What’s Wrong with `Growing Kids God’s Way’? (AKA Ezzo)

A popular but controversial Christian parenting program might have plunged a million kids into dangerous waters as they enter adolescence
by Ken McDuffTrevor poked his triumphant, beaming face into my office. “It works!” he exclaimed.

Trevor’s one-month-old boy was sleeping through the night, and he wanted me to know that the the techniques taught by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo in their popular-but-controversial parenting program, Growing Kids God’s Way (GKGW), had been successful.

But successful at what? Too often we judge a parenting style by its immediate results. What can we expect, though, when “Ezzo-babies” – as they’re sometimes called – grow up?

GKGW and its related curriculum, Preparation for Parenting, have been taught in nearly 4,000 churches over the past 10 years. The Ezzos’ organization, Growing Families International, has provided resources to 400,000 families, representing more than a million children. As the first wave of children grown “God’s way” approach adolescence, it’s a good time to evaluate the fruits of the GKGW parenting style.

GKGW methods, practiced consistently, do seem to produce “good” kids – they obey their parents, they’re generally polite and respectful, and they’re well-behaved (particularly in their parents’ presence). But, as with any parenting style, there are dangers in applying GKGW’s tenants without generous portions of common sense and parental affection.

Consider three potential dangers.

Danger 1: Parents motivated by self-interest.
The GKGW philosophy is parent-centered. The Ezzos warn that too much parental attention and sacrifice makes for a child who’s self-centered and ill-prepared for real life. They encourage parents to resist placing their kids at the center of family life. The child must be taught quickly that the world does not revolve around him; otherwise, they say, the child “will develop a self-centered perception that will carry into every relationship.”
In practice, a parent-centered philosophy translates too easily into parenting goals conceived out of selfishness. Though parents (including me) don’t like to admit it, we often have hidden motives behind our parenting tactics. We want to look good to our friends; we want to be unbothered by our child’s activity. So, we require our children to behave in certain ways – not for their benefit, but for ours.

But God’s parenting pattern is sacrificial. Author Kevin Huggins – a 20 year veteran youth leader, now a professor of Christian counseling at Philadelphia College of the Bible – reminds us in Parenting Adolescents, “Christ’s death was his profound expression of self-denial and self-sacrifice, the same elements a parent must express if he is to be relationally mature (highly involved with and responsive toward his kids)”. When parents fail to consistently respond to a child’s needs so that their lifestyle can be preserved, the second danger can result.

Danger 2: Kids who never learn to trust.
When my wife gave birth to our first child, our primary goal was to create in our daughter a sense of trust and security – a feeling that she didn’t face life alone. We responded to her cries quickly and consistently, with as much wisdom as first-time parents could muster. For a season, we altered our lifestyle to accommodate her needs. We were always nearby – and we didn’t fret about spoiling her or being manipulated.
According to the Ezzos, that’s not God’s way. Children need to learn to cope with life’s difficulties, they assert, away from their parents. By practicing what the Ezzos call “attachment parenting,” my wife and I were “fostering an emotional disability we [Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, co-authors of On Becoming Babywise] call me-ism.”

But others disagree. “To an infant,” responds Kevin Huggins, “every desire seems crucial… When these desires are not immediately fulfilled by the infant’s primary caretakers, he experiences his first relational disappointment. This disappointment arouses within him a tendency to mistrust the abilities and intentions of his parents to give him what is vital for his existence… He develops his first real problem in thinking: ‘If I’m going to feel safe and secure, I must do something to get my world to respond to me.’ ”

As a GKGW child grows, how can she gain the approval that she desires? That leads us to the third danger.

Danger 3: Kids who win approval by their good behavior.
GKGW promotes high parental control. Parents are encouraged to be “governors” in their children’s lives until the children develop the self-control and moral awareness that allows self-government. Certain behaviors are expected, and GKGW parents are quick to force conformity when necessary. The Ezzos contend that the Holy Spirit will eventually take over, building on those established patterns of compliant behavior. They call it “spiritual inertia.”
Critics see little difference between what the Ezzos advocate and behaviorism – the use of negative reinforcement (spanking, hand-slapping, “time outs,” and so on) to bring about desired behaviors. Of course, what parent doesn’t use some form of behavioristic technique? Why not? It “works.” Research studies reveal that firm and consistent parental control is associated with positive outcomes, especially when mixed with generous amounts of parental warmth.

But when parents withhold warmth and involvement, they can still get their kids to comply. Because the Ezzos’ materials habitually prefer the word “parenting” to “love,” they leave the door open for parents to use strategies mechanically. Now what happens when these compliant but emotionally unengaged kids move into adolescence? Teenagers experience sudden and drastic changes, not only in physical appearance but also in how they perceive and relate to their world. They question what they must do to be loved and to have impact on their world. If their compliance flows from a desire to win others’ approval and acceptance rather than faithfulness to Christ, the demands and struggles of adolescence can lead a young person into new, unexpected behaviors. These behaviors may take on the form of greater, even compulsive efforts to obey. But if a young person starts to believe his actions can never be good enough, he may turn to rebellious acts and defiance to signal his internal struggle.

What can you do to help a teenager whose outward compliance may not reflect a heart that’s inclined toward God?

Watch for “signal behaviors” that indicate internal frustrations. If a teenager’s strategy for winning love, security, and impact by being compliantly good fails, she may resort to “signal behaviors” such a compulsiveness, rule-breaking, defiant acts, or disregarding a parent’s instructions. Think of it as an S.O.S. It’s a time when a young person needs a friend to help her explore what’s going on deep within. If she doesn’t get help, destructive behaviors may follow.
Help parents reflect on their parenting styles and goals. Parents are the primary influencers of their children, even in adolescence. Too often, though, they fail to understand the struggles their children face. You can help parents reflect on the effects of their parenting style and provide insight on what their teenagers are doing, thinking, and feeling – and why. An excellent resource is Parenting Adolescents by Kevin Huggins (NavPress, 1989), also available as a small-group video series.
Help teenagers understand that only Christ can meet their need for relational fulfillment. Proverbs 19:22 reveals that “what a man desires is unfailing love.” Teenagers’ self-sufficient strategies and behaviors are foolish attempts to gain dependable, unconditional love – a love that’ll never be fully met in any human relationship, only in God’s lovingkindness. When a compliant young person wonders why his compliance doesn’t bring the relationship he desires, point him to the One who’ll love him regardless of his failed efforts at goodness.
When kids start to see that they can’t satisfy their deepest desires for love and acceptance by molding themselves to what others demand – that’s when they’re most open to Christ’s love. Help them to talk about their heart’s desires, then to find fulfillment in relationship with the living God.

By the way, my daughter, Karisa, is 15 now. She loves God and cares deeply about others, especially the underdogs of the world. Her heart is reflected in her life’s goal: to be a missionary. A dad couldn’t be more pleased with his daughter. Don’t get me wrong – Karisa’s not perfect, but neither are her parents. But God has established broad boundaries for successful parenting.

“Scripture has very few specific mandates… It provides spiritual goals of parenting, but not exact or specific how-to’s.” These words of Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, found in the first chapter of Preparation for Parenting, should remind us that those responsible for the spiritual nurture of our youth – parents and youth workers alike – must continually evaluate and refine their methods, depending more on God’s grace than their own expertise and ingenuity. That’s God’s way.

Ken McDuff is an associate pastor of family ministries in California. He’s wrestled with the fruits of the GKGW program for seven years in his church, where the program has caused serious divisions among parents.

Group Magazine, July/August 1997, Volume 23, Number 5, pp. 39-42.

Reprinted by permission from Group Magazine, © 1997, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80538.

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About Mamamojo

My name is T. I am a homeschooling, home/water birthing, dreadlocked, special needs mama to four beautiful daughters. I'm married to my best friend. I am a natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocate. I have done some volunteer work as a peer counselor with WIC and as a doula with Birthwell Partners and plan to be a midwifery assistant one day. My blog was created to put some alternative information out there about breastfeeding, childbirth & other issues regarding motherhood and life in general. I hope that you enjoy reading here and visit me often. Thanks for reading!
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8 Responses to What’s Wrong with `Growing Kids God’s Way’? (AKA Ezzo)

  1. growingkids says:

    It is reassuring to know that GKGW is alive and well ten years after these failed attempts to discredit the material. By the way, Growing Kids God’s Way is not also known as (aka) Babywise. These are two completely separate publications. It is a shame that you could not generate an original thought instead of reprinting a 10 year old article?

  2. Tara says:

    Well hey, as long there are people who support humiliating children and use degrading methods such as this because of their lack of education or commitment to raise their child in a peaceful, respectful method – there will be GKGW.

    And I must add that there are many things that have been wrong for a lot longer than the 10 years we’ve been “on to GKGW” that continue today. Just because it still exists and people still use it, doesn’t make it right or even okay.

  3. Thank you for posting this caution about GKGW. I first heard the Ezzos back in 1992 at the church I attended at that time. My fourth child was in the nursery then (17 months old), and all of the parents of the youngest set were urged to come and learn from their “wisdom”. Thankfully, I was older and much more experienced (with my three older ones) and could tell that this “parenting method” was *NOT* what God had intended – at least, not from what I read in my Bible and what I had learned from first hand experience.

    Beware of *anyone* who tells you that their way is the *ONLY* way your child will be “happy and adjusted” only if you adhere *strictly* to their methods. I can look back now and see where some of those young families who fully participated with their firstborn or even their second in this method have had serious struggles as these children have entered in adolescence and begun to question in various ways not only the “authority” of their parents, but also their personal faith.

    My one piece of advice that I share with young moms who ask for it is to learn to trust what I call your “Mom’s Radar” – your instinct. You have it for a reason. It’s there to protect your child. If something doesn’t feel “right” for your child, then it probably isn’t.

    Keep up the good work here on your blog. Moms *need* to know these things!

  4. Lisa says:

    Thanks for this article! Check out my review of Babywise at http://www.naturalchristianparenting.com.

  5. Anne says:

    Tara,

    Like ANYTHING out there other than Holy Writ, there is going to be some good, some bad and some ugly. Unlike many of the folks who post on blogs, I have actually BEEN THROUGH GKGW — many years ago, and recently.

    Please do not confuse GKGW with the Ezzo’s program for infants… the breastfeeding information in that one is just inconsistent with good practice.

    GKGW however, is about reaching the *hearts* of our children. I am a mom of 5, from 17 down to one, and could care less about *behavior*. I am interested in WHY my children do what they do. My goal as a mom is to guide and point them Godward, pray without ceasing, and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work.

    Most of that invovles LOTS of time together and relationship building. GKGW states that repeatedly! Physical correction may –occasionally– have its place, but it is not the same as shaming and humiliating my children. Physical chastisement in the hands of a loving parent is as akin to child abuse as needed surgery is akin to chopping one’s body parts off unnecessarily.

    For what it is worth, I know too many mothers who malign the Ezzos and don’t ‘believe’ in spanking but do yell at or hit their children out of anger. I also am aware of Mr. Ezzo’s purported failings but see that as a reason to pray fervently for him, and the Christian mothers who so desperately need older, loving, Titus 2 women to come along beside them and guide them.

    I am going to encourage you to attend one of these courses. I think you might be surprised at the emphasis on relationship and de-emphasis on physical punishment and “tricks” to get kids to obey.

    Love,
    Anne

  6. Missi says:

    I had to take this course years ago when I worked at a Christian daycare.

    I agree with what the author is saying in regards to a parent-centered philosophy. I also think a child-centered philosophy is damaging as well. So, maybe what we should be reaching for is a FAMILY-centered approach. We each learn to give and take and the family is the core unit of society where we learn to love others more than ourselves, parents included. When we were trying to decide how to respond to our first daughters cries and refusal to sleep when she “was supposed to be”, we too questioned ourselves about what sort of a father God is. We know that He promises to never leave us or forsake us, but we also know that He disciplines those that He loves. We decided that leaving our infant to cry was out of the question, and that we needed to discipline her to learn to put herself to sleep. (NOTE: By “discipline” I absolutely do not mean that we spanked, yelled at, hit, etc our infant child. I mean that we had to patiently stay with her and help her calm down by rocking, patting, etc.) It was not in the best interest of our family for her to get up every hour because this mamma was tired and her daddy had to go to work everyday! =) We chose to lovingly and patiently teach her that it was time to sleep. I guess the alternative would have been to teach her that no matter how loudly she cried, no one was responding. =(

    I disagree in the frowning upon parents being a form of government in the life of a child until they develop self government, and if everyone truly examined this at the core they would too. It’s our job to protect and teach our children. Life is FULL of times when “bad behavior” is going to be responded to by negative reactions. I sincerely doubt that GKGW advocates withholding love and warmth from a child in response to their bad behavior. However, people in general are constantly learning what is and is not acceptable in their given society. Once you leave the family unit, there are still methods of ‘rewards” for meeting social mores, and “punishments” for not. The kid who bullies others and steals their lunch money finds himself alone because no one wants to be his friend, etc. If you show up late to work repeatedly, you are going to be fired, blah blah blah. Negative behavior shouldn’t be rewarded. It isn’t in real life. I’m sure a parent could go way overboard with the rewards and punishments, but our goal should be to raise adults who are ready for the real world. And the real world does not give you a cookie even though you just hit your sister. KWIM?

    I think with any program that claims to have it all worked out, there are going to be things that work for some and things that work for others. I personally don’t follow GKGW with my own kids, but I’m sure there are some helpful aspects to the teaching. I really liked the book Shepherding a Child’s Heart. I re-read it every now and then just to remind myself what it’s all about. =)

  7. fikalo says:

    It is so refreshing to hear fellow believers willing to actually look beyond the surface and assess this child rearing “programme” – which, by the way, I have never, ever seen detailed in my Bible. Maybe I should try a different translation? ;p

  8. Christin says:

    This principle is called thematic approach and is being utilized by a number of schools and learning center for young children.
    Hence, it is not surprising that they succumb to a lot of stress.
    re done with that letter, you can read it to me and we.

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