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Extremists' Discipline Teachings Connected with Child Abuse and Deaths

Few parenting topics incite debate as quickly as that of discipline techniques. Usually, for every person who runs a never-spank household and believes spanking is akin to child abuse, there is someone who feels an occasional spanking—using the hand only—is a reasonable response to a misbehaving child. While these parents may never see eye-to-eye, they are certainly a far cry from the practices that are preached by Fundamentalist Christians Michael and Debi Pearl of the No Greater Joy Ministries.

The Pearls say "it's God's will" to use corporal punishment on children. They have published several books on their beliefs and have essentially given parents a detailed guide on how to use physical means to exert control over children and teens. Their extreme teachings are included in the highly controversial book To Train Up a Child, which has received media attention after being linked to the wrongful deaths of several children.

The Tragic Scenarios

Larry and Carri Williams, who embraced the Pearls' teachings and highly recommended the book to others, were found guilty in the death of their adopted daughter, Hana. The 13-year-old was found naked and facedown in the Williames' backyard with a mouthful of mud. Hana's cause of death was hypothermia and malnutrition. Police reports indicate her parents had deprived her of food and forced her to stay outside in the cold. Hana had sustained serious injuries. Several marks and abrasions were on her body from repeated beatings, including one that occurred on the day of her death. The beatings were conducted with a piece of plumbing supply line, a device that, in his books Michael Pearl recommends parents use. CNN reports that Mrs. Williams initiallly claimed her daughter's death was a suicide in her 911 call. She told the 911 operator, "Um, she's really rebellious, and she's been outside refusing to come in, and she's been throwing herself all around, and then she collapsed." The Williamses, who adopted Hana from Ethiopia, have seven other children, including a deaf boy who was also adopted from Ethiopia. They are now in foster care. The couple was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to nearly 30 years in prison.

Unfortunately, Hana is not the only child whose death has been linked to the Pearls. At least two other cases have been connected to their teachings. In 2010, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz were found guilty of using a 1/4-inch plastic plumbing tube to beat their 7-year-old daughter, Lydia, to death. She was one of three children the couple adopted from Liberia. They also have six biological children. The beating that led to her death from severe tissue damage allegedly occurred because she mispronounced a word when reading a book aloud. Her older sister was also hospitalized with similar injuries. Kevin was charged with second-degree murder and torture and will serve at least 22 years of two life sentences. Elizabeth will serve at least 13 years for voluntary manslaughter and corporal punishment on a child.

In 2006, the death of Sean Paddock, 4, was also linked to the Pearls' books. Lynn Paddock was convicted of first-degree murder after Sean died of suffocation due to being too tightly wrapped in a blanket. Sean was one of six adopted children, and his surviving siblings said daily beatings were conducted with the same type of plumbing tube used in the other cases.

The Pearls' Beliefs

In To Train Up a Child, Pearl likens training children to that of making a dog obedient or breaking a horse or mule. He reasons that "training doesn't necessarily require that the trainee be capable of reason, even mice and rats can be trained to respond to stimuli," and advocates starting obedience training with children as young as 6 months old. He says that parents can begin by training a baby not to roll off a blanket or not to grab desirable objects by arranging "training sessions" in which the infant's hand is "switched" when they perform undesirable behaviors. He notes that it could take several switchings until the baby associates pain with bad behavior and obeys commands. Pearl's techniques revolve around "breaking the child's will" and obtaining total obedience in all situations.

Pearl also tells parents to spank older children with belts, wooden spoons, willowy branches, paddles, rulers and tree branches. And he suggests withholding meals, forcing children outside in cold weather and using a hose to clean children who have potty training accidents. The Pearls have said they do not condone child abuse and cannot to be held responsible for parents who take their teachings, which they call Biblical Chastisement, too far because they reject parents disciplining their children out of anger.

In an official statement on their website reacting to the death of Hana Williams, the Pearls wrote, "We share in the sadness over the tragic death of Hana Williams. What her parents allegedly did is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of No Greater Joy Ministries (NGJ) and what is taught in the book To Train Up a Child."

Even if Pearl does not condone acts of brutality against children, those opposed to the books say he is giving parents permission to hit their children. They say the book is riddled with Biblical quotes that have multiple interpretations and may help parents justify their actions in the name of God. In the case of Lydia, it was reported that the Schatzes beat her for hours at a time over several days while stopping to pray frequently during the course of their actions.

What do the professionals say?

The teachings of the Pearls, who have no medical or psychological degrees to back up their claims, are in direct conflict with years of academic research. The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a firm stance against spanking indicating that, "Spanking may relieve a parent's frustration for the moment and extinguish the undesirable behavior for a brief time. But it is the least effective way to discipline." Additionally, researchers have found links between spanking and increased aggression in kids and increased instances of mental health disorders in children, even in the absence of more serious forms of abuse. Many conservative Christian groups and other concerned parenting groups have spoken out against the Pearls and signed petitions calling for the book to be removed from circulation. So far, the Pearls' right to freedom of speech has been upheld.