Moms

Controversy grows over pro-spanking book after abuse deaths

Dec. 27, 2011 at 4:07 PM ET

When does discipline cross the line into abuse?

Hana Williams, 13, died of hypothermia after allegedly being starved, abused and locked outside by her parents. Lydia Schatz, age 7, died after being repeatedly beaten by her parents. And four-year-old Sean Paddock suffocated after his mother wrapped him in a blanket too tightly, in an effort to keep him from getting out of bed.

The children lived in three different states: Washington, California and North Carolina, respectively. But all three were adopted by parents who used the teachings of a self-proclaimed Christian parenting book, "To Train Up a Child."

The book, first published in 1994, frequently cites Proverbs 13:24, which teaches that "he that spareth his rod, hateth his son." In it, authors Michael and Debi Pearl compare training a happy, compliant child with training a dog. It advocates sitting on a rebellious child to spank him, and "hold him there until he has surrendered."

The book has come under fire in the wake of the three deaths. Critics started an online petition asking Amazon chief Jeff Bezos to stop selling the book; over 9,000 people have signed it.

Author Michael Pearl, who runs "No Greater Joy Ministries" with his wife in Pleasantville, Tenn., tells TODAY that when used properly, his spanking methods shouldn't cause harm. The book warns against striking with bare hands, favoring plastic spoons and thin branches, known as switches. And Pearl does not believe that parents should spank their children when angry, or in the heat of the moment.

"To Train Up a Child" isn't the only parenting book that advocates spanking. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, has written many books about discipline and supports using a paddle to spank children.  Fans of the books regard them as the antidote to "passive parenting" techniques such as time outs and natural consequences.

Are the discipline methods in "To Train Up a Child" tantamount to child abuse? Should the book be pulled from shelves, virtual and otherwise? Do you think spanking is ever OK?

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