A Tennessee-based evangelical Christian pastor of 40 years has found himself under scrutiny recently after his controversial book educating parents to raise their children with the usage of corporal punishment methods has been linked by some media to cases of brutal child abuse.
The Rev. Michael Pearl, 66, and his wife, Debi Pearl, 60, belong to the No Greater Joy ministry. Their website promises "Over 500 articles from Michael and Debi Pearl on Child Training, Homeschooling, Family, Marriage, Christianity, the Bible, Missions, Simple Living, Gardening, and other topics." Mr. Pearl’s first book on child upbringing, To Train Up a Child, has sold over 670,000 copies in ten languages.
It is that book, which instructs parents as to various methods of punishing their child through spanking and other non-standard methods, that put the Pearls in the spotlight.
Pearl was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in October and appeared on his show, "Anderson Cooper 360," on Oct. 26. In the interview, Cooper points out that the book, directed at "fundamentalist Christians" advises parents to spank their children with objects like plastic plumbing elements or a belt. Cooper suggested that the book might be linked to the recently publicized acts of parental violence against children.
Police has reportedly found a copy of To Train Up a Child in the house of the Williams’, parents of Hana Williams, whose body was found in their backyard in May. The child's autopsy showed signs of malnutrition which, together with hypothermia, were declared the cause of death. The girl’s body was also showing signs of physical abuse. The parents were reportedly practicing some parenting methods recommended by the Pearls, including spanking with a rod.
Cooper has also brought up the case of Texas judge, a video of whom was recently released online, showing him beating his then 16-year-old daughter brutally with a belt. He was not the only journalist to see a connection between the crimes and the book, as multiple other media reported on the same topic.
Pearl claims that his methods are based on the Bible, but are also supported scientifically.
"Research has been shown that shows that spanking creates children that are more higher educationally, less aggressive...that they are more entrepreneurial," he said on the show. "That they in every way make better citizens when young children are spanked."
Pearl denied being responsible for people misinterpreting his book. He was paraphrased in a press release on Oct. 31 as saying that when the principles outlined in the book were not followed, there was potential for trouble in the form of child abuse. But when the principles were followed, children were to grow up to be happier, healthier and better prepared for the pressures of adulthood, according to Pearl.
"If you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic’s house, you wouldn’t blame the book," he said in an interview with The New York Times.
Pearl acknowledged that the methods are not for parents who cannot keep control over themselves.
Pearl’s methods evoke a controversy. Although the author responds to criticism with letters of support from ministries across the country, which reportedly praise his book and the methods, many are skeptical about the idea of using corporal punishment against a child.
"My fear is that this book, while perhaps well intended, could easily be misinterpreted and could lead to what I consider significant abuse," a pediatrician examining the body of Hana Williams told The New York Times.
The Pearls' teachings are based very closely on the Bible, the couple insists. Their ministry’s website features articles like "In Defense of Biblical Chastisement," in which Pearl explains in detail how to "train" the child first of all. And then what to do in instances when training fails.
"There will be times when the loving and the training will not be enough," he wrote in 2001. "You may have a great relationship with your child, and he may delight to please you, but he is still made of flesh, and is possessed of many lusts, and wooed by a world filled with distractions. The best of children will still experience the struggle of Romans 7 and must be loved, trained, and disciplined to 'walk in the light.' "