Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Child Death by a Thousand Cuts in California

Will religious organizations speak against whipping children?

Not long before the return of the Russian adoptee to his homeland, an event that received enormous media attention, another foreign-born child died at the hands of her foster parents-and almost nothing has been said about this. In February, Lydia Schatz, an almost-8-year-old child from Liberia, died an appalling death, whipped for hours with a thin plastic plumbing supply line until vital organs were damaged by the effects of muscle damage. Lydia's "mother" held her down while her "father" applied this punishment for a minor mistake in English. More details about this matter can be seen at www.icrawl.org/44034264874-jane-schatz-8-yo-paradise-ca, or on the web site of the Paradise (CA) Post, although you'll have to pay to get at the archives of the latter.

I don't want to dwell on this child's experience, as anyone with the slightest imagination will be able to envision her pain and terror all too clearly. What I want to do in this post is to consider the sources of these parents' actions, which were not impulsive but instead were based on a philosophy of child discipline. It appears that Lydia's guardians were followers of the Tennessee fundamentalist child-rearing gurus, Debi and Michael Pearl. The Pearls are authors of "To Train Up a Child", a publication whose first part appears on line at www.gospeltruth.net/children/pearl_tuac.htm. I have discussed the Pearls' book in detail in my article "Destructive trends in alternative infant mental health approaches", Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2007, Vol 5(2), 44-58.

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While Lydia's guardians certainly must take full responsibility for their decision to whip the child, it is also important for people concerned with child welfare to note that there are sources of bad advice that are never forced to take any esponsibility. The Pearls are among these. They share the view I mentioned in a post a few days ago, that children are basically bad and must be forced into obedience; like some other authors since the early days of this country, the Pearls put this belief into a religious context so that it becomes the parents' responsibility to make children submit utterly to adult expectations.

The Pearls advise that submission to parental wishes should be forced in infants as young as four months of age (these babies, by the way, would be too young to be able to sit up unsupported or to recognize their names when spoken). The primary method for achieving submission is pain, and this is produced by whipping either with the old-fashioned willow switch or with quarter-inch-diameter plastic plumbing supply line. Whipping is advised as a way to make children stop crying or to persuade them to do something that is wanted, or to refrain from doing something unwanted. For example, Debi Pearl recounts a situation in which a toddler was left in her care for a few hours-- the first separation from his mother this child had ever experienced. Although other children were playing around him, the little boy did not eat or play, even though Mrs. Pearl offered him a roller skate and showed him how the wheels spun. When she told him directly to play with the wheels, he "defied" her and did not do so. She whipped him on the leg, but he still did not obey; this continued for ten whippings, until he did put his hand on the wheel, and was described as content now that he had yielded to someone higher than himself.

The Pearls advise that whipping should be done without any indication of anger and with a friendly facial expression, an extraordinarily confusing situation for young children who use social referencing-- checking of faces and voices-- to understand the intentions of adults. Although their stress is on whipping, there are other physical punishments they approve, for example, yanking the hair of a nursing baby if he or she bites the mother.

No doubt the Pearls will say that they never told anyone to whip a child to death, or even to continue whipping for hours. However, advising that pain is the major tool in child discipline opens the door to such actions, particularly when the pain is not to be withdrawn until the child obeys and/or stops crying. The Pearls' advice, when combined with the belief that children can obey but are wickedly choosing not to, sets the stage for a frustrated or mentally ill adult to injure or kill the child who is being "disciplined". Such an outcome may seem justified to those who are convinced of the religious value of these actions.

I challenge both mainstream and fundamentalist religious groups to come forward and make clear their rejection of the Pearls' methods. Some fundamentalist organizations have done this in a quiet way, but a loud shout is needed. I also challenge neighbors and police to be aware of the Pearls' advice and to try to prevent child injury and death that might otherwise result from systematic whipping.

 

 

Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.

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