Godly discipline turned deadly

A controversial child "training" practice comes under fire -- this time from Christians themselves

Published February 23, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Four years ago this month, a 4-year-old boy named Sean Paddock died when his adoptive mother wrapped him in blankets so tightly that he couldn't breathe. His adoptive mother, Lynn Paddock, was later convicted of his murder. The case brought some mainstream attention -- including a 2006 Salon story -- to the popular, pervasive and controversial child "training" practices of Michael and Debi Pearl, which Lynn Paddock was said to have followed. The teachings of the Pearls and their Tennessee-based  No Greater Joy ministry, which brought in $1.8 million last year in sales of books, DVDs and the like, are widely known and normalized across many conservative Christian churches and home-schooling communities. Perhaps the most popular of several ultra-conservative Christian figures to carry forward this centuries-old strain of Christian thought, the Pearls advocate a specific program of even-tempered, non-injurious corporal punishment, or "chastisement," designed to bring about total obedience -- even by infants -- to their sovereign parents. (The Pearls' ministry and principles are described in greater depth, and broader context, here.) By no means do the Pearls advocate suffocation with blankets; they are emphatically against "abuse." But they do not spare the rod. From their Web site: A length of quarter-inch plumbing supply line is a "real attention-getter."

This month, another child has died: 7-year-old Lydia Schatz, an apparent victim of repeated beating with -- as it turns out -- quarter-inch plumbing supply line. Her parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz of Paradise, Calif., who reportedly called 911 to report that she was not breathing, stand charged with her murder. They are expected to enter a plea on Thursday. According to the authorities, forceful and numerous whippings, apparently with plumbing line, may have caused tissue breakdown so massive that Lydia's vital organs could no longer function. The Schatzes also face torture and abuse charges for significant injuries sustained by Lydia's also-adopted sister Zariah, 11, who was hospitalized in critical condition, as well as for extensive bruising on a 10-year-old biological son. (The Schatzes have six biological children and three adopted from Liberia.) Though the remaining children showed no visible signs of abuse, they told police they'd been "disciplined" with the tubing as well. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey told Salon that the Schatzes had explicitly described to police their adherence to the Pearls' philosophy, which, as one of many horrified anti-Pearl bloggers within the conservative Christian community observes -- recalling precisely what prompted the Schatzes' call to 911 -- includes the admonition that a proper spanking leaves a child "without breath to complain."

It's one thing for those of us outside the fundamentalist Christian/Christian home-schooling world to point fingers at the Pearls and voice outrage at their methods. What really matters, and what stands to have actual impact, is the outrage inside the Pearls' world. And right now, more than ever, an anti-Pearl movement within the conservative Christian community is rising up in heated, if sometimes whispered, fury. Some say -- even pray -- that Lydia Schatz's death will bring Michael and Debi Pearl exactly the kind of attention they deserve.

"I think many in the Christian and/or home-school community wanted to see Sean Paddock as an 'extreme' example. Lynn Paddock was 'just' a foster mom. She already had issues. Whatever someone could use to rationalize away the influence of Michael and Debi Pearl, they would. Because they did not want to admit that a 'normal' home-schooling mom could abuse her child to death, they did not want to admit that a book that has been normalized in home-schooling circles was a factor in the death, they did not want to admit their own vulnerability to being deceived or hurting their child," says Alexandra Bush, 35, a "home-schooling mom and theologically conservative Christian" in Sarasota, Fla., who grew up with Pearl-style teaching around her (though not in her family) and who is an oft-heard anti-Pearl voice online. "Now, with Lydia Schatz, it is harder to explain away. I have seen a stronger response than before to her death and her sister's hospitalization. The defensiveness has cracked a bit. This is the logical outcome of the spank-until-submissive teachings of the Pearls. People are no longer able to see it as just an 'exception.'"

In a statement issued in response to the Schatz arrest, Michael Pearl said, "We do not teach 'corporal punishment' nor 'hitting' children. We teach parents how to train their children, which sometimes requires the limited and controlled application of a spanking instrument to hold the child's attention on admonition ... No Greater Joy does not advocate spanking to the point of serious injury. If indeed these parents were abusive, and that has not yet been proven by the courts, it is regretful that our teachings were not able to turn them from their predisposition to abusive habits."

Many critics of "biblical chastisement" -- notably, those close to the controversy, and even to the Schatz family -- might say that Pearl has it backward. They suggest that his teachings, with all the weight of their godly imprimatur, could exacerbate, or even create, the impulse to abuse. Paul Mathers, 32, a used bookstore owner in Chico, Calif., knows the Schatzes well, or thought he did. They attended his church for about eight months. He and his wife, Laurie -- who wrote in a wrenching blog post about her special bond with "little Lydia" -- have had dinner at the Schatzes' house; the Schatzes, remembering that the Matherses needed a bookcase, dropped off an extra just to be nice. "There is nothing about the Schatzes that would ever have made us think abuse of any kind was going on," Mathers says. "They are the dearest, sweetest people. This is completely unimaginable." Could the Pearls' principles have triggered abusive tendencies out of nowhere? Obviously, Mathers -- who says he finds the Pearls' "chastisement" philosophy "morally repugnant" -- can only speculate. "But one of the things the Pearls suggest is to have the piece of piping in every room and possibly even hang around your neck as you go around the house to keep the child in line," he says. "If you're going around wearing an instrument with which you hit things many times a day -- I could imagine that does do something to people."

As Laurie Mathers wrote on her blog: "The Pearls' system does not just mold children, it molds well-meaning parents into the kind of people who think they can and should expect perfect obedience and perfect behavior from imperfect and defenseless little creatures. In fact, it teaches them that if they don't succeed in this, they are not fit to be parents at all."

Or take Meggan Judge, interviewed by the Raleigh News & Observer and then by Salon in 2006, who found that her postpartum depression and the Pearls' principles were such a toxic combination that she had to lock herself in a separate room for fear she would "beat [her son] senseless."

"Obviously, I don't think Mr. Pearl stood over Lydia's body with plumbing line in hand," says Rebecca Diamond, a Bible Belt-born observant Christian and home-schooler in eastern Canada whose blog is critical of the Pearls. "But when he uses phrases such as continuing to whip until the crying turns into a 'wounded, submissive whimper' or 'without breath to complain,' I'm not sure how he doesn't bear moral guilt for this. Legally, I don't know if he can be charged. But morally? I believe that absolutely, anyone who advocates treating children like that bears responsibility."

It's not just about parents who lose it or children who die. A Pearl spokesperson says that more than 1,400,000 copies of their book "To Train Up a Child" are in print worldwide, distributed at conferences, in church-member welcome baskets, and to military families. What about the kids who live with this "discipline" every day? Diamond, for example, recalls hearing a mother talk about hitting her 6-month-old with a glue stick because the child "cooed and wriggled during a two-hour-long church service, and she wanted to 'train' the child to be silent."

"My wife and I are Christians and the Pearl system is one of the most anti-Christian systems I've ever heard of," says Mathers. "Part of what unnerves me is how many Christians I've encountered in the past week who either follow the Pearl system or step around it, saying, 'They may be a little extreme, but there's some good principles in there.' It scares me that there are people walking around with such things being acceptable in their heads. It scares me that people who call themselves Christians are willing to be so mean and merciless, or at the very least, that they feel OK condoning people like that." (Mathers is also not alone in believing that -- long hermeneutical story short -- the Pearls’ entire ministry is based on flawed, even heretical, theology.)

He adds: "Not to be crass, but you slap the title 'Christian' on something, and all of a sudden it's the 'Christian' thing. Sometimes, in my experience, that's all it takes for Christians to start following something. There's not a whole lot of discernment."

There are other, more concrete hypotheses as to why the Pearls' extreme philosophy -- though based on principles that are hardly brand-new --  has taken such hold now. Some see it as another weapon, taken up out of fear, in the ever-escalating conservative Christian vs. "secular" culture wars. Diamond's theory: "Pearl's books play on common fears in the subculture of the deeply religious home-schooling family, who is already by their own choice on the fringes of society: the fear that 'the world' will steal children away, the fear that somehow the parents will be to blame."

Also, the particulars of child-training are only one aspect of the Pearls' ministry. "The focus when their teachings are promoted isn't on the spanking, but on the 'tying heartstrings' and enjoying your kids," says Alexandra Bush. "It is easy to filter out the harsher teachings, the extremism, when surrounded by word pictures of peaceful, loving, fun families. The Pearls seem to tell parents that they just have to 'win' once and make sure their children know who is in charge, and then they will never have to spank again. That's how parents get sucked in -- promises of a fun, peaceful home, minimal confrontation, doing the 'right thing' for their children. Basically, the BS detectors are turned off by the pretty promises that are made."

Bush believes that's why the Pearls' teachings hold so much appeal for conservative, home-schooling parents who are, overall, "highly motivated to spend time with their children, love their children, willing to make sacrifices for their children, want the best for their children. They are not, in general, people prone to neglecting their kids or motivated by abuse and anger," she says. "So when people criticize the Pearls and in the same breath misrepresent parents who use Pearl parenting, those parents easily tune out the criticism."

And that's where the Pearls get their relatively "free pass," she concludes: "People know parents who are amazing and love their kids and don't abuse them -- and recommend the Pearls -- and so they have trouble believing the truth about the awful teachings. After all, if your home-school neighbor family looks like they have it all together, has sweet children and a calm mother -- and they use the Pearls, and they don't beat their kids -- then obviously it must be the critics who are wrong. Add to that the loyalty home-school parents have to the home-school movement -- hard to criticize one's own. Finally, even if someone can see the problems with the Pearls' words, they may be unwilling to admit that the Pearls are completely wrong and off their rocker, because that would be admitting that they themselves were susceptible to bad advice and may have harmed their own kids."

In other words, says Diamond, Pearl devotees are "loving people, people who take joy in their children, in their marriages, who like to participate in the community and do good for others. They aren't monsters. It would be easier, I think, to speak up loudly if they were."

Well, with the Schatzes, the anti-Pearl agitators have their monsters. Diamond believes that the already growing criticism of the Pearls within conservative Christianity -- which, beyond child-"training," also involves complex doctrinal differences and quasi-feminist debate over Debi Pearl's view of "heavenly marriage" -- will now continue to gain in volume. It's already happening, Diamond says: "I know of many women and men who are quietly speaking out. When material from the Pearls is suggested for parenting classes or Bible studies, they are speaking with the pastor, refuting the materials, begging people to really read what is being said. When another parent mentions the material, they politely respond with the reasons why they'd never use or endorse it. And they are often successful."

Bush reports the same thing. "In my local circles I've seen [Lydia Schatz’s death] as a catalyst for people and leaders in the church to speak up," she says. One church is planning a Sunday school event to focus on abusive parenting, aimed at parents and at grandparents, given that they might also be effective at intervention. In other churches, a mothers’ group director and other lay leaders have vowed to remain silent no more when they hear someone promoting the Pearls. 

Christian and home-schooling bloggers are also voicing increasing anti-Pearl sentiment, and not just the ones who already reject any form of punitive parenting, Bush notes. Timberdoodle, a highly regarded and influential resource for conservative home-schoolers, responded to Lydia Schatz's death by exhorting its community to speak up: "Read, be informed, and share with your friends. There are many new, well-meaning parents who are looking for instruction and help in parenting. Use your knowledge to help them keep away from this dangerous path."

But discrediting the Pearls shouldn't depend on word-of-mouth or the grass roots, Bush argues. "As a Christian, I believe it has been a failing of the evangelical church in the U.S. as a whole for not warning their members about this type of harmful teaching. It is something the church cannot, biblically, ignore," she says, noting that increasing resistance to the Pearls comes at a time when even those in the most conservative Christian circles are reevaluating, on theological grounds, the evangelical movement's embrace of the practice of corporal punishment.

Still, Bush doesn't believe that the Pearls will ever be fully discredited or lose their influence in the Christian home-school community. "But," she says, "I do believe that their teachings will be more vocally warned against, more critically evaluated."

At the very least, critics of the Pearls are holding fast to the hope -- or, rather, growing evidence -- that Lydia's death will, somehow, not be in vain. "I hope that this will wake up enough people who follow them," says Rebecca Diamond. "If everyone stopped buying their books and hiring them to speak, they'd be as powerless and voiceless as all the children who have suffered under their teaching."

Paul Mathers shares that vision. Though unlikely to be fully realized, it's a pure expression of his and his wife's grief and rage -- for 7-year-old Lydia, for their friends the Schatzes, who had them for dinner, who gave them bookshelves. "If there were a strong enough popular opinion against the Pearls you wouldn't have a large number of Christians in a system like this, and then you wouldn't have a small number of Christians who go too far or make a mistake," he says. "I would love to see the people rise up and say no to the Pearls, that this will not stand. I would love to see the Pearl system become anathema, disgusting, and shunned by the world. I would love to see the Pearls out of a job. Before another child dies."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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