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

What Women Really Think
Oct. 3 2011 3:33 PM

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

69_web_lg

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: 

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 7:23 PM MIT Researchers Are Using Smartphones to Interact With Other Screens
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.