When I began reading To Train Up A Child, I was looking for the supposed Biblical basis of the principles taught in the book. And the very first substantive use of an example from the Bible showed that the Pearls play fast and loose with the Bible text. In fact, they’re just plain sloppy in their reading of the Bible.Here’s what they write to justify the “training” sessions described above:When God wanted to “train” his first two children not to touch, He did not place the forbidden object out of their reach. Instead, He placed the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” in the “midst of the garden (Gen. 3:3).” Being in the middle of the garden, they would pass it continually. God’s purpose was not to save the tree—rather, to train the couple.
For the full story of why this is a mistaken and sloppy reading of the Bible, see the article “Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?” Here is the short version:
Genesis 3:2–3, which the Pearls refer to as saying that God placed the “forbidden object” in the middle of the garden, reads as follows:
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:2–3)
However, it was Eve, not God, who placed that tree in the middle of the garden. The actual command that God had given to Adam was:
And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for on the day that you eat of it, you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16–17)
God said nothing about the tree of knowledge of good and evil being in the middle of the garden. In fact, when God first planted the garden of Eden, God put the tree of life in the middle of the garden. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is just sort of tacked onto the end of the sentence, without specifying where it was planted:
And Jehovah God caused to grow from the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. And the tree of life was in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)
Ironically, in placing the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden, the Pearls are falling prey to the same illusion that Eve fell for. The serpent focused Eve’s attention on the forbidden tree so much that instead of thinking of the tree of life as marking the center of the garden as God had made it, she began to think of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as marking the center of the garden.
The Pearls’ methods contradict God’s methods
But here’s the kicker: In using the example of the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the Pearls underline the contradiction between their behavioristic teachings and the methods of God as described in Genesis chapters 2 and 3.
The next sentences in the Pearls’ book reveal that their practice is very different from what God did in Genesis:
Note the name of the tree was not just “knowledge of evil,” but, “knowledge of good and evil.” By exercising their wills not to eat, they would have learned the meaning of “good” as well as “evil.” The eating was a shortcut to the knowledge, but not a necessary path.
It just takes a few minutes to train a child not to touch a given object. Most children can be brought into complete and joyous subjection in just three days. Thereafter, if you continue to be faithful, the children will remain happy and obedient.
Did you notice it?
According to the Pearls, God made a simple, fatal mistake!
According to the Pearls, it would have taken God “just a few minutes,” or at most “three days,” to train Adam and Eve not to eat from or touch the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Then Adam and Eve, like “most children” would have remained happy and obedient.
Why didn’t God do that? Why wasn’t God as good a parent as Michael and Debi Pearl? If God had only followed their advice, the “Fall of Man” would never have happened, and we humans would still be living happily and obediently in the Garden of Eden.
The Bible story that the Pearls quote to support their behavioristic training regime teaches the opposite of what they advocate.
In the Bible, God does not use behavior modification techniques to train instant, unquestioning obedience into his “children.”
Instead, God puts the choice of good or evil in front of us, tells us about the positive outcomes of choosing the good and the negative outcomes of choosing the evil, and then leaves the choice up to us.
This is how God actually did “parent” Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3. The result was not a blind and slavish obedience, but morally free human beings.
There are no arbitrary “training sessions” in the Bible. Rather, there is story after story of human beings making choices, good or bad, feeling the effects of those choices, and then either repenting and changing their ways, or not repenting and continuing to engage in prohibited behavior and defy God’s will.
This Biblical principle of free moral choice and the consequences of our choices is made clear in Deuteronomy 30:11–20:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
The results of choosing death are not some arbitrary consequence meted out by God for disobedience, like the “spankings” advocated by the Pearls for disobedience. Rather, they are the natural consequences of violating the laws of God and of nature. For more on this, see the article, “Curses or Consequences: Did God Really Curse Adam and Eve?”
God does not treat us like horses, mules, and dogs whose behavior must be trained to conform to their masters’ desires. Rather, God treats us like free, responsible human beings who have the ability to make moral choices between good and evil—and if we are willing, to learn from the consequences of our choices.
The message here is not that we shouldn’t discipline our children. But discipline as exemplified in the Bible has little to do with the conditioning techniques developed by Pavlov and Skinner, and given a “Christian” veneer by the Pearls. Rather, it has to do with teaching our children right from wrong, providing our own example of good and right behavior, and letting children feel the consequences of wrong behavior.
Sometimes those consequences will be punishments of various kinds determined by the parents. But the farther children go in life, and the closer they come to adulthood, the more the consequences will simply be the natural results of foolish and destructive behavior. The best kind of “training” is the training of cause and effect that God has built right into the fabric of the universe and of human society.