Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Child Discipline or Child Abuse?

Dear friends,

Note: There is an update at the end, as of August 16, 2011. I have also added an article on domestic violence, especially as it pertains to Christian homes.

Please permit me a rant. You need to read this.

On February 6, seven year old Lydia Schatz, adopted from Liberia, was murdered. Her 11 year old sister Zariah is in critical condition with severe kidney damage. Who did it? Their deeply religious (I can’t bring myself to say Christian) home schooling parents, who were attempting to “discipline” them. The “offense” of the murdered child was that she mispronounced a word during her home school lesson. She was beaten for seven hours with a plumbing supply line, with only short "prayer" breaks. Another brother has been found with significant bruising. Read the 
news story.  The murder has been attributed to the parents following the teaching of Michael and Debi Pearl in their books To Train Up a Child and No Greater Joy, which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies among home school families.  

I am heartsick. I've been tracking news stories in the home school community for years, and these deaths are not the only ones. (This hits a little close to home for me. A few years back, I was shocked to hear that another home schooling mom named Kimberly Forder, who had written an article about international adoption for the Hope Chest -- ouch! -- was convicted of murder in the abuse death of her son Christopher.) Many horrible abuses that don’t happen to result in death are never even reported. Much of this is the result of very misguided or overwhelmed parents trying to implement “Biblical” discipline in their homes. THIS IS NOT BIBLICAL DISCIPLINE AND IT MUST STOP! As compassionate Christians and as a home schooling community, we must have ZERO tolerance for abusive parenting. If we seriously want to preserve the abundant liberties we enjoy as home schooling families, we're going to have to make sure that our movement is not characterized by such aberrant behavior. We need to start speaking out and educating one another about healthy family dynamics and child discipline.

I am not railing against reasonable corporal discipline, nor should we overreact to an occasional minor accidental injury related to this, but we do need to take a stand when we see any of these warning signs:
  • Parental action which results in bruising, bleeding, welts, burns, fractures, dislocations, or other injuries (I don't consider very temporary minor reddening of the skin to be a concern)
  • Parents who neglect to seek appropriate medical care for an injury out of fear of being accused of abuse
  • Parents who withhold proper food, sleep, hygiene, or emotional nurture from the child as a form of punishment
  • Parents who force their children to have unnatural contact with urine, feces, or other unhygienic situations
  • Parents who lock their children up in a room for extended periods of time (I'm not talking about reasonable "time out")
  • Parents who are “out of control” in their anger, and who are more interested in punishment and retribution than in sincerely and compassionately training their child
  • Parents who routinely resort to extended yelling, shaming, ridiculing, harsh accusation, and other forms of verbal abuse -- which can be (but not necessarily) a signal of physical abuse
  • Parents who publicly advocate using discipline methods which seem abusive or excessively harsh, even if they are taught as being “biblical” or “godly”
  • Children who are cowering in fear from their parents, or who are unusually withdrawn, depressed, or aggressive
This may be you! If so, stop now and get help! Your child’s safety and emotional well-being is far more important than your reputation. Do we want to train our children that it’s OK for Mom and Dad to be violent bullies in the name of Jesus? How can we ever teach them self-control if we aren’t setting the example? Things can get better! Things MUST get better! Perhaps it is your husband who is doing this. You may think that it would be unsubmissive to intervene in a “discipline” situation because your husband is supposed to be the spiritual leader of the home, or because if you were being a "better mom" your kids wouldn't behave badly enough for him to get that upset. Sorry ladies, but these excuses just don't fly. In Acts 5, Sapphira was punished just as harshly as her husband Ananias because she went along with his deceit and tried to cover for him. So you don't get off the hook for your responsibilities just because you are "submitting" to your husband. If your husband is out of control to the point of abusing your children, you have the MORAL and LEGAL obligation to do whatever you can to put an end to this behavior. If that means you need to physically restrain your husband and/or take your children to a safe place until he calms down, then do it. If this is a pattern and your children are in continued danger, you NEED to get outside help. Call a trusted friend, your pastor (unless he condones or ignores abusive discipline), a professional counselor, and/or your community’s family crisis center -- and keep going until you get the REAL help you need.

In addition, husbands should never treat their wives like dirty doormats in the name of “Biblical submission.” You do not need to passively accept physical or verbal abuse. I've heard from some of you who are being subjected to this kind of degradation, even some who have been in danger. This is not right! You are not becoming a “liberal feminist” if you begin to draw healthy boundaries of respectful treatment around yourself. But, remember, everything must be done in love - even when we have to draw safe boundaries. Someone else's poor behavior is never an excuse for ours. This blog post might help:
Help for Hurting Marriages.

You may know someone in your neighborhood, your extended family, your church, or your home school support group who is abusing their children or spouse. Don’t turn a blind eye. Do your best to discretely find out what is going on in the family by talking to the children and to the parents. This is compassionate intervention, not gossip. Offer support. Encourage them to get help. If they refuse to do this, and the situation is serious and continuing, you will need to call in outside intervention. (Be VERY careful about making accusations public, though, because it may not be abuse at all, and an unnecessary visit from the police or social worker can be quite traumatic for a child. Be sure of your facts before you call.)

While we are on the topic of inappropriate parenting, I’d like to say a few things about over-authoritarian control in the Christian home schooling movement. I know most of us are taking the time and money and effort at this because we want our kids to turn out to be fine, upstanding, godly young adults. We don’t want them to make the same mistakes we did. We want to keep them out of trouble, out of harm’s way. We don’t want them to “fall into sin.” Fair enough! But I think we need to take a SERIOUS look at how we view this and how we try to implement this in our homes. (This is something I am reevaluating, too, so I'm preaching to myself.) I think some among us have become control freaks with our kids. We need to realize that we aren’t God, we don’t own our children, and we don’t need to dictate every last little detail of their lives or isolate them from all outside influences, especially as they move into the teen years. We don’t need to use ridicule or guilt-trips to get them to behave according to our expectations. Yes, we need to teach them as best we can, be wise "gatekeepers" over the influences in our homes, and certainly set a wholesome example -- but most of all we need to pray for them and trust God, who loves them so much more than we ever could. We need to listen to our kids and not try to shut them down whenever they express disagreements. They should have the freedom to share whatever is on their hearts (hopefully in a respectful manner!) without fear that we will react in shock, disapproval or rejection. We need to seek to inspire our children into such a warm relationship with their Heavenly Father that they will increasingly learn for themselves how to hear and follow his voice. Home schooling should not be the means to unduly limit our children’s options in life, but to launch them into the Grand Adventure (risks and all!) which our loving Lord has planned for them!

I hope to write more about these topics sometime soon, but for now, these links will provide some food for thought…

Here are three blog posts which also talk about this case.
And, if you didn’t click on it earlier in my letter… News story on the Schatz family

I'ver received a lot of responses in my e-mail inbox since I published this on February 17.  I have compiled excerpts from several of them, including ones with additional ways to reach out to hurting families: Adding Your Voices About Child Abuse

Update: On March 11, I had the opportunity to speak for a home school group in Gainesville, Florida. Some of my comments touched on positive child training. You can listen to the audio message: Amazing Grace for Home School Moms.

For grace and mercy - and justice!

Virginia Knowles

P.S. In the past few weeks this blog has received well over 2000 visitors linked from other sites. (It usually gets one or two per day!) I didn't realize until at least a week after I posted it that I didn't have the comment function turned on - I was beginning to wonder why folks weren't leaving any! So now it's on and you are welcome to share your thoughts! Please just remember to be civil and discrete.

P.P.S. Since most of you aren't already familiar with me, if you want to subscribe to my monthly e-magazine, where I write about home education, spiritual growth, and family life, you can send any message to I write more frequently on my main blog,, as well as on my preschool/elementary blog, and my middle school blog,

Update on August 16, 2011:  Anderson Cooper is doing a CNN news report on this case tonight, and the clip is on-line.  You can watch it here: Girl Spanked to Death in the Name of God.  Michael and Debi Pearl are interviewed in this video.  They seem so calm and self-composed here, but this is what I wrote in an e-mail to my subscribers after my original blog post: "When I originally wrote my article, I mentioned Michael and Debi Pearl because their books on child training (To Train Up a Child and No Greater Joy) have been implicated in the abuse deaths of Lydia Schatz and Sean Paddock.   I received a few vocal protests about that, so I removed that paragraph when I posted it on my blog, not wanting it to be a distraction from my main point that parents must not let child discipline turn into child abuse.  However, I was absolutely shocked today to read Michael Pearl's own blog post in which he has the audacity to very mockingly laugh at his critics without mentioning the murder of Lydia Schatz, expressing any grief that her death has been linked to his methods, or even cautioning his readers not to overdo his own methods.  Instead, he brags about how children trained by his methods are going to take over the world.  This is unconscionable and sickening!"


  1. This recent story is so so sad, as they all are. I would add one more suggestion, from my experience/involvement in a homeschooling friend/family with an abusive father...If you seek to get outside help, have a plan for the victims before the abuser is confronted. I read this on the Domestic Abuse website and this became very important to me as we helped my friend. The victims could be in great danger if the abuser is confronted...then left alone in the house afterwards.


  2. All well said Virginia - keep saying it my sweet sister!

  3. Thank you for speaking out. One thing to remember when speaking in a way that is to a wife who is a victim of an abusive husband..if they are in a church where they women are NOT to speak up, she may not be able to get help without completely isolating herself from everyone she knows. Some churches demand total loyalty to the church family and to expose ANYTHING within it's circle is a violation and she'll be left all alone to deal with it. They need help getting strong alliances to help them get out and to stay out, safely.

  4. Please read this:

    Part 1 -

    Part 2 -

    Part 3 -

    I think you're on the right track. But as long as spanking continues to be legal, this is what it will come to.

  5. I have spoken out against this book in our own area and our own church for three years now. We were attending a church in Idaho when I first came in contact with the Pearl’s book.

    At the time I was parenting my two darling daughters. My eldest is my daughter from birth and my youngest we adopted from China when she was thirteen and half months old. We were having horrible behavior and attitude issues with my youngest at the time. I had tried everything I could think of to parent her and nothing was working. I was at my wits end and beginning to feel that I was the not “right” mommy for her. That was when another adoptive mom told me about a person who ran a ladies group out of her home. She was also an adoptive mother to four beautifully behaved bi-racial children.

    During this same time, after much research on my own, we had finally found a Christian therapist who diagnosed our daughter with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder. I wept with sorrow and joy over this news. Finally I had some answers to the troubling situation we had been living in, but I also knew that RAD was a devastating diagnosis and a very serious condition.

    After talking with this other adoptive mom, who recommended we immediately stop all therapeutic treatment and that we institute spanking in our house, I knew she was not for me. I did agree to go to one of her meetings, but since my husband was an elder at our church at the time, it was more out of the red flags I was getting from her that I went, than my own belief that she had anything helpful to offer us. When I heard her speak I was very upset. Her methods sounded very much like the Pearl’s methods. She spoke of trainer swats for six month olds, crying it out methods for children as young as six weeks old since it was more “merciful” to them at that age than waiting until they were older, setting up training situations to teach children how to behave in public properly, and so much more. She never showed the book, but it was highly suspicious of both Growing Kids God’s Way and the Pearl’s books.

  6. I spoke to my husband and he brought the information forward to the elders at the next meeting. He felt confident that all would work out and the church would handle this very bad and dangerous teaching. They didn’t. The elders left him hanging out on his own and my husband sat like a sitting goose for slaughter. The pastor did say he would talk to the leader of this group and my husband so we earnestly prayed for God’s intervention.

    During the meeting she lied and told the pastor she had never said what we accused her of saying. When we brought out the e-mails where she had written the information she back pedaled and said she had never heard of the Pearl’s, although she is and always has been a home-schooling family. She cried and said everything that convinced our pastor that she was right and we were out for some sick vengeance. Years later when our pastor apologized for not listening to us he admitted she has said all the right things.

    Ultimately my husband immediately stepped down from being and elder and we left our church of more than ten years. It broke my heart and for many years I felt very betrayed by that church and people we thought were our family members. Remember during this time we were going through hell within our own family while trying to help our very sick daughter heal.

    She and I were flying 800 miles every two weeks for therapy with an amazing attachment/trauma therapist. She was also in a program to address the sensory and neurological damage that the neglect and trauma she had suffered early in life had left her with. We had daily meltdowns, not just little temper tantrums, but huge rages with violence against herself and me. It was the hardest time of my life and we were under a tremendous amount of physical, financial, marital, spiritual and emotional stress. Our Golden Retriever was even showing signs of being traumatized by the chaos of our home, so losing a church and church body was highly traumatizing for us all. We felt utterly lost, rejected and betrayed and for a long time we refused to allow ourselves to have connections with anyone in the new church we finally chose.

    A year after we left a lady from our old church called me and asked if we had left because of the teachings from this woman’s class. I told her yes and explained to her what I knew. She told me there were more ladies who were very concerned and they had taken their concerns to the church leaders and finally someone from leadership was going to check things out. In the end the pastor and his wife went to one of her meetings and walked out in horror. They have since started another parenting class to combat the lies this woman taught. They told her she could no longer teach at their church and this whole fiasco has split the church wide open. Some leaders were asked to leave due to their participation and their endorsement of this woman’s teachings, which in turn did come from the Pearl’s book. She finally started showing it at the end of her meetings although she had lied and told our pastor and my family she had never heard of the book.

    She immediately picked up shop and went to another church where she teaches the same unbiblical, verse twisting, garbage. She has a blog where she uses parent testimony to share how her methods work. In one parent’s testimony the mom tells how she brushes her children’s teeth with hot sauce if they tell a lie. I have turned her information and her blog address over to Idaho’s CPS, but they admit that until marks are left there is nothing they can do.

  7. It is heart wrenching to me because I know she teaches other adoptive families these methods, which within a birth family are horrible, but in parenting post-institutionalized traumatized children are pure evil from the pit of hell itself. Post-institutionalized children like my daughter CANNOT be spanked for many reasons, but one main reason is their bodies don’t feel the physical pain the same way a child’s with normal healthy brain development feel. My daughter had turned her feelings off to the point of not feeling pain, she had to in order to survive, so spanking her would have been counterproductive. Then you add the FACT, that children from Liberia have been through incredible amounts of abuse, and spanking those kids only aligns these parents with past abusers, and undermines any ability for these kids to be able to trust and attach to them.

    I could go on and on and on with what I have learned from parenting and helping my daughter heal. This situation with these parents was dangerous from the get go. From the fact that they most likely knew nothing about attachment and trauma, to the fact that they followed parenting advice that is flat out wrong with any child. This was like adding gasoline onto an already raging fire.
    Webpages to check out to educate pre-adoptive and adoptive parents:

  8. Thanks for the comments, ladies! I will continue to speak out. There is a pretty comprehensive index of blog posts and articles about this issue at:

  9. Thanks to Anon for speaking out about the very strong likelihood that Lydia was suffering from RAD and post traumatic stress issues. This has upset me. As the mother of an adopted daughter who is healing from RAD, I know how vile and damaging their abuse of Lydia was--and I also can somewhat understand the scenarios and desperation that might have driven them to do it. Dealing with a child's RAD without LOTS of support and a strong understanding of good parenting would be almost impossible. It was very hard for me the first several years--and I had a good support system, a pretty incredible husband who I was able to work closely with, and some serious parenting experience. Having been vulnerable years ago to people presenting "the one right method" due to my own insecurities and such, I chose to address that angle when I blogged about the situation at God bless all who are speaking out loudly and clearly against this evil abuse from the pit of hell itself.

  10. I assume you've seen the latest death linked to Michael and Debi Pearl? Hana Grace Williams. . .

  11. Yes, Tulip Girl, I linked to the news article last night on one of my other blogs, It's the post, Why Am I Still Writing About Abuse?


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