Parenting and the Power of Perspective

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This past week I have been reading quite a few articles on parenting, including the April 5th article in The Wall Street Journal about modern-day Machiavellian parenting, which only just came to my attention. While that article deserves a response post all its own, I wanted to draw attention to a Christian version of Machiavellian parenting — the model advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl, both in their well-known book “To Train Up a Child,” and elsewhere in their various media outlets (blogs, newsletters, and magazines).

I have read a lot of the Pearls’ teachings on marriage, parenting, and general theology, and one of the things that disturbs me the most about their parental advice is the attitude they take towards children. I want to highlight that here, because I think it illustrates in bold colors some theological mine fields that a lot of Christian parents can fall into without quite realizing it.

In the June 1995 issue of the No Greater Joy magazine, Michael Pearl published an article titled “Emotional Manipulators,” which has since been published on the NGJ website. In it, he tells a very typical story (typical for the Pearls, that is.) In this story, a young couple with several children visits the Pearls. While the children are playing in the yard, one of them falls down and starts crying. The mother runs to her little girl and comforts her, providing the Pearls with an opportunity to bash her for permissive parenting, guilt-ridden dishonesty, and teaching her daughter emotional manipulation…wait…what??

Yes. You read that right. Let’s take a closer look at Michael Pearl’s account of the events.

Child2Just this week, a family was visiting us in the herb garden while their children played in the yard. The four-year-old girl seemed to be pouty and moody. For a while, she just watched the other children having fun, but didn’t participate. She was the smallest and often couldn’t keep up. After a time, making an attempt to chase after the others, she fell on the thick carpet of grass. She immediately began to scream as if the goat were eating her favorite hat. At the same time, she was doing a stumbling, “pitiful” run to her mother. “Poor child.” The mother, drawn by the desperate, defiant screams, did what all mothers are expected to do, she sympathetically rushed to her “wounded” child. The four-year-old psychologist was well aware that, with others looking on, the mother’s reputation was at stake.

Okay. Stop right there. “The four-year-old psychologist was well aware that, with others looking on, the mother’s reputation was at stake.” Huh? Since when do four-year-old little girls  think like this? They’re hardly more than babies — when they fall down, or get hurt in some way, they run to their mother’s arms for comfort, for closeness. They don’t care who’s watching. And they don’t typically think in terms of forcing their mother to respond by threatening her reputation, for crying out loud. They just expect that she will respond, because, well, because she’s their mother.

We are beginning to see here the ugly attitude Michael Pearl has towards children, especially children who do not behave as he thinks children ought to behave. Notice the language in this first paragraph. The little girl seemed to be “pouty” and “moody.” She didn’t “participate” in the other children’s fun. When she fell down, she faked a “pitiful” run to her mother, screaming “desperate, defiant screams” all the while.

Definitely not a little girl who deserves our sympathy. Right? That seems to be what Michael Pearl wants us to think, anyway. He goes on:

Though it was not outwardly visible, I knew that the mother was irritated at her child. She didn’t really feel sympathetic. She was probably thinking something like this: “What’s wrong with the little brat now? She’s such a crybaby. I know she is not really hurt. Why does she pretend to be?” And then the guilt feelings hit the mother and she lies to herself: “Oh well, she is just a little thing and even though there is no scratch or bruise, and the ground is not hard, maybe she is hurt.”

child3There are a LOT of assumptions made in this paragraph, but I will leave them for a minute and focus just on Michael Pearl’s attitude to the child in the garden. He calls her a crybaby, a pretender, and a “little brat.” He says that he thinks the mother was thinking these irritable thoughts, but in saying so, he reveals that in fact, he himself is the one with the ugly attitude. Michael Pearl was irritated at the child’s behavior. Michael Pearl thought she was a little brat for crying for her mother’s attention and comfort when she wasn’t really hurt. And Michael Pearl feels that since he knows everything both mother and child were thinking, that he can be an authoritative judge on the matter.

But wait…maybe we can look at this from an alternative perspective. What if the child’s “moodiness” was due to the fact that she was coming down with a cold? What if she was hungry?  Or sleep-deprived because she missed her afternoon nap? What if she possesses a naturally introverted personality and is discovering that she does not care to play games with all the other children, but would rather be with her mother? Any one of these factors might cause her to be quiet and even “moody.” And what if she didn’t want to play with the others because they were bigger and faster and had trouble including her in their games?  What if her seemingly overly-sensitive reaction to tripping was the result of feeling too little? What if the hurt wasn’t a scraped knee, but a bruised and bewildered heart? What if she just wanted her mother, even if she couldn’t explain why? Is that wrong?

I offer these up as possibilities to illustrate that there are multiple ways of looking at this scenario, and all of mine are far more charitable than Michael Pearls’ perspective. But honestly, who is the best judge of the child’s physical and emotional state prior to the visit in the garden? Who would be the one making the best-informed decision regarding an appropriate response to the child’s tearful outburst? Michael Pearl or the child’s mother–oh wait. Isn’t that rather obvious?

Yet, Michael Pearl goes on to judge (rather harshly) not only the child’s behavior, but the mother’s response. Michael Pearl feels that he is in an appropriate place to judge, but he is not taking into account the possibility of numerous mitigating factors for the better assessment of the big picture. He is, in fact, only looking at the child through the lens of his own personal opinion on what appropriate child behavior is, and making a lot of assumptions about the emotional and spiritual state of both the child and mother in the process. In Michael Pearl’s perfect parenting world, no good child would “bother” its mother while she was talking to other adults. According to the Pearls, a child’s asking for attention is a selfish, sinful tendency that wears the parent out unnecessarily, and leads the child to become an emotional manipulator if the parent doesn’t nip this annoying habit in the bud. (If you don’t believe me, read a few chapters of To Train Up a Child. This kind of story is repeated over and over in Pearl literature to show that kids are annoying, sinful brats who need to be taught that it is not acceptable to cry, be clingy, ask “annoying” questions, or in any way intrude on the adult world.)

Does Michael Pearl’s article illustrate a position of grace and love towards children? Does anyone else think this is a warped perspective on normal childhood behavior?

(Look for my response to Part 2 of the article tomorrow!)

2 thoughts on “Parenting and the Power of Perspective

  1. Oh, this is wonderfully thought-provoking, Sarah! You make some very good pointed questions about Pearl’s assumptions. I will grant (based on my own experience as a child) that Pearl’s accusations of the child’s motives are not *totally* unfounded. I performed some cunning actions in my early years and knew what I was doing! However, for the most part it is natural childish-ness that (shockingly!) produces childish behavior. Pearl seems out of touch with the true biblical picture of God the Father – “As a Father has compassion on His children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust.” What is a godly parent but tender-hearted, compassionate and grace-giving? Truly, discipline that takes place in vindictiveness against a child’s evil heart is ungodly and will help the children form a wrong impression of God. Children *are* hellish little sinners – but so are we, and look how God treats us! We can believe that the tripped, crying child is enslaved to sin, craving attention, immature, selfish and everything else that Pearl says and *still* run to them, hold them, kiss them and say “Be careful sweetie – Mama loves you! You’ll be alright.” God does discipline us for persisting in transgression, but he doesn’t pounce on us every time we sin. He is forgiving and patient. If Pearl thinks that God views His children the way Pearl exhorts us to view our children, I wonder how He can understand the gospel.
    There are sins that parents should pounce on immediately – I remember my mom taking me straight for a sound spanking the first time I lied to her about snitching dessert as a very young child. The difference is that she wasn’t judging my motives – she was punishing a transgression of God’s law. I felt loved, even at that age, by that spanking, because that sin made me feel so dirty! Oh how scarring it must be to be punished for perceived sinful motives!

  2. Thanks for the post, Sarah! You made some wonderful and articulate points! I have read a lot of the Pearls’ literature, too, and have mixed emotions about their teachings. Like everyone else, it would seem, they get some things right and some things wrong. We always have to read what people say and learn from the good and set aside the bad. I agree with Alyssa, little ones can most definitely be very sly in their responses. I have a 1 year old who can take me for turns with the way his little head can connive, sometimes! Perhaps the key is to deal with the waywardness of all children (and people, no matter the age) with personal humility and the spirit of Christ where “justice and mercy have kissed each other.” It’s a tightrope, sometimes, that we sinners mess up often. But I definitely agree, the Pearls frequently come across as arrogant and ungracious in their literature. The spirit of Christ is as important as Christ-like “behaviour.”

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