discipline out of anger is not discipline. The bad stuff is really bad. “If you have to sit on him to spank him, do not hesitate.” Because of this it’s hard to give a 1-5 star rating. I would NOT recommend looking here for your primary guidance in parenting. But I was helped by it at points, by way of reminder.
My difference is partly one of emphasis. They say, “You have secret weapons: a plan, love, patience, reproof, THE ROD OF CORRECTION, endurance, and, the hope of reward promised in the Scriptures.” (Emphasis added by the author). I’d write it, “You have secret weapons: A PLAN, LOVE, PATIENCE, REPROOF, the rod of correction, endurance, and, the hope of reward promised in the Scriptures.” So this is partly an emphasis difference. Will complete consistency produce complete obedience? No, and they finally admit it in just a sentence or two, after several chapters of implying that it will, that weeds of sin do continue.
But my biggest critique is that forgiveness and grace are totally left out of the picture. Only about one-fourth of one page in the whole book addresses grace or forgiveness, and the gist is that “Strict enforcement gives the opportunity for demonstrating grace.” But how is this so? In the middle of a great description of the Gospel, he says that children can’t understand Jesus dying for them, but they can understand the rod. This is atrocious! The rod is not given to purge guilt, as is implied, but to teach the awfulness of the sin. Regardless of the few qualifications offered, and the otherwise good counsel, the assumptions of the book are functionally Pelagian: If you work hard enough at being a consistently disciplining parent, then your children will behave, give you no grief, and turn out well. There is no foundation of the grace of Jesus Christ here. In a chaotic and licentious age, it is easy to train moral behavior and define ourselves against the immoral world. But our higher calling is to draw our children to walk in the righteousness and grace of Jesus.
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