Humane Child Training: Sarah’s Story

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Thomas Hawk.

HA notes: All names have been changed to ensure anonymity. “Sarah” is a pseudonym.

CW: Physical Abuse and Infant Abuse

How Horse Whisperers and Dog Lovers Freed me from Michael Pearl

I have a distinct memory of when I first opened up Michael Pearl’s “To Train Up a Child.” I was about 10 years old when I discovered the book in our library. My parents had recently introduced the switch (a roughly 2-3 foot long supple tree branch) as a “disciplinary tool”. I’m not sure if I started at the beginning or opened it at random, but I remember feeling deeply disturbed and attempting to hide the book after I put it down.

While my parents didn’t follow Pearl’s advice to the letter, I was raised in a household with a strong emphasis on obedience.

There was love, yes, and bonding and laughter, but I also knew that outright disobedience would be met with consequences, often painful consequences. If I was told to do something I strongly disliked or even feared – and if my (polite) protests were ignored – I knew I had only two “choices”, if you could call them that. Deal with it or face the punishment. Our first puppy started training with the Koehler dog training method, roughly dragged on a choke chain so that she would “know” to ignore distractions. We stopped shortly thereafter when she grew so terrified of “training” that she’d just freeze; but I’m convinced we started with that method in the first place because the principle of “obey or else” resonated with my family.

I was mostly a bookish kid, with few reasons to conflict with my parents, so I wasn’t spanked (beaten?) very often. But as a pre-teen I became increasingly upset about how “discipline” worked out for my younger siblings. My bull-headed, hot-tempered sister Tabitha often got in screaming fights with my mom, which then turned to violent spankings until Tabitha would at least make a show of submission. (To this day she has a horrible relationship with my mom.) The discipline didn’t help Tabitha learn to control herself. Instead, she learned to lie as easily as speak, and she took her anger out on our even younger siblings whenever she felt she could get away with it.

My family used the buddy system – each older child caring for a younger child – and at the time my “buddy” was my two year old brother Noah. Noah was smart but opinionated, and notorious for throwing high-intensity fits when he couldn’t get his way. I still get a sick feeling to my stomach when I remember one afternoon when Noah’s fire truck broke and he couldn’t get the ladder to go down.

He lost it, screaming and throwing things and rolling on the ground, and my Mom decided he needed to stop “rebelling.”

She found the wooden spoon and started a cycle that went on for nearly 30 minutes: spank spank spank, “Noah, stop screaming!”, pause. Spank spank spank, “Noah, stop screaming!”, pause. For a long time, Noah’s screams and flails only grew louder and more desperate. I tried to keep cleaning nearby, but as his diaper came off for harsher swats and he became hoarse from screaming, I couldn’t do anything but watch in horror. Eventually his screams became a little quieter, and she decided that was good enough. She put him to bed for a nap and left to help some siblings with school in another part of the house. I remember cradling his quivering body as he whimpered and telling him that Mom was wrong and she shouldn’t have done that.

Despite how upset I was with these situations, I didn’t yet have the experience or broader context to identify an alternative.

I was homeschooled, in a Christian fundamentalist / patriarchy / quiverful family, and was already indoctrinated with a very deep distrust of the secular “system” that I was told would try to take us away through CPS and brainwash us with secular (aka satanic) content in public schools. I had many young siblings, and I knew that it was necessary at times to control and change their behavior – one had to do SOMETHING if the toddler was trying to play with the electrical outlet, or the five-year-old was hitting a younger sibling. Physical, painful punishment for disobedience was the only way I knew how. I occasionally perused secular parenting books through the library, but I dismissed their “permissive” advice on child-rearing as non-Christian without any real reflection.

Instead, I found a different perspective from a slightly unusual source: animal trainers. I loved animals, and my preteen and early teen years were right in the middle of a revolution in humane, non-coercive training methods for animals. I was mesmerized by watching a video of Monty Roberts taming and training a wild mustang gently, without force or coercion. I eagerly read Jean Donaldson’s dog training book “Culture Clash”. She dismissed techniques that used pain and fear to train a dog as cruel and – just as importantly – unnecessary. Instead, she made a strong argument that you could get excellent obedience, robust and resilient behavioral change, using the basic principles of the science of operant conditioning: get the behavior you want and reward it. Make the things that the dog wants contingent on the behaviors that you want. From there, I went on to Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and internet forums on clicker training and positive dog training. I refrained from putting a pinch collar on my next puppy and instead trained him – very successfully – using treats and toys and praise, with a rare time-out as the ultimate punishment.

As I came to understand that you could change behavior without pain or fear, I began to apply that to how I interacted with my younger siblings.

Unlike the secular child-rearing books, I wasn’t afraid of a “satanic” or non-Christian influence from these animal trainers: how could it be un-Christian to give your dog a treat, or train your horse gently? And unlike many child-focused sources that emphasized the child’s self-esteem and psyche above all, these books gave me tools for what I needed: how to get my “buddy” to go take a nap, or put on his socks, or not put that rock in his mouth. At this point, I was a fourteen year old girl with most of my time filled with caring for my younger siblings. I didn’t have the resources to use advice on how to improve my little sister’s confidence or problem-solving abilities so she could grow up to be a strong, compassionate adult. I needed something that would help me control multiple toddlers and young children so that they wouldn’t fall down the stairs or color on the walls while I tried to cook lunch. I suspect many “quiverful” mothers and big sisters end up in this situation, and this is part of the appeal of Michael Pearl’s advice.

I want to clarify here that I am NOT advocating a parenting style that treats children as animals. Instead, I am arguing that there are lessons in humane animal training that can improve human relationships, especially when those relationships involve children – individuals who often don’t recognize danger, have challenges to communicating, don’t understand adult human rules and priorities, and most of all are vulnerable to abuse from their caregivers. Humane animal training involves a commitment to avoid the use of fear and pain as a “training tool”; respect for the animal as an individual being with feelings and fears; and knowledge of both the science of behavioral change and the animal’s instincts, wants, and needs. These are all important principles in dealing with young children.

Moreover, the success of such methods is a direct counter-point to Michael Pearl’s argument that obedience or behavioral change can only be gained by punishing disobedience.

While they shouldn’t be prioritized above other things like encouraging exploration and developing healthy independence, knowing things like coming when called can improve a toddler’s safety (and a mother’s sanity). Young children often need to learn things like not throwing food and to put toys back in the appropriate box. Humane animal training taught me that if you must change someone’s behavior, there are better and kinder ways to do so than pain and fear.

As a young teen, I was very close to my Mom. I was the oldest girl and her right hand. We spent almost all of our time together and had a “best friend”-like relationship. As I explored kinder ways of dealing with my young siblings, I talked with my Mom about those successes and even sometimes confronted her about how I thought she should change her parenting. Shortly after the incident with the fire truck, we tried a simple alternative: we responded to Noah yelling with a gentle, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand your yelling. Can you speak softly?” Speaking normally was rewarded with our best efforts to help him, and yelling (except in cases of an emergency) was ignored or gently prompted to bring the volume down. This worked beautifully without any need to get out the switch. I’m very happy to say that my Mom did make some changes over time, and as an adult with several young siblings still at home, I’m no longer afraid that they might be living through the kinds of physical abuse that occurred when I was younger.

Now? I’m living away from home, and left the quiverful / patriarchy / fundamentalist Christian mindset a long time ago. I have a dog of my own now. This dog comes when called and leaves shoes alone and lets me clip her nails. I don’t need fear or pain to find ways to help her conform to my weird human rules. I want kids someday. I know the old trope that you’re not supposed to know what you’ll do with kids until you actually have them.

Given my background, though, I’m very comfortable stating this: my children will never be beaten into submission or trained to be obedient through fear.

If I find myself in a situation where I must change their behavior – whether because my toddler wants to run into the road or handles frustration by biting people – I know there are ways to accomplish that change that don’t involve switches or wooden spoons.

The Story of an Ex-Good Girl: Part Four


HA Note: The following is reprinted with permission from Exgoodgirl’s blog The Travels and Travails of an Ex-Good Girl. It was originally published on August 2, 2014 and has been slightly modified for HA.

Trigger warning: graphic depictions of infant abuse

< Part Three

Part Four: Rebellion is as the Sin of Witchcraft

Later on, in that first year of Wednesday night meetings, I remember the child-training starting in earnest.  My youngest brother at the time, J, was a year old, and I remember him being an exceptionally happy baby.  He had reddish curls and an infectious grin, and he laughed all the time!  We have pictures of him playing in the grass, or being bounced by my sister or mom, and playing in the sand at the beach, and he was smiling in all of them.  That all changed.  Mr. LaQuiere decided it was time to teach his parents-in-training how to properly train obedience in children.  The only way to get good obedience in was to get bad rebellion out, starting as young as possible (which in our case was already too far behind us he said–if he had known us sooner he could have started training J when he was only a few months old and still a fresh slate; but as J was already a year old and set in his ways, we had better not lose any more time!)  So the process was started of teaching a wiggly toddler to sit quietly and obediently on his parents’ laps.  Refusing to sit still, whining, or worst of all, arching the back in protest, were all signs of rebelliousness in a baby (we were directed to the verses of how “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” and assured that babies are born with this sinful rebellion that starts to show itself practically the moment they arrive home from the hospital).

This rebellion needed to be corrected, because rebellion was the most serious and evil of all childish sins – “like unto the sin of witchcraft”, as the King James Bible says.

This correction was accomplished in various ways.  Mostly it was through repeated swats and slaps on J’s leg or bare bottom, hard enough to sting, every time J tried to get down or refused to sit still.  They worked with him on this for longer and longer periods of time, but instead of turning docile he fought it harder and harder.  He cried a lot, and these “training sessions” dragged on, and on, often into the wee hours of the morning.  Mr. LaQuiere assured my parents that though J was clearly a very rebellious little boy, they could break his will and train it out of him, if they would be firm and not give up!  So they kept at it, day after day.  Little J would cry himself hoarse, but he wasn’t allowed to get down, or fall asleep, or even nurse, until he submitted and obeyed by sitting still and not crying.

Often times Mr. LaQuiere would insist that J had to be trained only by my dad, because it was clear he wanted his mommy, and he shouldn’t get his way because that would reinforce his rebellion.  At least once, when they were fighting him (training him) all night and couldn’t get him to stop crying, they took turns, at Mr. LaQuiere’s direction, holding him with his face stuffed into the sofa cushions until he stopped crying, when they’d let him up to breathe. Then he’d catch his breath, cry some more (“disobedient, rebellious cries”), and they would stuff his face back into the cushions.  This was bewildering and terrifying to me as a young child.

My world was suddenly confusing and no longer safe.

I was intensely distressed at my baby brother’s crying and at how much he had to be punished.  At the red marks on his legs.  At Mr. LaQuiere’s insistence that they pull down his little diaper to spank him because it “didn’t hurt enough” being spanked through a thick diaper.  Confusingly, my parents seemed all right with this and assured me in whispers that everything was fine – this was for Baby J’s own good, and he was only crying because he didn’t want to be good.  It was in his power to stop it and be obedient at any time.

Over the course of the next few months, 1-year-old J eventually gave in and stopped fighting.  He also stopped smiling.

He became a sullen, withdrawn baby, and this change in temperament was permanent.  He never went back to being the bouncing, bubbly baby I remembered.  His sullenness was further evidence of his rebellious nature, we were told.  His laughter wasn’t the only thing that was silenced: he didn’t speak his first word until he was nearly 4.

This was the beginning of the “secret” child-training methods that my parents were to learn from Mr. LaQuiere and use over the next eight years that we were a part of his group.

Part Five>

photo credit: Joel Dinda via photopin cc

Hurts Me More Than You: Kendra’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.


Kendra’s Story

My first memory is of being spanked.

For real, I can remember my parents lining my older brothers up for one at a time spankings and then debating whether or not I was old enough be spanked as well. They finally decided that yes I was and I was subsequently lifted me out of my crib (yes, my crib) and spanked me with a leather belt. I remember crying so hard I couldn’t breathe, and then being told that if I didn’t quit I would be spanked again.

To be honest that is one of the better memories I have of “spankings.” In our house any object could be used for discipline, a particular favorite one was the wooden spoon, but my mother broke so many of those on us that she had to upgrade to a thick soup spoon. She also broke several of those on us.  For a while she kept a horse whip in the house and pulled it out for behaviours she considered particularly offensive.

The spankings usually came from my mother and usually had a predictable pattern.

1. Something would enrage her, I’m not talking normal parental upset or disappointment. I’m talking 0 to 60 in .2 seconds rage.  There was never any rhyme or reason to her anger. It could be something as small as the dishes not being done, even if we hadn’t been told to do them.

2. She would begin the search for something to spank us with, anything at all, a wooden spoon, a belt, a fly swatter.

3. If something wasn’t immediately available she would throw things at us in the interim, once again anything would do, erasers, tape dispenser, kitchen implements, newspapers etc.

4. Once she located something she would spank random areas of your body until her anger subsided.

We lived in a constant state of fear, never knowing what was going to set her anger off.  These beatings persisted into adult hood and only stopped when she finally passed away.

One particular instance I can recall she was sleeping in a recliner, snoring for about an hour with the radio blaring in the background. My older brother decided to turn the radio beside her off and she woke up in a rage.  She threw the radio at him, then ripped the electric cord of the back and began to beat him with it.  That instance stuck out in my mind because by then he was old enough to fight back and I very nearly called the police to stop the ensuing brawl. I wish now that I had called them.  I also wish that I would have fought back when I became old enough, but I was too brain washed by the “good girl” image of femininity and submissiveness propagated at our local cult/church.

I remember another particularly brutal beating that my other brother received. He hadn’t paid enough attention during the two hour devotional that was forced on us that morning.  When my mother reported this to my father he was taken to my parents’ bedroom and my father produced a belt and my mother produced her famous wooden soup spoon. The sounds that came from that room were atrocious, I walked down the hall and cracked the door open to see what was happening, he was sitting in the middle of their queen sized bed curled up in a ball crying with a parent and a discipline instrument on either side.  I was told to “get out or I’d be next.”  About fifteen minutes later my father emerged for water, he looked at me (about age 9) and asked “Does he really deserve this?”  I was too scared to even talk to either parent so I shrugged my shoulders and made myself scarce.

For years I felt guilty because I hadn’t said “no, nobody deserves this.”

Until one day I realized that I was right, Nobody deserves this. No child deserves both his parents ganging up on him with a belt and a wooden soup spoon, and no nine year old child should be made responsible for such a beating, and no father should have to use his nine year old daughter’s opinion for a moral compass. No, nobody ever, ever, ever deserves that.

In the nineteen years that I lived with this behavior I was beaten with more things than I could ever name, including a metal dog leash and an iron rod and a horse whip.  I can remember wearing thick black stockings to church to hide the bruises, I can remember hearing my parents say “I love you” and silently choking back sobs because there was no way I could ever believe them.

I was in my mid-twenties before I ever realized that my parents had physically abused me. I was spoon fed Focus on the Family episodes and the Pearls’ teachings on how parents who love their children beat them.  As a child I looked with pity on children who were “spoiled brats” because they had thoughts and opinions all of their own and who “just needed a good spanking.” In fact I was married and telling my husband a story from my childhood when he pointed out to me that the story I was telling depicted abuse.

The funny thing is, I don’t really remember misbehaving as a child. I’m sure I was not perfect, but I was polite, respectful, and hard working.  I virtually home schooled myself while simultaneously doing the bulk of the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning, volunteering in our church and over achieving at whatever extracurricular activity my parents chose for me.  To some extent their abuse worked in that I was a “good girl,” the model daughter in fact.

I often wonder how my life would have been different if I would have gone to school. 

Would someone have noticed the bruises?  Would someone have told me the definition of abuse?  Would I have had a friend to confide in?  I remember at about the age of fifteen wanting to run away, but I couldn’t. I had no friends outside of our church/cult and no money to support myself with.  Maybe the abuse would have stopped at fifteen.

As an adult my father frequently tries to guilt trip me into stopping by and calling more often, but I don’t think I ever will.  Even though the bulk of the lashings came from my mother there were definitely some inappropriate episodes of discipline from him too.   I still can’t believe that any loving parent would stand by and allow their child to be treated like that, even one time, let alone systematically.  The only conclusion that a reasonable person can draw is plain and simple, they didn’t love me, they never will, for all practical purposes I consider myself an orphan.

As an adult I’m scared to turn into the monster that my mother was.

But mainly I’m just angry, angry that the people who were supposed to love me beat me and treated me like a slave, angry that anyone would treat any child in that way.  I want to go spit on my mother’s grave; I want to stand over her wielding an iron rod and screaming in her face.  I’m tempted to self-destroy my life just to show my parents how badly the messed up raising me (Although that would be pointless because my brothers are doing that for me.)    I struggle with relationships, I reached my late twenties before I ever asserted myself, and I’m scared of conflict, scared of authority, scared of everything.  I struggle with depression and guilt and anxiety, and occasionally have suicidal thoughts.

But at least I’m not a spoiled brat, right? At least I was a “good girl.”