How NOT to Train Up a Child

A little storm is beginning to brew on twitter tonight about a book that Amazon UK is selling. It’s called To Train up a Child and it is one of the most pernicious little excuses for violence against children that I have ever read.

Let me give you some quotes.

The proper response would have gone something like this: “Johnny, here is a rag, clean up your mess.” “No, I don’t ‘wanna’.” And he continues to dabble in the water, sort of rocking back and forth with one shoulder and the chin down, not too earnestly involved in the water, yet waiting to see if the mother is going to let him be. Rebellion is in his heart; but he faces a superior power, so he hesitates. She again says, “Johnny, clean the water up now.” (With my children, one command is all they would get.) If he again hesitates, she goes for her switch. If he hurriedly attempts to avert a switching by cleaning the water, it will make no difference. She returns with the switch, and sitting in front of him, says, “Johnny, I told you to wipe up the water, and you hesitated, therefore I am going to have to spank you so you will not hesitate the next time Mama wants her boy to grow up to be wise like Daddy, so I am going to help you to remember to obey. Lean over the couch. Put you hands down. Now, don’t move or I will have to give you more licks.”

She then administers about ten slow, patient licks on his bare legs. He cries in pain. If he continues to show defiance by jerking around and defending himself, or by expressing anger, then she will wait a moment and again lecture him and again spank him. When it is obvious he is totally broken, she will hand him the rag and very calmly say, “Johnny, clean up your mess.” He should very contritely wipe up the water. To test and reinforce this moment of surrender, give him another command. “Johnny, go over and put your toys all back in the box.” Or, “Johnny, pick up all the dirty clothes and put them in the basket.” After three or four faithfully performed acts of obedience, brag on how “smart” a helper he is. For the rest of the day, he will be happy and compliant. The transformation is unbelievable.

This apparently is the method for dealing with a three year old who won’t tidy up his mess – beat him into submission. How about as 12 month old who just wants to run around a bit.


As I sat talking with a local Amish fellow, a typical child training session developed. The father was holding a twelve month old boy who suddenly developed a compulsion to slip down onto the floor. Due to the cold floor, the father directed the child to stay in his lap. The child began to stiffen so as to make of himself a missile that would slip through to the floor. The father spoke to him in the German language (which I did not understand) and firmly placed him back in the sitting position. The child began to make dissenting noises and continued the resistant slide. The father then spanked the child and spoke what I assumed to be reproving words. Seeing his mother across the room, the child began to cry and reach for her. This was understandable in any language.

At this point, I became highly interested in the proceedings. Most fathers would have been glad to give up the child to continue their own conversation. It was obvious the child felt there would be more liberty with his mother. If he had been given over to her, the experience would have been counterproductive training. He would have been taught that when he cannot get his way with one, just go around the chain of command. The faithful mother, more concerned for her child’s training than the gratification of being clung to, ignored the child.

The father then turned the child away from his mother. The determined fellow immediately understood that the battle lines had shifted and expressed his independence by throwing his leg back over to the other side to face his mother. The father spanked the leg that the child turned to the mother and again spoke to him.

Clearly, the lines were drawn. The battle was in array. Someone was going to submit his will and learn his lesson. Either the father would confirm that this one year old could rule his parents or the parents would confirm their authority. Everyone’s happiness was at stake, as well as the soul of the child. The father was wise enough to know this was a test of authority. This episode had crossed over from “obedience training” to discipline for attitude.

For the next weary forty five minutes, fifteen times the child would make his legs move, and the daddy would turn him around and spank his legs. The father was as calm as a lazy porch swing on a Sunday afternoon. There was no hastiness or anger. He did not take the disobedience personally. He had trained many a horse or mule and knew the value of patient perseverance. In the end, the twelve month old submitted his will to his father, sat as he was placed, and became content even cheerful.

Some will say, “But I couldn’t take it emotionally.” Sometimes it is difficult and trying to set aside your plans for the sake of child training. It does involve emotional sacrifice. Yet, what is love, but giving? When we know it will work to the temporal and eternal good of the child, it is a joy instead of a sacrifice. Where our motives are not pure, where we suspect anger may be part of our motivation, our pricked conscience causes a reluctance to act. We fear that our discipline is an act of the ego to dominate. We must deal with our own impurities for the sake of the child; for if the child doesn’t receive this kind of training, he will greatly suffer.

Are you reading this with me? To get a 12 month old child to sit still for an hour, you beat him into submission.

I think this is unacceptable and I hope you do too. We’re not talking about the occasional spank when a child is about to do something incredibly dangerous. We are talking about a systematic campaign of physical punishment for any misdemeanor. Think I’m over-egging the case? Why don’t you go and read the whole thing here to see how outrageous this book is.

And yet Amazon UK stock this book. What are we going to do about it? Well can I suggest letting them know on twitter. Here they are. And then tell your friends to do the same. Use the hashtag #lovenotbeat and let’s see if we can get Amazon to withdraw this book from their offering.

23 Comments on “How NOT to Train Up a Child

  1. I disagree (not in your assessment of the book, which, if the passages you cite are typical, is an abomination), but in trying to get it removed from Amazon. If we can petition for this book to be removed, then our opponents would have the right to petition to have our books removed (even if they are tightly reasoned, perfectly reasonable, and so on; after all, Richard Dawkins considers bringing someone up in Christianity as a different form of child abuse). Freedom of expression is more important, and that includes freedom to publish and have your works available to be read. We can use the Amazon review system to warn people of the work and refute its contents: that is a better way of dealing with works such as this.

    • I don’t think we’re asking for the book to be removed simply because enough people object. We’re asking for it to be removed because it promotes the use of consistent violence against children. Each book should be judged on its own merits (and this book has very little merit at all).

      • “I don’t think we’re asking for Robert Gagnon’s ‘Bible and Homosexual Practice’ to be removed simply because enough people object. We’re asking for it to be removed because it promotes bigotry against gays and therefore encourages the homophobes in their violence and oppression. Each book should be judged on its own merits (and this book has very little merit at all).”

        You can replace Gagnon’s work with any controversial (to some) Conservative Christian book; or indeed any controversial (to some) liberal atheist book.

        The problem is that once we concede the possibility for lines to be drawn somewhere, people will almost certainly start seeking to draw lines in the wrong place; a place that benefits them. Somebody will have to decide what is allowed and what is forbidden; the committee drawing up the guidelines will almost certainly in time be dominated by interest groups and change the rules, putting in borderline case after borderline case to shift the boundaries; and then it is a short step to allowing those people to ban those works they (wrongly) disagree with. At least, that is what seems to invariably happen when people have been allowed to ban books in the past (and stopping the sale of the work amounts to much the same thing). Nobody should have that authority to abuse. I would rather have no censorship and allow atrocious books like this, than bad censorship that risks forbidding works which ought not be forbidden.

          • In your argument, what is it about “promoting violence” specifically which puts it in a different category from “promoting bigotry” or “promoting oppression” or “promoting racial hatred” or…?

    • I agree with Nigel. Amazon is an open market and there is a review section. If Amazon refuses to sell the book, other venues will sell it without the review section.

  2. It’s the most dangerous of things – it’s half correct. She quite correctly makes the assessment that a large element of child rearing is a battle of the wills with the child. But to immediately turn to smacking….

    Wow, just wow.

    I can remember some long evenings with Ouldlet #2 and the timeout step. There was a period of about 2 months where he was incredibly defiant to the extent that I sat with him on the step and had to hold him down using a fair degree of strength to restrain him. But it was always restraint, just upping the pressure to match his defiance. And then when he realised he was never going to win he stopped and, of his own volition, sat the requisite time and gave the apology.

    It broke his will to defy us, but not with this incredibly hurtful “beating into submission”.

    • David: what’s your view of the idea that it’s reasonable to train a child to obey first time, and to expect it?

      • hi Gerv. I think that’s entirely reasonable. I think Dobson puts it well, “delayed obedience is disobedience”.
        However, I think your additional comments (made below) are really helpful, in particular the distinction between “childishness” and disobedience.
        And, of course, your 1 3/4 old is a long way away from being able to be as self-controlled as my 9 year old is.

  3. I wouldn’t say this was the worst evangelical book on child raising (it is evangelical, isn’t it?) Some of them advise you to deliberately put tempting things like breakable vases in the reach of your children and then spank them if they touch them. It’s not so much about managing bad behaviour as instilling your child that you are the authority figure and your will is absolute (you’re not going to make your house ‘childfriendly’ because that would be conforming to the will of the child rather than the other way around).

      • Is ‘the buck stops with me’ quite the same as ‘I demand absolute domination and control at all times’?

        • No. It means that I set as wide boundaries as possible for behaviour but enforce those boundaries with fair discipline.

          Or at least I try to. As I’ve said before, we find a naughty spot after several warnings and then a count works wonders. The naughty spot can be activated ANYWHERE but normally just moving into the counting mode (“One, Two…”) is enough to get our almost three year old to behave (he’s at that age where he wants to test us). Our 5 and a half year old is generally quite well behaved and reasonable (having gone through the defiance stage already).

          I don’t object to discipline, I object to the notion of forcing submission by violence.

          Ask we again when we get to teenagers…

    • We teach our children not to go into the kitchen (there’s a clear line on the floor). This is partly for their safety, but also partly because it’s a great way to teach obedience to parentally-set boundaries, a lesson which they carry with them to more complex situations. I don’t know if you would count that as a “breakable vase”?

      • Well unless you have some kind of specially designed kitchen that you could lift up out of harm’s way, I’d say a kitchen is not a breakable vase.

  4. I have heard it said that you should discipline for disobedience, and not for child-ness. That is to say, if a child spills his milk because he’s 2 and cups are hard, that’s something you clean up and help him with. If the child throws his milk across the room, that’s something you discipline for.

    So, in the second case, there was disobedience – but the inability to sit still for an hour is child-ness, not disobedience. If I were the father, once the initial issue was dealt with, I would have shown compassion to my son by taking him out of the situation of difficulty for him.

    The tone of the description of the first case certainly seems wrong. I don’t want my son to be “totally broken” after I discipline him! I also think the punishment seems disproportionate, and that more punishment for finding punishment painful is a terrible thing.

    Our oldest is 1 3/4. We don’t use naughty spots. I’m not saying we never would, but my current thought is that physical discipline, with associated explanation, penitent prayer, apology to the affected party and then joyful restoration to fellowship, is a better way to deal with an issue and have it done with than allowing the child time alone to stew in and expand their own sense of self-righteousness. (Which, if I recall, is what I did when sent to my room as a kid.)

    • at 1 3/4 they really don’t have the ability to sit on the spot long enough. We found by 2 1/2 they were more than capable.
      But the spot is a winner! I’m very grateful to SuperNanny for that one – you just have to work the whole process properly though, insisting upon eye contact and an apology.

      • Is there something I can read on this?

        Do you not find the “stewing in their own self-righteousness” thing a problem in practice, then?

        • oh totally! Which is why the “looking in the eyes” thing is so useful. I hadn’t appreciated how important it was until I insisted upon it. My experience was that the sub-4 yrs old tactic was to look at every part of the room except me. For the older ones it was to look at me with defiance. Both approaches received another round of sitting and then a return to the same option – look me in the eyes and say sorry or do another round.

          That way, at least in our experience, we got past the “self-righteousness” to repentance. As the kids got older I had the opportunity to say to them “look, we both know that what you did was wrong and you won’t move forward with this until you are prepared to admit it.” Nice and calm, gently bouncing the ball back into their court.

          While we’re on the topic, one other thing that really helped me was to have the mindset of “I’m not fighting a battle, I’m enforcing the terms of surrender”. So each act of discipline didn’t become a war, it became me effectively communicating “I’m in charge, it’s always going to be that way, the only way out for you is to conform to my entirely reasonable expectations. You make the call – defy me and sit on that step and miss out on all the stuff I will take away from you. Or accept my loving authority, make good, and everything will be well”.
          Often stopped me getting angry.

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