In a court ruling on November 15th, 2013, Washington residents Larry and Carri Williams were found guilty of murdering their adopted daughter. Hana Williams was found dead lying face down and naked in the family’s backyard in May 2011. Officials determined her death was caused by hypothermia and malnutrition. According to the investigation, “the parents had deprived her of food for days at a time and had made her sleep in a cold barn or a closet and shower outside with a hose. And they often whipped her, leaving marks on her legs.”
Hana’s death was the third confirmed case of an adopted child murdered by parents who followed the teachings of No Greater Joy Ministries (NGJ), founded by Christian fundamentalists Michael and Debi Pearl.
NGJ is a 501(c)(3) organization that uses fundamentalist biblical teachings to promote their vision of effective parenting techniques and Christian “family values.” Based on their belief that ”the Bible and common sense are the foundations for effective parenting”, the ministry works towards “training parents to break the bad habits passed down from former generations and to recognize and emulate the wisdom of those who have gone before.” Through their bi-monthly magazine, books, videos, and various donations, NGJ brings in an estimated $1.7 million annually, which is used to distribute their publications to ministries across the world, prisons, and even “care” packages sent to military families that include NGJ booklets such as Pornography- Road to Hell and My Favorite Homeschooling Ideas. Their books and blog posts, which have been translated into languages such as Swahili, Mandarin, and Portuguese, advocate for strict and traditional gender roles. NPJ stresses the concept of the “helpmeet”, where women should be submissive and obedient to the authority of their husbands.
NPJ also takes a harsh stance regarding the relationship between parents and children. Despite their cheerful portrayal of family values, their methods continue to be linked to cases of physical and mental child abuse. According to Michael Pearl, children must be effectively disciplined or risk becoming unsuccessful adults dependent on others in order to get by. He claims that “properly-spanked and trained children grow to maturity in great peace and love. Numbered in the millions, these kids become the models of self-control and discipline, highly-educated and creative—entrepreneurs that pay the taxes your children will receive in entitlements.”
While Pearl has written countless pieces on parenting methods, he is most known for his book To Train Up a Child, which he co-wrote with his wife Debi in 1994 and published through NGJ. The book, which highlights ways to “train” children through brutal physical punishment, has been a source of repeated controversy, receiving strong criticism by experts in child development, psychology, and even other Conservative Christian organizations. Though few would disagree that proper discipline is a crucial component of effective parenting, the chosen methods advocated by Pearl and NGJ promote violent and dangerous behavior. Some of the highlights include:
- Spanking children two years and older in cases of bad behavior, and even delayed obedience. On pg. 55 Pearl notes “if you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise.”
- Using a garden hose to spray children that have potty training accidents
- Hitting children with 15 inch plastic tubing—the proper type of tubing according to Pearl, because it is “too light to cause damage to tissue or bone.” A seven year-old died of severe tissue damage in 2010 after being repeatedly beaten with the tubing by her parents, who were followers of NGJ’s parenting methods.
- Using switches on children only seven months old who cry or will not fall asleep.
- Mothers should hit children who cry out for them. As noted on pg. 55, “if a father is attempting to make a child eat his oats, and the child cries for his mother, then the mother should respond by spanking him for whining for her and for not eating his oats. He will then be glad to be dealing only with the father.”
According to the Pearls, these methods are not forms of punishment, but rather a means of “guidance” for disobedient children, and frequently mentions the bible’s words on the “rod of teaching, not the rod of punishment.”
As noted by Dr. Frances Chalmers, a pediatrician who examined the body of Hana Williams, “my fear is that this book, while perhaps well intended, could easily be misinterpreted and could lead to what I consider significant abuse.” Crystal Lutton, who runs Gentle Christian Mothers , a Christian blog that promotes “grace-based discipline” highlights the inherent danger to using these methods because “if you don’t get results, the only thing to do is to punish harder and harder.” While the Pearls argue there is a difference between guidance and punishment, they never identify when parental discipline goes beyond guidance and becomes child abuse.
Despite the controversy surrounding their methods, the Pearl family continues to take no responsibility for the potential influence their teachings had on the murders of the three young children. In one interview, Michael Pearl argues “if you find a 12-step book in an alcoholic’s house, you wouldn’t blame the book.”
In response to the murder of seven year old Lydia Schatz in 2010, whose parents held her down for several hours while whipping her with plastic tubing after they read the Pearl’s book, Michael Pearl wrote the essay Laughing, where he says he “laughs” at any criticism of NGJ and their parenting methods.
The prominence of Pearl’s book in the Evangelical community has had a negative impact, particularly because of the trend of Evangelical Christians to adopt from countries such as Liberia. Some of the parents who had trouble with their adopted children—many of the children had PTSD and were scarred from experiences during civil wars and other forms of violence—turned to Pearl’s book to help them “train” their children. A couple was arrested in 2010 for beating their adopted Liberian daughter to death after she mispronounced a word. Pearl might claim that his book is not negatively impacting children, but families following his advice have committed much more harm than good.