B.F. Skinner with pigeon in laboratory

Are You Training Animals or Discipling Children?

May 9, 2012

My wife, Debbie, and I began our journey in home education in 1981, and I have been in homeschool leadership since 1988. Therefore, I have had the opportunity to talk with many homeschool parents over the years. No matter what their religious belief, the general consensus among the vast majority of parents is that each of their children is unique. The combination of their personality, temperament, mental and physical strengths and weaknesses, learning style and intelligence makes each child one-of-a-kind. Homeschool parents recognize that a big advantage of homeschooling over classroom instruction is that homeschool instruction can be tailored to fit the child’s unique learning style, interest and aptitude. Most parents with more than one child can readily see these distinctive characteristics in each of their children.

Debbie and I have four grown children, and we have always been a very close-knit family. However, each of our children’s pursuit of knowledge and occupation has been quite different. Our oldest, Alexa, earned degrees in vocal performance and math. She is now a wife and the mother of three lovely children with the fourth on the way. She continues in her love of music and math. She coached a homeschool MathCounts team that finished fourth in the state this year (see the Spotlight section in this issue) and is very involved in the music ministry at her church. Our second, Scott, is an Army Jag officer stationed in Afghanistan. This is his fourth year in the Army, and he has really enjoyed his time in the service as a prosecutor. The structured life in the military suits him well. Levi, our third, is a computer engineer writing code for a router system designed for satellite communications with the spacecraft platforms. He enjoys the less structured creative environment and flexible working hours of his workplace. Our youngest, Mereda, got her degree in drama, and her professors encouraged her to go to Hollywood to pursue a career in film. Instead, her path to LA was derailed by the pursuit from a wonderful young man whom she married in December. While we were homeschooling them, we encouraged each of our children individually to pursue the work for which God had gifted them. I have observed that most homeschool parents use the same approach with the academic instruction of their children.

Why, then, do so many of these same parents believe there is only one way to train or discipline their children? In the mid-1990s a book, To Train Up A Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl, was published that claims that the biblical way to obey the command to discipline one’s child is to practice behaviorism, or more specifically, operant conditioning theory as described by American behaviorist, B. F. Skinner. I find it disturbing that the behavior modification method advocated in the book has become widely accepted in the homeschool community. This method primarily utilizes what behaviorists describe as positive punishment and negative punishment. According to Wikipedia, positive punishment “occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by a stimulus, such as introducing a shock or loud noise, resulting in a decrease in that behavior.” Wikipedia says that negative punishment “occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of a stimulus, such as taking away a child’s toy following an undesired behavior, resulting in a decrease in that behavior.” The stimuli endorsed by the authors of this book are the use of a switch, pulling the child’s hair or the removal of something desired by the child such as food. The book asserts that the positive punishment stimuli should cause immediate pain without causing permanent or temporary physical damage.

IMAGE: B.F. Skinner with pigeon in laboratory

Is behavior modification biblical? There are several Scripture passages cited in the book. The first is Proverbs 22:6. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” The book says that the word train in this verse has the same meaning as generally used in training mules or dogs. Here is a quote from the book: “Most parents don’t think they can train their little children. Training doesn’t necessarily require that the trainee be capable of reason; even mice and rats can be trained to respond to stimuli. Careful training can make a dog perfectly obedient.” Another section says, “If parents carefully and consistently train up a child, his or her performance will be as consistently satisfying as that rendered by a well-trained seeing-eye dog.” Debbie and I have an understanding of these biblical passages about training that is different than the teaching of these authors. First, we understand that our children are not animals; they are created in the image of God. When they were very young we began their training by leading our children to the Savior; as they got older, we began helping them understand their God-given potential and the spiritual gifts they had received to help them walk in the path God had designed for them.

Other verses cited in the book are like the ones in Proverbs 13:24 and Proverbs 23:13-14. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.” The book treats these passages not as proverbs but as commandments or promises of God. What are we to make of Proverbs 26:4-5 if they are commands or promises? “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Are we to answer a fool or not?

It is clear that corporal punishment can be an acceptable method of discipline, but is it the only biblical method? Is the rod, mentioned in Proverbs, always a tool for hitting? In 1 Corinthians 4:21 Paul asks, “What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” Was Paul really speaking of physical discipline? I think he was meaning a reprimand.

The Pearls say that the spanking should inflict pain not harm, but what if the child doesn’t react in pain? They advise ten additional harder licks on the same backside should bring the desired effect. If the additional licks don’t work, apply ten more even harder, etc., until the child is submissive. The book explains the result of spanking a disobedient child. “After a short explanation about bad attitudes and the need to love, patiently and calmly apply the rod to his back-side. Somehow, after eight or ten licks, the poison is transformed into gushing love and contentment.” However, a stubborn child who doesn’t capitulate to the parents’ demands can sustain serious injury if parents following this advice of rationally and without anger spanking the child until he complies with their authority. Some children have ended up in intensive care, and actually have been killed.

The book assumes that there is an antagonistic relationship between the parents and their children, however, they contend that when parents remain firmly in control, children will be content and happy. Michael Pearl says, “I have taught the children to obey first and ask questions later. When they were small, and I put them through paces, they learned to immediately do what I said. If they ever failed to instantly obey a command, I would ‘drill’ them. ‘Sit down. Don’t speak until I tell you to.’” “When ‘crawlers’ or ‘scooters’ cry, there should be a legitimate reason. If they are hungry, feed them. If they are sleepy, put them down for a nap. If they are truly hurt, give time for the pain to subside. If they are physically uncomfortable, adjust the environment. If they are wet, change them. If they are afraid, hold them close. If they are grouching, discipline them to get control of their self-centeredness. If they are mad, switch them. Don’t let your child stay unhappy. Meet the real needs and make their selfish crying an unrewarding experience.” As another type of drill, Michael promotes tempting a child with a bite of their favorite food by “placing a morsel within the child’s reach” and when the child instinctively reaches out for the food to “switch their hand once and simultaneously say, ‘No.’ Repeat as many times as necessary until the child is trained not to automatically grab for whatever he or she wants” but rather, to automatically look to the parent for permission before reaching out to take the desired food. He uses the same technique with guns.

James 1:13-14 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” Can we be godly parents if we tempt our children in this way? Deliberately setting up these situations is abusive, both mentally and physically.

The authors suggest that parents should not use Scripture or discuss with their children why they should obey; they should expect immediate obedience. There are many places in the Bible where God tells his people how to live, why they should live that way and what the consequences will be if they disobey Him. An example of this is found in Genesis 2:16, 17. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”


The authors of this book believe that children are not born with a sin nature, but the parents are responsible for saving or losing their children’s souls. That is, if not well-trained, the children, being natural manipulators, will lose their souls, and parents who oppose the teaching in this book are followers of the Devil. As do most orthodox Christians, I believe in original sin and that children are born with a sin nature. How can a Christian who has read the entire Bible believe that parents win or lose their children’s souls? Acts 4:11-12 clearly states that only having faith in Jesus will save us. “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Ephesians 2:8-10 explains that our faith is a gift of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ.”

I believe that the most effective way to train children is described in Deuteronomy 6:4-7 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” My parents taught me about the Gospel, and I learned from their training. I learned far more from watching them live what they taught in their day-to-day lives. Spanking was used only when I was willfully disobedient. Torturous lecture was the first option. Debbie and I did not spank often, but when we did, it was for willful defiance. When children accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, the parents should understand that their children are brothers and sisters in Christ. Viewing children as devious manipulators rather than fellow sojourners can be very damaging to the parent-child relationship.

The book’s emphasis on training children to be quiet and well-behaved so they won’t be an embarrassment to the parents or disturbance to other adults was very creepy to me. The book contains quotes that make me shudder. “The guilt burdened soul cries out for the lashes and nails of justice. Your child cannot yet understand that the Creator has been lashed and nailed in his place. Only the rod of correction can preserve his soul until the day of moral dawning.” “The parent holds in his hand (in the form of a little switch) the power to absolve the child of guilt, cleanse his soul, instruct his spirit, strengthen his resolve, and give him a fresh start through a confidence that all indebtedness is paid.” When the author writes in glowing terms about how well-behaved and joyful children become when they are trained with the rod, I am reminded of the 1975 film The Stepford Wives. The premise of the film is that previously independent-minded wives were becoming fawning, submissive and docile. One wife becomes suspicious and learns that the men in the town are substituting life-like robots in place of their wives.

There are some good points in the book–their emphasis on consistency for example–but the book is not consistent itself. First, the book presents children as predisposed to be skillful manipulators. Alternately, the book pushes the idea that children are blank slates and that parents can construct their children’s personality through the use of the proper stimuli. The result of this view of personhood is disastrous for godly relationships for it reduces relationships to power.

Most of the ideas presented ignore that our children are created in God’s image and are not like animals. The image of God means that a person is more than just a complex nervous system. The Pearls don’t take into consideration the variety of personalities and possibilities of differing reactions of children.

Do we want to raise children who are always compliant with authorities, or do we want our children to proclaim Christ where the authorities stifle the Gospel? Do we want to train our children to have blind compliance or do we want to teach them to be critical thinkers? Do we want our children dependent on us, or dependent on Christ?

While there may be some helpful thoughts in this book, I strongly advise against using To Train Up A Child as a guide to raising and training children. Instead, I suggest putting your trust in and seeking wisdom from the Word and God and His leading!

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Comments

Laura's picture

Amen! Thank you for this.

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