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February 18, 2010

Spanked to death

Disclaimer #1: This is a very sensitive topic, not for children except with parental guidance.
Disclaimer #2: This is not an anti-homeschooling post. I love homeschooling and homeschoolers. I was homeschooled. I will probably homeschool my children.
Disclaimer #3: This is not an anti-spanking post. If you have a grace-based, Christ-centered home, where you are treating your children with the gentleness Jesus had and commanded towards children, yet occasionally and prayerfully use spanking as a tool in your discipline toolbox, I totally respect your freedom as a parent to make the best choices for your family and your children, and that is not what I'm speaking of in this post.


As I was reading some recent news, I found out that homeschooling is now seen as a red flag for child abuse. I talked with a Christian friend of mine who is studying childhood advocacy, and she confirmed it. Why is this the case?

A horrific case has hit the news recently. A young girl in a Christian, homeschooled family, whose parents followed the methodologies of Michael and Debi Pearl--two very popular authors in homeschool circles--was spanked to death, using the same instrument that the authors recommend (plumbing tubing). Her sister is in critical care. I have felt sick ever since reading this story. I just want to weep because I'm sure that they didn't mean to kill their child.

And I grab my children and hug them and try not to cry.

This is terribly sad and disturbing. What is even more sad is that people have been warning about these authors and their recommendations for years now, especially since the death of another small child in a Christian, homeschooled family who followed the teachings of the same author. Yet, they continue to be very, very popular, and to my knowledge, have not recanted or removed any of their controversial teachings.

A couple of years ago, I visited these authors' website to see what the problem was. I was sickened. The advice and commentary ranged anywhere from switching an infant for not sleeping right away, to pulling off a belt and beating someone else's toddler and continuing the beating until she cried the "right" kind of cry, to whipping a child so hard that they have no breath to cry out with (or else you're not doing it "right"), to switching a small child's foot relentlessly for stepping outside without their shoes on, and just in general, whipping/beating/spanking until a child's will is completely broken. I could go on and on. If you must, you can find the quotes yourself. They're interwoven with nice-sounding, folksy wisdom, but they're appalling.

Please, think about yourself in your child's position. Are these practices following Christ's command not to hinder the little children? Are we ever, ever, ever taught in the Bible that we are to break our child's will, spirit, heart, or body? Shape, mold, guide and discipline/disciple them, yes and amen!!!!!, but to break their little bodies or hearts? How does this fit into the overwhelming mercy of God? How does this fit into the joy of the Gospel? How does this fit into the call for the greatest to become the servant to the least? How does this fit into the high place that we believe children are given within covenantal theology?

These are on the extreme ends of the teachings that I have seen. Yes. The authors themselves warn parents not to let this stray into abuse (though I feel that some of those things that I mentioned have strayed deeply into that realm). But after reading through the blogosphere and even a few real-life conversations, I'm realizing that there are many irresponsible teachings out there on Christian discipline. I'm going to list just a very few examples, I'm keeping them deliberately vague, as I respect some of these people, just not these teachings. These come from comments and posts on very well-known Christian, homeschooling "teaching" blogs or forums, or from published books. Some of these authors directly praise the Pearls and similar teachings. I'm not saying this to shame them, but to express my concern over where these teachings could lead.

*A woman brags about how well her children are behaved, because she started switching them as infants (less than six months old) for wiggling. Note: I don't agree with all things that Dr. Dobson teaches, but even he says that you shouldn't spank a child before 18 months because of the alarming risks for shaken-baby syndrome and other internal injuries (see Dare to Discipline).

*A young mom speaks of her two-hour punishment session (alternating spankings and prayer) for her little over a year-old baby for not saying "please" for her food.

*A two-year-old is spanked repeatedly for being frightened of a hair-cut.

*A mom asks for advice on alternatives to spanking because she and her husband were abusively spanked, and is afraid that that will affect her relationship with her children. Not only is her own history of abuse questioned at one point (if I remember correctly, basically since spanking is Biblical, it can't be abusive), she is advised (at least through inference) just to go ahead and spank.

*Four-month olds are to be smacked on their legs for babbling too loudly.

*Spanking/beating is presented as the only method of Christian discipline. Further, it should be used from infancy until the teenager leaves the house.

I could go on and on, but I feel sick already of typing this out.

Here are more links with discussion on that particular story. There are good discussions in the comments section of many of them from several angles. Again, read with discretion.

Heartbroken and Angry This includes links to other articles dealing with the Pearls and others from a theological standpoint.
Child Abuse in the Name of Jesus
Spanking in Anger isn't the Problem
When Extremists are Taken to the Extreme
When Parenting Kills--What Can We Do? This includes some quotes.
Child Discipline or Child Abuse This includes warning signs of child abuse.
This post on Perfectionism is an older post, but it deals with both the Pearl's command to (direct quote) "never show mercy" to your children, as well as the doctrine of perfectionism that is quite troubling.

I am planning a follow-up post with some excellent resources that I've found helpful along my parenting journey. But feel free to share anything that you've found helpful in your journey.

Thinking , parenting | By Tim and Jo | 2:38 PM


Thanks for writing this, Jo.

Posted by: Jeannette at February 18, 2010 8:44 PM

Thanks, Jo, for sharing this. It is deeply disturbing.

One thing that I've found especially hard is seeing mothers I absolutely KNOW love their kids dearly and never want to harm them, somehow blind to the HARM that is being advocated by these sorts of teachings.

I am glad that more people in the Church are raising a yellow warning flag. . . we (homeschoolers, Christians, parents who love kids) are not immune from abuse. . .

Posted by: MommyGirl at February 18, 2010 9:35 PM

Those Examples made me sick to my stomach. Literally, nauseous. So sad for those children...

Posted by: Jamie at February 18, 2010 11:37 PM

these are the kinds of boys who grow up to beat their wives and truly believe it is their right to do so and the kinds of girls who grow up accepting abuse because they truly believe they deserve it

so sad

I have very little hope for the human race

Posted by: earthgirl at February 19, 2010 9:13 AM

Thank you for linking to my "Child Discipline or Child Abuse?" article. The message needs to go far and wide! Though no one has left a comment on my blog itself, my inbox has been flooded with notes of agreement -- people are seeing this all over the place but have been nearly silent about it until now.

I am writing a lot more lately about the absolute necessity of GRACE for spiritual growth and family dynamics lately. If anyone wishes to subscribe to my monthly e-magazine, you can send any e-mail to hopechest-subscribe@associate.com. I also blog more regularly at www.VirginiaKnowles.blogspot.com.

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

Posted by: Virginia Knowles at February 19, 2010 10:27 AM

As a potential parent, I have started thinking more about this subject. So, thanks for posting this.

Posted by: Carrie at February 19, 2010 10:27 AM

I ended up reading your post twice last night, once to myself and again to my husband. We are horrified by the idea that someone would beat their babies, their children, with the permission of a so-called Christian organization. It made us absolutely sick. I'm glad you're talking about this in a sensitive manner. (Your disclaimers alone were encouraging!)

Posted by: RT at February 19, 2010 11:00 AM

Thank you for your feedback, everyone.

Karen, I wouldn't have written about this if I didn't feel like there was hope. Though it is terrible, and hard not to think about. A couple people have pointed out that this kind of teaching is most dangerous for parents who want to do their best by their children, as it promises near-instant results--do it "right" a few times (i.e., beat them until their will is broken), then they'll behave for the rest of their life. It's just heartbreaking. But there is hope, and that is one reason I felt compelled to speak out (I hate being controversial, but I couldn't stay silent).

I do feel like there is hope, especially as a Christian, that Christ has brought good news to us and to our children. But I'm frightened when spanking is made the lynchpin of Christian parenting, rather than Christ.

RT, thank you for your feedback, too. One of the main reasons I wanted to speak out is not just because of this extreme method, but also how some of this control filters into more mainstream Christian parenting books--break your child's will, use spanking for every offense, punish them into the kingdom or back into the fold.

As I said, I'm not against spanking as a tool. BUT Christ was the one who took the punishment for our sins and for our children's sins, and in a covenantal context, we trust that there is now no condemnation for them either, and raise them as our little brothers and sisters in Christ, and trust that the Holy Spirit is already molding their hearts.

And my big question is, how do we convey that to our children? Yes, boundaries. Yes, discipline. Yes, discipleship. Yes, yes, yes! But I think even as we deal with our children's sins, we need to be showing them the Gospel.

Posted by: Jo at February 19, 2010 11:53 AM

Thanks for sharing Joanna. I am deeply grieved by some of these unloving family situations. They think they are disciplining and loving their children, and yet they are doing the absolute opposite. Sadly, it has even led to physical and/or emotional child abuse.

What we need to remember is that discipline should always come with love. No child should ever need to go to the hospital, and/or be in critical care, etc due to being disciplined. Clearly, the examples you have listed above show discipline being put into practice without any love, which is surely not the Biblical way.

Posted by: Stella at February 19, 2010 5:50 PM

"BUT Christ was the one who took the punishment for our sins and for our children's sins, and in a covenantal context, we trust that there is now no condemnation for them either, and raise them as our little brothers and sisters in Christ, and trust that the Holy Spirit is already molding their hearts."

Oh-so-beautifully said!


Posted by: MommyGirl at February 21, 2010 2:31 AM

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