I’ve spent the day reading Michael Pearl on spanking infants, and reviewing the scientific
literature on the topic. I undertook this exploration in honor of Hanna, the child to die most
recently at the hands of a parent following Peal’s parenting guide, To Train Up A Child (1994).
Pearl has no credentials related to child development or parenting. According to his website, he is
a graduate of Mid-South Bible College. Yet his book has sold 650,000 copies in English and more in
other languages. The title and the approach, he says come straight out of the Bible, translated and
interpreted as God’s instruction to “train up” children to obey without question or hesitation.
Pearls’ many long postings on his website rail against a lengthening string of media reports of children
dying from “training” by parents who subscribe to his methods. Pearl says those parents are the few
who lost their temper and over did the “chastisement.” He says the line between “corporal punishment”
and “physical discipline” or “corporal chastisement” is extremely clear to responsible parents.
But I looked in 18 dictionaries, and all define chastisement and physical discipline as punishment.
Are toddlers naturally selfish, carnal, hedonistic?
Pearl argues that punishment comes after the undesirable behavior and intends to inflict pain as a deterrent
to repeating the behavior. I agree with him on that. Chastisement, Pearl says, means using the Biblical “rod’
to reinforce parental commands. If the child is spanked routinely and calmly with love, he will be trained to be
obedient,polite, compliant, and cheerful. If not, he will be trained to “throw a fit” when he parents do not
“comply with his lusts”. Without spanking, the “seeds of defiance are allowed to grow in the child’s soul”, he
says. The unspanked two-year old is by nature, “a selfish, fleshy, carnal, hedonistic, hippie.”So, this reasoning
says, only when a parent loses self-control and acts out of negative emotion is hitting a child abusive.
Spanking would stop crime & wars?
Pearl gives an example of a six-month old who throws his dish on the floor “because he does not like
what is in it”, demonstrating “the early stage of self-will and defiance”. When the child picks up
the dish again, Pearl recommends you hit him, calmly, on the “offending hand” with an “instrument”
while saying firmly “No”. Recommended instruments are a wooden spoon, rubber spatula, or flexible
tubing (they hurt but do not leave marks). This process is to be repeated until the child stops tossing
the dish. Pearl promises the third time is the charm and that the child will not “try the stunt” again.
Therefore, he will be approved and loved by all instead of being rejected. If all parents did this, Pearl
says, we would not need psychologists or child protective services. People like me would move to more
practical kinds of work and there would be no more crime or war. Big claims.
Experience of a spanked anti-spanker
I suppose Pearl would put me in the camp of the “anti-spankers”, which he describes as “the small minority
who don’t trust their ability to act in a restrained and productive manner and do not believe you can either.”
It’s true, in a way. I believe parenting is trying and all parents at times feel like knocking their child into next
week. And that alone is reason enough to not to adopt spanking as a form of discipline (defined as training to
develop (children's) behavior by instruction and practice; especially to teach self-control). Pearl argues, and
he is right again, that most Americans (around 90% by various estimates) were spanked as children. To him
this is evidence that spanking is mainstream and acceptable. But more likely, it’s why parents are prone to
hit their children when they are frustrated. Taking a global view, we non-spankers are the majority. The U.S.
is alone among the developed countries in not outlawing corporal punishment of children.
Pearl says opponents of “corporal discipline” for infants and toddlers “have never experienced the kind of
peace and stability that allows a parent to spank in love for the good of the child.” Here he is wrong. My
parents followed the guidance of their Church and used “corporal chastisement” on me and my brothers
and sisters. (They were honest and called it punishment). My dad was the disciplinarian. He used a wooden
paddle that he made for spanking. He never used it thoughtlessly or out-of-control. He always announced
that he was going to spank me and sent me off to my room to think about it. He always said, “This hurts
me as much as it hurts you.” I knew he hated doing it.
I turned out OK. So did my brothers and sisters; and we still love Dad. Not because of the spanking, in spite
of it .To this day, I wonder why he did it. I still resent it as unnecessary, pointless, unproductive, and as Dad
said every time, hurtful to all involved. It certainly did not make me feel cooperative and “cheerful as a
puppy” as Pearl promises. After spankings I would dream of flying. In the dream I would hover out of
out of reach of my parents and say the things I wanted to say to them. Then I would fly away.
Stay tuned for a review of the scientific evidence on spanking that is translated to practical guidance in
Beginnings Parents’ Guide. Meanwhile, for an alternative view from another spiritual leader, see