Author Suggests Pastor Michael Pearl's Book on Disciplining Children Is 'Potentially Dangerous'

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  • Michael Pearl
    (Photo: CNN)
    The Rev. Michael Pearl, author of To Train Up a Child.
By Luiza Oleszczuk, Christian Post Reporter
November 11, 2011|8:00 am

Correction appended

The author of a book analyzing the phenomenon of child abuse in religious communities has criticized Michael Pearl, an evangelical Christian pastor and author of a book on child rearing using corporal punishment, suggesting that his teachings might be potentially dangerous to children's health and life.

The Tennessee-based founding pastor of the No Greater Joy ministry has found himself under scrutiny after his controversial book, To Train Up a Child, educating parents to raise their children with the use of corporal punishment, which he co-wrote with his wife, Debi, became linked  to several cases of criminal child abuse. One of those cases was the tragic death of Hana Williams, whose body was found in her parents backyard with signs of abuse. A copy of To Train Up a Child was reportedly found in the parents' possession.

In the book, which CNN's Anderson Cooper on his show attempted to link to the case of a Texas judge exposed recently on video beating his daughter with a belt, the Pearls describe their idea of raising a child well and in accordance to the Bible. Their methods involve corporal punishment techniques like spanking children with a plastic rod or depriving them of meals. 

Janet Heimlich, a former freelance reporter at NPR, has published a book recently, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment  (Prometheus Books, 2011), in which she reminds readers of previous accusations directed against Pearl in 2008, after the death of 4-year-old Sean Paddock of North Carolina. The boy's foster mother was a follower of the Pearls and the way the boy died was linked to the methods she used to punish him.

For example, The Seattle Times wrote: "The parents [of both these children] had several things in common: They adopted children, home-schooled them and lashed them with quarter-inch-diameter plastic tubes. They also used the child-rearing teachings of a Tennessee evangelist, Michael Pearl, and his wife, Debi."

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"Sean died from suffocation after Paddock wrapped Sean tightly in blankets, a technique witnesses said she used to keep children from getting out of bed," Heimlich writes in her book. "Michael Pearl does not advocate that parents wrap children in blankets. However, he does suggest that parents spank children with quarter-inch plumber's supply line."

Heimlich told The Christian Post Thursday she has profound knowledge about child rearing and abuse theories, after having researched the subject thoroughly and having read "just about every U.S.-based study done thus far," but she has never encountered anything that would support the methods advocated by the Pearls.

The former NPR reporter pointed out that researchers rather claim that spanking has quite the opposite effect.

In Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, Heimlich describes a phenomenon she calls "religious child maltreatment" – cases in which parents harm their children while thinking they are doing the good thing in accordance with their beliefs. The author quotes cases of "faith healing" deaths as well as abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

Heimlich raises an alarm about To Train Up a Child, reminding that it has sold more than five hundred thousand copies since it was published in 1994, and that many people read the literature posted on NoGreaterJoy.org, where the pastor describes many ways of corporal punishment.

"Michael Pearl has estimated that one-sixth of the nation's probable three million homeschooling families use their training methods," Heimlich writes, a claim echoed in a Newsobserver.com report. "Critics from around the world urge people to ignore what the Pearls preach, but many find the couple's promises that their methods will bring about complacent children difficult to refuse. One former follower of the Pearls told the media that she was 'sucked in' by the words of Michael Pearl. He makes you think he has the ear of God. But the mother later gave up using his methods. 'You have to suppress your natural instincts and natural mothering to be able to do this.' "

Heimlich takes a look at the many forms of "child maltreatment found in religious contexts, including biblically-prescribed corporal punishment and beliefs about the necessity of 'breaking the wills' of children; scaring kids into faith and other types of emotional maltreatment, such as spurning, isolating, and withholding love; pedophiliac abuse by religious authorities and the failure of religious organizations to support the victims and punish the perpetrators; and religiously-motivated medical neglect in cases of serious health problems," according to the press release for Breaking Their Will.

Pearl was interviewed by CNN's Anderson Cooper on Oct. 26 on "Anderson Cooper 360" and defended his teachings.

Pearl also denied being responsible for people misinterpreting his book. He was paraphrased in a press release on Oct. 31 as saying that when the principles outlined in the book were not followed, there was potential for trouble in the form of child abuse. But when the principles were followed, children were to grow up to be happier, healthier and better prepared for the pressures of adulthood.

"If you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic's house, you wouldn't blame the book," he said in an interview with The New York Times.

Correction: Thursday, Feb. 24, 2009:

The police report, which CP reviewed, does not say that a copy of Pearl's book was found in Hana Williams' "parents' possession." The police report says Hana's mother, Carri Williams, gave the book as a gift to an unidentified acquaintance. The report notes that the parents used a plumbing supply line – as described in Pearls' book – to spank their children, and that Hana was spanked with a similar tool the day of her death.

Sean Paddock was from North Carolina, not South Carolina.

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