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Michael Pearl's nephew speaks out (part two)

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In part two of his interview, Michael Bailey talks about leaving home against his will at age fifteen, why he believes To Train Up a Child resonates with his uncle's "cult-like" followers, and what his feelings towards his family are now.

You left home at an early age. Why did you leave?

It depends on who you ask. It certainly wasn’t voluntary. It’s kind of a long story though. My biological father, whom my sisters and I would still visit over the summer, had given me a Super Nintendo for Christmas one year, but my mother and stepfather never allowed its use. My stepfather kept it in a home office on the second floor that stayed locked. When they were out of the house though, I would climb in through a window via the roof and get the Nintendo. I would hook it up to the television and my siblings and I would play video games all day. One of these days, we ended up getting into a big fight, which typically entailed a bunch of threats to one another over who would tell on whom for what. It was our form of mutually assured destruction, and it usually kept the peace. This time though, word got to my parents that I had been sneaking in and getting the Nintendo. To teach me a lesson, my mother called me downstairs to see the Nintendo on a cutting board, which she then used a hammer to destroy to the best of her ability. It was on that day that I stopped talking to her – for about the next four years. In a way, they had finally broken me. I was going to do precisely what was demanded of me until I could leave for college and never go back.

Exactly one week after this incident, my rebellion now explicitly clear, my mother called me into the kitchen and asked me if my attitude was going to improve. I vaguely recall presenting some argument along the lines of stating that I was doing what was asked of me, and that I had not done anything wrong, but she insisted that my attitude, not my actions, was the problem. I asked if she meant that I had to pretend to love her. She said no, and I asked her what exactly she meant. I was looking for a set of rules that I could follow to the letter. She said that if I didn’t know, then that was my problem. I said Ok and walked away. A couple hours later, my stepfather got home from work and called me back into the kitchen. They asked if I wanted to go live with my biological father (who at this point was a 70 year old drunk), and I said no – that I didn’t think living with him would be good for me. I had always been an excellent student in school, and I really just wanted to finish out my last couple years of high school, get some college scholarships, and get out of there. There must have been some additional discussion regarding my attitude, because the final word was to go pack up my clothes. I remember not being allowed to take my bed’s comforter because my stepfather had paid for it, and it was theirs. He drove me 3 hours to Memphis, TN that night and dropped me off at my father’s apartment.

What are your feelings about your uncle's teachings about parenting now that you're grown?

For the most part, my beliefs didn’t change much over the next few years. I had still been brought up to believe in the Bible, God, and everything that comes from that. My uncle’s teachings on parenting had always been presented as simply an extrapolation of what the Bible taught, so it wasn’t even something to question. In my late teens and early 20s though, I spent a great deal of time studying Biblical scriptures, religious history, and a wide spectrum of philosophers, and this taught me to question pretty much everything. Child training still wasn’t prominent at this point though, since I neither had children of my own nor planned to in the near future. I don’t know if I had read his entire book at this point, or just bits and pieces – but I was very familiar with his teachings. It wasn’t until a couple years ago when my girlfriend (raised in Denmark) and I started discussing child training that I was forced to re-evaluate my feelings/beliefs pertaining to the subject. This was also about the time that I first became aware of some of the controversy concerning his teachings and abusive parents.

Frankly, I ardently defended my uncle and his teachings. Over the years, I have developed a very naturalistic worldview and have a tendency to see human beings as only slightly more developed primates. My uncle compares child training to horse training quite often, and this comparison didn’t seem too off the mark to me. Everything is about conditioning, and anyone who has trained any animal knows that the sooner you start conditioning them, the easier it is. There’s even the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. This is the message conveyed in Proverbs 22:6, from which Michael Pearl derived the title of his book: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Much of the condemnation he has received has been targeted to his message towards toddlers and infants; I believe though that this is coming from people who cannot distinguish between shock at what they’ve grown to believe and the logical thought that has gone into his teachings. I remember seeing a former follower of his (Elizabeth Esther) speaking on Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show refer to it as cold and calculating. For many, there is a distinct dissonance between feelings and rationality, and my uncle’s teachings eschew feelings in favor of what he sees as rational application of Biblical scripture.

This however is also where my own beliefs have diverged. Ultimately, Michael Pearl’s worldview on child training seems to arise from two Biblical verses, coupled with his own childhood and the results of a lifetime of raising children. The first verse we’ve already discussed; the second of course is Proverbs 13:24 – “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” I know that a lot of people (particularly my uncle’s opponents) will simply recoil here and speak with disdain regarding the validity of Old Testament scripture in modern times, but those people aren’t his target audience. Doing so would only further polarize two sides, and I believe that this polarization is what insulates his followers in their cult-like adherence to his teachings. I don’t think it is difficult for believers or non-believers to recognize that throughout history there are different bits and pieces of language that carry specific meaning in the context of their time. Today, we commonly talk about ‘texting’ one another, when in reality we may be communicating over any number of different platforms – very few of which are actually texting. 50 years ago, communicating with someone through written language was referred to as writing a letter. It shouldn’t be a stretch to understand Proverbs to be teaching discipline – the only form of which at the time would have been beating with a rod. Even my uncle doesn’t teach that. He goes into great detail over the different implements that can be used. So, ultimately, I believe in disciplining one’s children, but I don’t believe that it has to be corporal punishment in order to be in alignment with the Bible.

What is your relationship with your parents and your uncle like now?

I never harbored anger towards my uncle, though I cannot say that a relationship of love ever developed either. I respect him and his motives. I believe that he truly believes he is spreading God’s Word – though I suspect there is plenty of ego driving him as well, and like a rebellious teen is only fueled by the attacks against him. I’d love to spend time debating him, to test what I’m writing about in my book against his own teachings. Other than that though, he lives in a world that has become rather foreign to me.

My mother and stepfather have since divorced, and she lives in the community alongside another one of their siblings – my stepfather moved about 3 hours away to Nashville, TN. During my studies of religion and philosophy, I got past my anger and hatred. I’d like to think I simply grew up. But I don’t have a relationship with them. For better or for worse, I don’t think I really understand what it’s like to have parents. My ex-wife used to jokingly ask if I was raised by wolves, and then follow that up with “Oh wait, you were.”

Continue to part three

Back to part one

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