Teresa and James Stevens* took a parenting class through their church before the birth of their second child. They were encouraged to do so by other members of the congregation enthusiastic about the program. Teresa says they got only one chapter of the workbook at a time. "There was no way you could read ahead and know what the entire program was all about. Initially, the way the information comes, you're reading it and thinking, 'Oh yeah, this sounds good.' [But] a little red flag came up with a couple of things..." The reddest flag for the Stevenses was the program's position on discipline. Teresa and James were also concerned about the stand against child-centered homes, the promotion of feeding schedules, and letting a baby "cry it out."
The class Stevens is talking about is the Growing Kids God's Way program authored by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, and promoted by their company, Growing Families International (GFI).
The Ezzos claim Growing Kids God's Way is based on the Bible. Other parenting courses are offered-one is Preparation for Parenting (PFP), which targets expectant and new parents. The book, On Becoming Babywise, co-authored by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, M.D., is the secular version of the PFP program. Babywise promises parents if this program is dutifully followed, babies will sleep through the night before eight weeks of age.
The Ezzos teach that in order to avoid a spoiled child, authority must be asserted from the moment of birth. They claim babies must be fed on a strict schedule and other activities, such as sleeping, playing, and bathing, must be scheduled as well. They claim that responding immediately to a child's cry "can set the stage for child abuse." They advocate "chastisement" as a method of discipline. (Ezzo defines chastisement as "inflicting pain with controlled force to amend an inner attitude." He advocates using an "instrument with flex to it," so that the sting will re-direct the child's behavior.)
Aside from their experience as parents, the Ezzos' qualifications to advise are unclear. According to GFI sources, Gary Ezzo graduated from theology school and his wife, Anne Marie, "has a background in pediatric nursing."
Charlotte Babcock*, a former schoolteacher and the mother of two boys, ages 2 and 5, has observed children raised in the Ezzo manner. "When [Ezzo] children play with other children, they are very similar in behavior: often boisterous, and usually intent on having fun. However, they seem to possess a sense of wariness, lest their actions be observed-and corrected-by adults." Charlotte says that children seem to have a sense of unacceptability when this plan is followed. "They are not taught to develop good judgement, but to rely upon that of an adult."
Grace Community Church, the California church in which Ezzo began the program, has withdrawn support for the program and no longer endorses GFI. Grace Church outlined its most serious concerns in a public statement: "For several years we have had growing concerns about GFI's undue stress on non-biblical matters. For example, we see no biblical basis for the stance GFI takes on infant feeding methods," and "We are also troubled about a divisive tendency we have seen associated with GFI, beginning with parents who isolate their children from others not trained in GFI principles."
Health care professionals, from pediatricians to lactation consultants to child abuse workers, have spoken out against Ezzo's child-rearing philosophy. Some have even called the program cult-like.
The Christian Research Institute, a Christian authority on cults, published a cover story on GFI in its Christian Research Journal. A synopsis of the article notes that while GFI is not a cult, "it has consistently exhibited a pattern of cultic behavior, including Scripture twisting, authoritarianism, exclusivism, isolationism, and physical and emotional endangerment."
Dr. Barbara Francis, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Southern California and a member of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, has written an extensive critique of GFI, much of which details the Ezzos' lack of appreciation for normal child development. "In all areas, babies are taught to obey at levels that are not consistent with their capabilities. This skewed perspective results in what could be dangerous interpretations of a child's behavior."
In the April 1998 issue of AAP News, the official publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics, pediatrician Matthew Aney, M.D. says "On Becoming Babywise has raised concern among pediatricians because it outlines an infant feeding program that has been associated with failure to thrive (FTT), poor weight gain, dehydration, breast milk supply failure, and involuntary early weaning...the book makes numerous medical statements without references or research, despite that many are the antitheses of well-known medical research findings...many parents are unaware of problems because the book is marketed as medically supported." Dr. Aney says the AAP recently passed resolution #53SC to "continually evaluate infant management programs such as 'Preparation for Parenting' and 'On Becoming Babywise' and regularly report its findings."
The program's firm stand against nursing on cue is refuted by Dr. Lillian Blackmon, AAP Member Committee on Fetus and Newborn, neonatologist, and faculty member of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "There is no scientific evidence for any species, including the human being, that forced scheduled feeding is in any way superior to demand feeding. Adults would never accept that."
Blackmon addresses Ezzo's claim that a feeding routine will stabilize the hunger pattern of an infant: "Nobody can structure his hunger pattern. Hunger is a physiological response to the absence of food. That's nonsense that parents can structure their child's hunger...I think the baby ends up learning, 'my needs aren't being met' if there's no response when I say, 'I need you.'"
And Ezzo's claim of getting babies to sleep through the night by eight weeks of age? "The thing that controls sleep patterns to a great degree in a very young infant is a feeling of satiety, 'I've had enough to eat and I'm comfortable.' Most normal full-term infants simply cannot eat enough to be satisfied for longer than four to five hours in the first two months of life," says Dr. Blackmon.
Dr. Blackmon doesn't consider crying a negative behavior. "I consider it a communication. It is not wrong to go and pick the baby up to comfort it. It reinforces the trusting bonds between the infant and the parent." She says science and experience have demonstrated that "trust is the major emotional attachment task of the infant, trusting the adults in the environment to respond to their needs. And the infant has a limited repertoire of ways to bring those needs to the attention of the adults. Initially, it's only crying."
Dr. Francis sums up her assessment of GFI: "Babies are taught from the day of birth not to be demanding, and yet the parents are encouraged to be extremely demanding of their child's behavior. Children are not allowed immediate gratification (even as newborns), yet parents are given the right to have immediate gratification of every request. ("first time, every time")...Time after time, babies and children are expected to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their God-designed level of development in order to satisfy the (often-arbitrary) comfort of the parents...The GFI model contains a myriad of specific and detailed instructions for raising children. Within those instructions are gross distortions, blatant misrepresentations, and dogmatic assertions that are at best unsubstantiated, and at worst duplicitous...Age-appropriate, God-given needs are labeled as sinful...The knowledge of Christian medical and child development experts is being replaced by unsubstantiated opinion."
*Names changed by request.
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