“The Golden Compass” And The Breaking Of Children’s Wills

Image source: Fulyasi, “The Silver Guillotine.”

By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

I recently read Phillip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials series. The book’s plot revolves around Lyra Belacqua, a young girl on a mission to save kidnapped children from the shadowy Gobblers. The Gobblers are agents of the Magisterium, the equivalent in Pullman’s fantasy-steampunk alternate universe of establishment Christianity. In this universe, all humans are born with daemons, spirits attached to them psychically that take animal shapes. Lyra’s daemon, named Pantalaimon, likes to be an ermine.

When humans are children, their daemons can change from one animal to another in the blink of an eye. But when children enter puberty, their daemons assume a fixed form. This is when humans begin to attract Dust, elementary particles that in Pullman’s world equal the concept of original sin. Pullman pulls this idea from the Genesis story, where, after original sin arguably enters the world because of Adam and Eve’s eating of the apple, it is said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return…”

The Gobblers are stealing children, you find out, because the Magisterium wants to figure out how to prevent Dust from settling on children. In other words, the Magisterium wants to eradicate original sin. So the Gobblers kidnap children and conduct experiments on them: cutting the link between the child and their daemon. As one character in the book, Lord Asriel, explains the idea, “The two things that happen at adolescence might be connected: the change in one’s daemon and the fact that Dust began to settle. Perhaps if the daemon were separated from the body, we might never be subject to Dust.” This process is called intercision. In the novel, direct parallels are made between intercision and other religiously-justified practices in our world that involve the physical mutilation of children, like male circumcision (to “dedicate” a child to God) and female circumcision (to prevent “sinful” sexual desires).

Tragically, the experiments do not go well. Children die excruciating deaths once the link between self and daemon is severed. Instead of Dust-free (or sin-free) children, the Magisterium has the blood of dead children on its hands. But the Magisterium is not willing to admit the consequences of its attempts. At one point in the story, one adult (who knows full well the consequences of the experiments) attempts to convince Lyra they are doing good: “No one in a thousand years would take a child’s daemon away altogether! All that happens is a little cut, and then everything’s peaceful. Forever! You see, your daemon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty…daemons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in. A quick little operation before that, and you’re never troubled again.”

I cannot help but see a parallel between many of the children in The Golden Compass—killed by adults who thought they were creating a more righteous world—and homeschooled children like Hana Williams, also killed by adults who thought they were creating a more righteous world. Hana was an Ethiopian adoptee whose adoptive parents followed the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl. The Pearls, parenting gurus popular in many homeschool and fundamentalist communities, advocate the breaking of children’s wills, modeling their parenting advice after how the Amish discipline and train mules. The Pearls’ vision of the ideal child is uncannily similar to Pullman’s description of a person without a daemon: “It has no will of its own; it will work day and night without ever running away or complaining.”

Hana’s parents, ostensibly, did not intend to kill her. They merely meant to break her will—because they were convinced by the Pearls that doing so would create more peaceful children. But in finding her will unbreakable, they did kill her. We can argue whether they would have stopped if they knew she was going to die. But they refused to stop until she was literally dead. So what relevance have intentions at that point?

Like Pullman’s Magisterium, people like the Pearls (and others like Reb BradleyJ. Richard FugateVoddie Baucham, and Tedd Tripp) dangle the false promise of happy, controlled, and submissive children in front of parents. They promise not to steal your children. They promise only to improve them, to make them the children God wants them to be. But they leave the broken pieces of hurt children in their wake.

Like Pullman’s Magisterium, these parenting gurus lie. They do steal children—children’s faiths and childhoods. They fail to realize that God gave children wills and children’s wills are good—not only good, but also inseparable from who they are. Yes, James Dobson, even the wills of strong-willed children are good! God made all the children and God saw that they are good. Children do not need to be re-made by adults. Children’s wills do not need to be broken by adults. Children’s spirits do not need to be cut by adults. “Let the children come to me,” said Jesus—and the children were simply loved.

Hurts Me More Than You: Clay’s Story

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Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.


Clay’s Story

My parents didn’t spank in anger, usually.

They were convinced that they were practicing biblical discipline.

They believed that spankings were to be delivered calmly, leave no serious injury (red marks and the occasional bruise were OK), end with reconciliation and a forced hug, and be painful. As a child I was spanked nearly every day. But I got off easy.

Dad said that children in the old testament got stoned to death for rebelliousness, so it was a good thing I didn’t live back then.

Spankings ranged from three to ten swats. I remember feeling really lucky the few times I only got one or two. Mom and Dad both spanked but it hurt more when Dad did it. I think that was just because Mom wasn’t capable of hitting as hard. When Dad spanked he swung with his whole arm like he was trying to hit a home run on our butts. We weren’t allowed to keep our pants on, but usually we could keep on our underwear.

When Mom or Dad spanked it was painful enough to make me see stars. One time after getting spanked by Dad the pain was so much I almost vomited. When I told my Dad this he laughed and said that was impossible.

We were supposed to be still and quiet while receiving a spanking. If we resisted at all we got spanked more. Spankings with our hands in the way didn’t count. If we screamed we got spanked more, and told that CPS would come and take us and we’d never see our family again. We were allowed to cry, but it had to be sorry cries, not angry cries, or we would just be spanked more.

My Dad chose wooden instruments that would leave as few outward marks as possible. Usually something flat like a wooden kitchen spatula. As my brother got older Dad spanked him more, and harder. He started breaking wooden spoons and spatulas on him. Dad made a paddle out of a thick piece of wooden molding or something. It was about two and a half inches wide, half or three quarters of an inch thick, and a couple feet long. He drilled a couple big holes in it so that there would be no air cushion, that it would sting as much as possible.

I always thought I was a bad kid. We got spanked more than anyone else we knew, so it followed that we must be the most disobedient. It didn’t occur to my childish mind that maybe my parents were spanking too much. I remember when I was eight years old realizing that I had gone three days without a spanking.

I thought that was really cool because I had set a record for being good.

Maybe if I had gone on that long I’d be able to be good forever and never get a spanking again. Alas, I got a spanking later that day.

I always wished I could be my cousins. It must be easy for them to be good. I wished it was easy for me to be good. I didn’t understand why it was so hard for me to be good. Impossible, in fact. My parents explained that it was because I was a sinner, but that didn’t explain why I was apparently a worse sinner than anyone else my age. I couldn’t wait to grow up, because grown-ups don’t sin — that’s why they don’t get spankings. My last spanking was when I was twelve, I think, but the threat didn’t go away. Mom would tell me that a teenaged friend of mine still got spankings for rolling her eyes, so I’d better watch myself.

My parents stated goal in all this discipline was to break our wills.

A child’s will was something evil, something that needed to be eradicated.

They never really explained what this meant in detail, but it had something to do with us never having desires that misaligned with theirs. I can only imagine that the desired result was to condition us to have a visceral reaction to the thought of going against their wishes. It worked very well on me. I learned early on that the best way to cope was just to go along with what they wanted, to say what they wanted to hear, to hold still and not resist, it would be over most quickly that way.

It didn’t work so well on my brother, he would fight. Not fight physically — he’d fight by not crying, or by saying that the spanking didn’t hurt. That’s why Dad had to hit him so hard that wood broke against his flesh.

Yet, I’m not convinced that my strategy was better. It seemed so at the time because it was the path of least pain, but there were long-term consequences. For years into adulthood I wasn’t able to act in my own best interest. Doing something just because it was the best decision for me was so far off my radar I rarely contemplated it. I lived my life with pleasing my parents in mind. It wasn’t even conscious, it just was. When I started making decisions I knew they would disagree with I had physical reactions that were so intense I would sometimes be incapacitated for days. It would start with my whole body shaking, then my throat would close up. Then my heart rate would soar, like my heart was trying to escape my chest. My mind would race, and then I would start vomiting. Even after the vomiting stopped it would take a day or so before I could eat normally again. It would take several to get my energy back.

I’m shaking just writing this post.

My parents always told me that they spanked us because they loved us. It is true that they loved us. But I don’t think that was their primary motivation in spanking.

Spanking gave them a tremendous amount of power over us: power to break and then remake us according to their will.

To Break Down a Child: A Call for Stories about Pearl-Style Discipline

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To Break Down a Child: A Call for Stories about Pearl-Style Discipline

By Shaney Lee, HARO Board Member


Hana Williams.

Sean Paddock.

Lydia Schatz.

What do these three children have in common? All of their deaths were linked to the abusive teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl in their book To Train Up A Child.

If you weren’t homeschooled growing up, it’s possible, even probable, that you’ve never heard the names Michael and Debi Pearl before. Their success with their publishing efforts are largely due to word-of-mouth through fundamentalist Christian churches and homeschooling communities.

It is estimated that over 670,000 copies of To Train Up A Child are in circulation. That’s at least 670,000 too many. Much of that word of mouth has largely been enabled through homeschooling communities. Their books have been prominently featured in the homeschool editions of Christian Book Distributor’s catalogues, been recommended on homeschooling forums, and handed from parent to parent at homeschooling conventions (not to mention sold in some of the booths).

The Pearls don’t just advocate spanking as a method of child discipline. They advocate a method of discipline that puts the child’s will in direct defiance of God’s will and of the parents’ will, that makes the breaking of a child’s will the ultimate goal of child discipline, and that puts parents in a position to believe that if they are not 100% successful in their discipline, they risk their child’s very soul.

And yet, when these teachings are linked to the death of multiple children, there are thousands who speak up in defense of the Pearls’ teachings.

Enough is enough.

It is time for those of us familiar with the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl to speak up and speak against these abusive methods. It’s time to show that the damage of the Pearls’ method goes beyond just a few parents who got out of control. It’s time to show that it’s justifiable for the Pearls’ teachings to be linked to these horrible outcomes.

If you were raised with the Pearls’ methods, it’s your time to speak. If you’ve read the Pearls’ books and are against what they teach, it’s your time to speak. If you are a parent who previously used the Pearls’ methods, it’s your time to speak.

Even if you’re not normally a fan of what Homeschoolers Anonymous does, I ask you to join us for this series.

Because this issue is bigger than any disagreements we might have about homeschooling. It’s about preventing another Lydia, or Hana, or Sean.

This is not about whether spanking is a legitimate form of discipline (that’s a whole ‘nother discussion in and of itself!). This is about taking a public stand against a method of teaching that is extremely harmful towards children. Any system of childrearing that views children as rebellious little souls whose wills needs to be broken — rather than as small humans who are learning to live and thrive in the world — dehumanizes children and will always be harmful in the end.

Hana, Sean, and Lydia can’t speak up for themselves. It’s up to us to do it for them, to stand up for children who still have a chance. While it is the homeschooling community that has largely enabled the Pearls, I strongly believe it is the homeschooling community that is most equipped to fight against their abusive teaching.

So let’s stand up for our children. They deserve better.


To contribute your story or thoughts:

As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly.

If you interested in participating in this, please email us at homeschoolersanonymous@gmail.com.

The deadline for submission is September 15, 2013.

Authoritarian Parenting Is Poison: Faith Beauchemin’s Thoughts

Authoritarian Parenting Is Poison: Faith Beauchemin’s Thoughts

The following piece was originally published by Faith Beauchemin on her blog Roses and Revolutionaries. It is reprinted with her permission. Also by Faith Beauchemin on HA: “The Importance Of Telling Your Own Story” and “Starship Captains and Dinosaurs.”

My parents wanted to be the best parents they could be.  It’s a pity that I barely even speak to them. It’s not really their fault, and I would forgive them immediately if they ever admitted their parenting had been wrong.  But they defend themselves and make excuses and believe that they were doing it all to the glory of God.  And if something is to God’s glory, of course it’s going to be good for every person involved.

But that’s not true at all. I suffer significant psychological and emotional distress to the point of being developmentally stunted in several ways because of my parents’ “god-centered” parenting techniques.

All the books and sermons available to my parents convinced them that their parenting techniques were correct.  Multiple authors and preachers basically bullied my parents and many others like them to completely dominate and break their childrens’ wills, because total obedience was God’s plan for children and if children could not obey their parents, how would they ever know how to obey God?  My parents were convinced that my eternal salvation rested on their success as parents.  If they did everything right, I would follow the Lord and be happy all my days.  Too bad I only started being truly happy after I left home and left the church.

In the interests of doing everything right, my parents chose to homeschool me and my siblings.  This, along with the very tiny church which was our only social interaction, meant my dad’s ideas and will completely dominated every aspect of my life growing up.  He passed it all off as God’s ideas and God’s will, but there was of course only one correct way to think of everything and that was my dad’s interpretation of Christianity.

As a young child, I was happy, imaginative, precocious, friendly, outgoing, intelligent, excited to explore new ideas, devouring books about dinosaurs, about history, and every story I could lay my hands on.  By the time I went to college, I was quiet, depressed, frightened of everything, unable to speak in public, socially awkward to a painful degree, and self-censoring as to what ideas I was willing to even entertain or think about. I channeled my intelligence into proving the few points that I believed were true, and disproving everything else.  My mind wasn’t just closed, it was completely locked down.  It took four long years at college to return me partially to the outgoing, intellectually curious, adventurous personality I had lost.

My parents broke my will.  They wanted to make me follow a prescribed course of life.  They had a particular bundle of beliefs that they wanted me to adopt and take with me forever.  Any flicker of self-interest, self-will, was seen as rebellion and immediately crushed.  Any personal desire contrary to their wishes was deemed sinful, and spanked out of me.  And, I cannot emphasize this enough, I never got away from my parents.  I was always in their home, always dominated by their influence, their thoughts and desires.  I had one channel of freedom, the books I checked out of the library.  But when every other part of my life was controlled so totally, I tended to closely self-censor on what books I would read or how I would interpret them.

The adversarial form of parenting, the one which sees the child’s self as automatically opposed to the parent’s authority, is unbelievably harmful to the parent/child relationship.  It took me a very long time to relate to my mom as a person rather than just an authority figure. I still can’t relate to my dad as a person, his whole being is consumed with his religion, and with trying to prioritize God in his life. He has obsessed for a long time over the fact that he’s the authority figure in the family and everyone needs to honor him, which come to think of it makes me a little worried about his mental health.  He hasn’t realized that it’s wrong to put your ideology before your children.  He doesn’t understand why we barely ever speak to him.

Even hearing about homeschooling families or reading materials written by people in the homeschooling or fundamentalist Christian movement can trigger flashbacks.  I am still working, every day, on reclaiming my self.  I wonder, sometimes, what life might have been like if I had been allowed to develop my own path instead of being forced to follow so closely my parents plan for my ideas and my life.  What might I have accomplished if I hadn’t wasted the first 19 years of my life focusing all my time and energy on matching up to this ideal Christian model held up by my parents.  Perfection was the goal and therefore it took all of my time and energy to try to reach that goal.

I have only just now, at age 23, begun with any kind of seriousness to figure out my place in the world.  Once I realized I had spent the vast majority of my life in a tiny insular principality, ruled by my father, which had very little to do with the rest of the world, I felt completely lost.  And who am I supposed to turn to to figure it out?  My parents? They’re the ones who screwed up my life this badly.

I have to rely on myself, the self that was squashed and harangued and abused almost out of existence.  I’ve survived, and I’ll go on to do something important and real and lasting in this world, but I will never know what could have happened in those years that are lost.