- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

They started modestly, meeting in their home with parents who were members of their church to dispense their child-raising advice. Word spread. More parents wanted in on the classes. A book and video training series sprouted. Then more books.

Now Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo are one of the most recognizable names in the arena of child-raising. And with theories that leaned more toward Dr. Laura than Dr. Spock, they quickly and easily became one of the most controversial.

In their cornerstone books "Preparation for Parenting" and "On Becoming Babywise," they claim babies can be trained to sleep through the night by the age of 8 weeks. They espouse "parent-directed feeding" as opposed to demand feeding, even for infants as young as 2 weeks. They support spanking for children as young as 18 months.

Today they head a $4 million-a-year organization called Growing Families International in Simi Valley, Calif. GFI says its materials are used in more than 6,000 churches and have reached more than 1.5 million parents. Booksellers say the Ezzos' resources are always among their most requested parenting books.

But all that has simply fanned the flames of controversy even more. Parents across the country swear by the Ezzos, saying their advice was the best thing for their children. But respected child-raising experts such as Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. William Sears and Penelope Leach decry their philosophies and methods. Dr. Sears, author of 26 books on parenting, calls the Ezzos' advice "malpractice."

The Ezzos declined to comment for this article, however, their views are excerpted from their books. Robert Bucknam, a Colorado pediatrician who has co-authored several of their books, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Amid the rhetoric, there is an occasional voice of moderation, like that of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of the family. Dr. James Dobson's organization reviewed the Ezzos' materials and released a statement last summer that stopped short of endorsing them but said that parents who decide to use GFI curriculum should do so "only in conjunction with generous measures of common sense, intuition and natural parental affection."

A clash of philosophies

How much room for compromise and moderation is there?

Not much, say many pro- and anti-Ezzo folks, because they think what is really going on is a battle of philosophies and worldviews more than do's and don'ts. Some Ezzo supporters say much of the controversy around the advice stems from a larger battle in the culture over eroding parental authority and how much autonomy children should be given at what ages.

"I worry about [Ezzo critics'] kids down the road," says Mindy Brouse of Ingram, Texas, who adds that the Ezzos' books were "the greatest thing we ever read."

"I worry about the me-ism and the philosophy that a child can have when every cry is granted immediately," Mrs. Brouse says. "I was a teacher, and I know what that can do to a child emotionally down the line. How are you going to handle it when they're 3? It's a lot harder to deal with then, trying to rationalize with a 3-year-old and trying to talk to them like an adult."

Dr. Linda Meloy, a pediatrician in Richmond who teaches "Preparation for Parenting" courses, says today's culture and much child-raising advice strips parents of their authority, and the Ezzos' material tries to strengthen that authority.

"I think a lot of the vehemence comes from the fact that we [as a culture] don't like parents being parents," Dr. Meloy says. "Many parents need permission to be parents. So in that regard, the material needs to be out there. People need to get ideas from it.

"But I don't want to come across as being totally for or against the Ezzos," she says. "I do advocate the program, and I do teach a course in 'Prep,' but I bring a lot of other things in, too. I think there are very good fundamental principles, and I haven't been able to find such a good comprehensive course by anybody else for young parents."

Mrs. Brouse agrees. She liked the assurance the Ezzos' books gave her, particularly with her first child, Hannah, now 3.

"It gave my husband and I confidence you really lack in the first few weeks of having a baby," Mrs. Brouse says. "It gave us peace.

When Hannah would cry, we knew how to handle it, and how to meet her needs."

The Ezzos themselves, in "Preparation for Parenting," say their purpose is to help prepare parents' minds.

"The preparation of the mind is far more important than the preparation of the nursery," they write. "Your baby will not care if his head rests on designer sheets or Disney characters. His behavior will not be ordered by his wardrobe or bedroom accessories; it will be ordered by the worldview that dictates how you live your life."

But that worldview, which the Ezzos say is based on the Bible, troubles a number of experts in the Christian community, including the Ezzos' former church, Grace Community in Sun Valley, Calif., where they developed much of GFI's material and where Mr. Ezzo had formerly served as an elder. The elders there disassociated themselves from the Ezzos in 1997, largely over what they described as accountability issues and the way the Ezzos used Scripture in their materials.

"We find throughout the GFI material a blurring of the line between that which is truly biblical, and simple matters of preference," the elders' statement said. "His responses to the elders of Grace Church have reflected a repeated tendency to avoid accountability."

In 1998, the Christian Research Institute, a leading anti-cult organization in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., ran two articles on GFI in the bimonthly magazine, the CRI Journal, totaling 21 pages and more than 200

footnotes. The institute stopped short of calling GFI a cult, but did say GFI exhibited "a pattern of cultic behavior," which it identified as Scripture-twisting, authoritarianism, exclusivism, isolationism and physical and emotional endangerment.

"GFI is more than a parenting ministry," the CRI Journal's first article said. "It is a cultic community."

No medical training

Many pediatricians and medical experts, on the other hand, say the Ezzos' advice is downright dangerous for babies' health, particularly since Mr. Ezzo is a minister with no medical background or training.

Also, he has consistently refused to provide any medical studies or data to back up many of his theories. In addition, while GFI's Web site (www.gfi.org) and resources claim a vast number of pediatricians and medical experts as advisers to the Ezzos, Mr. Ezzo has refused to provide any of their names in the past.

Dr. Sears says much of the Ezzos' popularity stems from media hype.

"The press has contributed to their fame," he says. "A whole group of us who love children, been around children for 30 years, written books, have credentials, that's the group that really comes out on the Ezzos, the people who work in universities and have dealt with children for decades.

"You won't find anyone with credentials who won't come down on them. It's mainly because of the press making them so famous, handing down what we all think is the worst child care stuff to come along in a century. The last thing we need in today's busy lifestyle is more distance between a parent and a child, and this particular philosophy causes distance between a parent and a child and makes an adversarial relationship."

Dr. Brazelton, a nationally known parenting expert and a syndicated columnist who is published in The Washington Times, told the Cincinnati Enquirer he was "absolutely horrified" by the Ezzos' advice. And Ms. Leach, a British psychologist whose 1977 book "Your Baby and Child" has been translated into 29 languages, says the Ezzos' advice counters "everything we've learned in 30 years in the field of infant development. What they're suggesting does not fit with our knowledge."

The American Academy of Pediatrics says it has no public statement on the Ezzos or GFI, but does have position statements on some of the individual philosophies the Ezzos espouse.

On demand feeding vs. scheduled feeding, the AAP says, "Newborns should be nursed whenever they show signs of hunger… . Crying is a late indicator of hunger. Newborns should be nursed approximately eight to 12 times every 24 hours until satiety."

The Forsyth Memorial Hospital Division of Pediatrics in Winston-Salem, N.C., reviewed "Preparation for Parenting" and "On Becoming Babywise" and found 11 issues it said were "inadequately supported by conventional medical practice." The hospital disputed the Ezzos' claim that 6-month-old babies should be on three meals a day, saying babies that age need in-between fluids and snacks. Also, the hospital disputed the Ezzos' claim that the quality of breast milk is inadequate in 5 percent of women and that controlled feedings in the first weeks of life won't lead to dehydration.

The Santa Clara Valley (Calif.) Breastfeeding Task Force also reviewed the books and in 1998 issued a statement saying that parent-directed feeding "is likely to contribute to serious health problems for the infant most likely dehydration and poor weight gain, leading to malnutrition, learning difficulties and other developmental problems."

In 1997, the Ezzos told the Bradenton (Fla.) Herald that they have investigated "supposed cases" of low birth weight and found that none of them had anything to do with their scheduled feeding recommendations.

"Many of the so-called concerns are more fabricated and exaggerated than real," Mr. Ezzo told the newspaper.

More info:

Books

"On Becoming Babywise: Learn How Over 500,000 Babies Were Trained to Sleep Through the Night the Natural Way," by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, Multnomah Publishers, 1998. In the secular version of Mr. Ezzo's foundational book, "Preparation for Parenting," the authors outline steps for feeding your baby and getting her to sleep through the night by her second month.

"On Becoming Childwise," by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, Multnomah Publishing, 1999. The authors tackle the issue of morality with advice on discipline, parent roles and other issues.

"Preparation for Parenting," by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, Multnomah, 1993. Their guidebook, designed more for Christian parents, is divided into three sections: philosophy, physiology and practice.

"Growing Kids God's Way: Biblical Ethics for Parenting," by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, Micah 6:8 Publishing, 1998. The fifth edition of the book originally published in 1993 contains the Ezzos' theories on raising a moral child and covers discipline, character development and family building.

"Reaching the Heart of Your Teen: Basics of Communication Between a Parent and Teen," by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, Multnomah, 1997. The Ezzos discuss how to maintain the delicate communication bonds between parents and children through the difficult teen years.

Associations

Growing Families International publishes books and videotapes for individuals and groups. GFI trains "contact moms" and group leaders across the country. Address: 1846 Angus Ave., Simi Valley, Calif. 93063.

On line

GFI's Web site (www. gfi.org) has an on-line store, a comparison of GFI's parenting advice and that of the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as a detailed rebuttal to the Christian Research Institute's analysis of GFI in its spring 1998 issue.

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