Note: There is an update at the end, as of August 16, 2011.
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
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…
- “Christian Families on the Edge: Authoritarianism and Isolationism Among Us” by Rachel D. Ramer for the Christian Research Institute
- “Solving the Crisis in Home Schooling” by Reb Bradley (who used to be authoritarian and controlling but is now teaching about the dangers of that approach)
- “Sweetness Comes Through Godly Wisdom, Part Two”In this audio presentation, Karen Campbell covers a lot of ground about over-authoritarian parenting, including why naturalist John Muir rejected his parents' Christian faith even after he had memorized all of the New Testament and 2/3 of the Old Testament
Here are three blog posts which also talk about this case.
- Child Abuse in the Name of Jesus by Karen Campbell, who first told me about this story
- Heartbroken. Angry. Again. (this blog post by TulipGirl includes lots of links for further research)
- When Parenting Kills – What Can We Do?
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!
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 mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. I write more frequently on my main blog, http://www.virginiaknowles.blogspot.com/, as well as on my preschool/elementary blog, http://www.startwellhomeschool.blogspot.com/ and my middle school blog, http://www.continuewellhomeschool.blogspot.com/.
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!"