The XX Factor

Did the Disturbing Philosophy of To Train Up a Child Lead to Hana Williams’ Death?

King 5 News of Seattle reported last Friday that local police have charged Larry and Carri Williams, a Skagit County, Wash., couple, in connection with the gruesome death of their 13-year-old adopted child, Hana, in May of this year. The parents are now in custody after months of investigation. Hana came to live with the Williamses in 2008 from Ethiopia, and they are now accused of abusing her until her death from hypothermia. The report’s details speak for themselves: 

Carri and Larry Williams starved Hana for days, put her in a locked closet, shower room and forced her to sleep outside in the barn in the cold. She wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom in the house, instead a porta-potty behind the barn. In addition, Hana was struck daily with a plumbing tool, a tube with a round ball on the end.

When police found Hana, her naked body—30 pounds underweight—was wrapped in sheet in the backyard.

The story goes on to mention that a controversial child-rearing book—To Train Up a Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl—was found in the Williams home. Since the book’s original publication in 1994, a bevy of child abuse cases have citied the Pearls’ evangelical guidebook as the source of the offending parents’ behavior, but formal action has never been taken against the authors. (A substantial collection of reports can be found here.) A tragically common theme among the stories is the use of a quarter-inch thick length of plumbing pipe used to hit badly behaving kids; the Pearls call it the “Rod of Reproof,” citing a passage from the biblical book Proverbs as justification.

The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. (Proverbs 29:15; KJB)

Nowhere does the Bible mention needing to go to the hardware store, but apparently the Pearls’ interpretation has gained a following in some circles. Still, there’s a fairly thick line between a light spanking and an all-out beating, regardless of the implement. Is this honestly what the Pearls recommend in their book, or are these abuses cases simply tragic instances of individuals pushing already harsh discipline to extremes?

I took a look at the text, and while the Pearls do not directly advocate the kind of violence done to Hana Williams and the other children, it is easy to see how devout parents could be encouraged in deadly directions. For example, parents are encouraged to punish picky eaters with either “fasting” or force-feeding.

A little fasting is good training. If you get a child who is particularly finicky and only eats a limited diet, then feed him mainly what he doesn’t like until he likes it.

While we can probably agree that one or two missed meals as a lesson in appreciation is a fine thing, it’s easy to see how overzealous readers might follow this advice to the point of starvation. Similarly, while nowhere in the book are parents told to lock children out of doors to teach a lesson, the Pearls do recommend treating a child who is slow to potty train with a spray of the garden hose, even in cold weather. The step to the Williamses’ actions is not an enormous one.

More than any one tactic, though, the most disturbing aspect of To Train Up a Child is the idea that children should be trained at all. Kids are not mules and so are not likely to respond well to this kind of regime, especially when they—like Hana—enter the program later than infancy. When a thinking, mistake-making, defenseless human being comes into conflict with this impossible prison of expectation, tension is bound to result. Combine this with the frightening isolation that the Pearls’ brand of homeschooling produces, and you’ve got a dangerous brew indeed—one that, in Hana’s case, proved deadly.

Correction, Oct. 3, 2011: This blog post originally misstated the title of the book To Train Up a Child as How To Train Up a Child.