Ezzos: Neo-evangelizing the Catholic Family

Neo-Evangelizing The Catholic Family with an Alien Gospel: Part II

Embodied Self Giving
Parental Sacrifice
Child's Place in the Family
Erroneous Theology of the Child
Ezzo's Perspective
Conscience and the Will
Abbreviated Bibliography

Go Back to Part I


Not only does this appreciation of the "natural" welcome the instinct of the mother to answer the spontaneous needs of her child, but it unearths a deeper movement in the mother-child relationship, the Moral Theology of Embodied Self-Giving. Love is something that must be learned and experienced from early infancy. It must be developed and fostered first on the human level; only then can it be given to its religious dimension of God and neighbor. The mother, by obeying her desire to love and give to her child, serves as the bridge to and earthly example of the divine. Emphasizing the mother as a sign of the divine, Dr. Ratner says,

"the implication that God's face and love will shine on us as does the first face we see in infancy awesome dimension to the task of motherhood. And if the priesthood is the task of bringing God to man and man to God, it seems to me that we have here, in the mother's loving acceptance of the new life, and in her introduction of this life to the God who is love, a kind of primal priestly function, a function ordained by the creator, a priesthood reserved by Him for women." (52)

But embodied self giving delves into an even more profound reality: the mother who gives herself, by the touch of her skin, the milk of her breasts, and the love of her heart, is giving her very person as a gift. In this she imitates Mary who bodily nourished Jesus, and she imitates Christ, who gives Himself bodily to us, once on the Cross, repeatedly in the Eucharist. In this giving, a relationship of love is formed which offers us a glimpse of the Trinity, which is also a relationship of Love. This meditation in its fullness is uniquely Catholic and immensely deep. The mother's donative impulse to fulfill her vocation is not, therefore, merely acceptable; it is one of the most perfect means of effecting her own salvation and paving the way for that of her child.

John Paul II highly esteems the "theology of the body which speaks of the body as the place where embodied persons can give of themselves in love for one another," (63) for, " cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self." (50) Father William D. Virtue, S.T.D., who draws from the donative philosophy of John Paul II, recently completed his Roman dissertation on this subject as it relates specifically to the mother and infant (Mother and Infant: The Moral Theology of Embodied Self-Giving in Motherhood in Light of the Exemplar Couplet Mary and Jesus Christ). (63) In sum: "The unity of the truth and the good is exemplified in motherhood because mothers teach their infant precisely by their acts of loving nurture. This maternal embodied self-giving is the theology of the body applied to the moral life exercised in motherhood." He then goes on to explore fully the spiritual ramifications of this relationship:

"Mary, in her response of welcome to her son in infancy, is an exemplar who can be imitated by every mother's embodied love. Self-giving is expressed and redeemed for her and for her child in conception, birth, nursing, and forming a bond in which the mother becomes her child's first tutor in love and opens her child to the Communion of Persons."

"Mutual giving and receiving as an act of charity in the order of Grace is a participation in the Trinitarian Communion of Persons. The maternal-infant bond is a mutual act of charity in the order of Grace. Therefore the maternal-infant bond is a participation in the Trinitarian Communion of Persons."

"The Church's sacraments are the continuous contact whereby she becomes our mother from whom we are born from above and who nourishes us with the Bread of Life. Jesus designed the two sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, wherein He nurtures us in Christian life on the pattern of embodied maternal love in order to evoke the symbolic value of nurturance in the maternal-infant relation which He enjoyed with His mother Mary, and that every mother can share with her child."

There is a radically different perception by the child of his caretakers (and vice versa) when he is raised by this theology as opposed to an Ezzo-type methodology, which is based on distance and detachment. The bond of attachment formed by a generous mother is in harmony with the child's need for love. Conversely, the child will resent the withdrawal of such love or its substitution with something less than the mother's embodied love; and this resentment may even taint his perception of religion, especially if it is associated with the painful actions of the maternal figure. The following anecdote is a particularly poignant vignette illustrating this point:

A Catholic mother in our local area was having difficulty getting her children to sleep, so she was instructed by someone well versed in the Ezzo program to schedule the children to be shut in their rooms for several more hours a day than they were accustomed to. Upon doing this, the oldest child, under three years old, cried extensively for his mother. She was then instructed to give the child a rosary and ask him to pray for Mary's comfort during Mommy's absence. When she did so, the mother was shocked to find that the child hurled the rosary against the wall. When asked why he did such a thing, the child responded in effect, if this is what kind of mother Mary is, I don't want her!

The child sensed that a prop was being substituted for the object of his desire, his mother, who for him is a truer representation of God's love than are inanimate rosary beads. This insult aroused the child's pain and resentment toward his mother for her betrayal and toward Mary for her disappointing imposition. In a very concrete sense, parents serve as a metaphor for, example of, and precursor to God, the relationship with the one being strongly dependent on that with the other. Closeness to God develops if closeness is fostered by the parents, who are reflections of God. This concept is embellished by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a theologian held in high esteem by the Holy Father. The following excerpts come from the book entitled (significantly), Unless You Become Like This Child (3):

" first the child cannot yet distinguish between parental and divine love."

"For in his helplessness, the child has a sacred right to be cared for; but only love can do justice to such a right...In the beginning the child cannot distinguish between absolute goodness, which is divine, and the creaturely goodness he encounters in his parents...satisfaction can occur only on the basis of a most intimate bond between the parents and the mind of God....Since evil is nevertheless present, however, the loving answer to a rightful entreaty stands in danger."

"So it is with all other attributes native to children: all of them are modeled on the primarily giving love of the mother and the primarily received love of the child. For the child it is natural to receive good gifts...This is so to such an extent that the child adopts the mother's giving attitude unquestionably as the right one, and he gives spontaneously when he has something to the gift the child directly recognizes the love of the giver."

Von Balthasar's extolment of maternal-infant bonding reassures us that Ezzo's warnings of adverse outcomes based on such attachment are unfounded and unjust:

"The child will see clearly that love is realized only in reciprocity, in an oppositeness that is encounter and not opposition, a relationship that is held together in its very difference by the spirit of love and that, far from being endangered by mutuality, is rather strengthened by it. Love, too, is what enables the child to experience its absolute neediness as something other than a threat..."

He even touches upon the beauty of spontaneity versus the concept of rigid scheduling, such as that proposed by Ezzo. Von Balthasar writes:

"The child has time to take time as it comes, one day at a time, calmly, without advance planning or greedy hoarding of time...we should live the time that is given us now, in all its is possible only within time so conceived...And only with time of this quality can the Christian find God in all things, just as Christ found the Father in all things. Pressured man on the run is always postponing his encounter with God to a 'free moment' or a 'time of prayer' that must constantly be scheduled, a time that he must laboriously wrest from his burdened workday. A child knows that God can find him at every moment because every moment opens up for him and shows him the very ground of time as if it reposed on eternity itself."

The above passage reveals a profound appreciation of the child's gifted nature, and it helps us realize that just as we make ourselves a gift to the child, so he is himself a gift to us. If there is one thing about childhood that is no mystery, it is that to a child everything is mystery. And mystery forms the heart of the deepest truths of our faith. It is difficult for adults to remember that time long ago when wondering "why" was more important than knowing "how"; that is because adults are "task-oriented", focused on accomplishing one mission before moving on to the next, while children are "process-oriented", content with savoring the activity of the moment for its own enjoyment. There is a transcendent beauty in childhood which fascinates us, perhaps because it corresponds with a vestige of the transcendent within us trying to be noticed, and though the voice is weak we know it to be true.

Could we learn from the child to see the Kingdom a little more clearly if we weren't so preoccupied with our own needless anxiety, O we of little faith? (Matthew 6: 25-34) Perhaps we could if we took to heart the words of Maria Montessori, " is we who must go at [their] pace." (67). If not for ourselves, we should at least do so for them, for they know the pace they must keep to properly develop.

These musings suggest that, in some respects, we may have more to learn from the child than he from us. Cardinal Mindszenty states:

"The experience of priests and teachers confirms the fact that the child's soul is much more open to the supernatural than the soul of the adult." (6)

Saint Francis of Assisi, when once confronted with a particularly difficult and momentous decision, chose an outside arbitrator to judge in the great saint's stead; he chose a child. The widely acknowledged spiritual giftedness of children is revealed by such Christian colloquialisms as: a child's prayers go straight to heaven. Of course, Jesus understands the gift of childhood simplicity and, far from decrying it, he enjoins us to embrace it with nothing less at stake than the Kingdom of Heaven itself (Matthew 18:1-5). It seems that Our Lord sees something precious in the child that Mr. Ezzo is missing.


Mr. Ezzo's insistence on the duty of the child to invariably conform to the parents' wishes neglects not only the developmental and spiritual needs of the child, but also those of the parents, who may impair themselves by blindly closing themselves off to what the child has to offer. Like those mentioned above, Pope John Paul II fully appreciates the important contributory role of the child:

"Children...offer their own precious contribution to building up the family community and even to the sanctification of their parents." (49)

Adults are sanctified by children in at least three ways: emulation of the innate spirituality of the child; reverence for the moment of grace represented by the gift of the child and his relationship with the parents; and growth in holiness concomitant with the sacrifices that parents make in the course of raising their children, acquiring such virtues as patience, generosity, gentleness, self-control, simplicity and guilelessness. We have touched on the first two ways earlier; now we will discuss the third.

It is indisputable that parents are the stewards of their children; however, there are different interpretations of how their leadership role is defined. An authoritarian ruler does not unsettle his throne for the sake of his subjects, but rather builds it up at the expense of their sacrifices. In the Ezzo household, it is the children who serve the parents' pleasure and convenience. By contrast, in the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10: 1-18) and in preparation for His passion (Mark 10: 42-5), Jesus models the leader as the one who serves. He serves even to the extent that "He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave"(Philippians 2: 5-8; cf. Isaiah 53). In imitation, parents are to be the shepherds of their children whose sacrifices for them impress upon their young minds their first examples of holiness; and in the process, the parents are sanctifying themselves.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in the 1994 prayer breakfast at the White House said:

"Are we willing to give until it hurts...or do we put our own interests first?...Our children depend on us for everything - their health, their nutrition, their security, their coming to know and love God. For all of this, they look to us with trust, hope and expectation. But often father and mother are so busy they have not time for their children...We are talking of love of the child, which is where love and peace must begin." (41)

It seems paradoxical that Mr. Ezzo blames many of the world's ills on child-centered parenting, especially in light of the fact that the child receives less parental attention now than he ever has! Families are more discohesive now than ever before as a result of long school days, dual working parents with long workdays and short weekends; frequent employment of day care, baby-sitters and nannies; and a tragically high rate of separation, divorce and dislocation. More than ever, there is distraction from the family due to such allurements as television, travel, entertainment, computers and numerous variations of materialistic and image-enhancing pursuits. Do we fix the problem by further neglecting our children's needs or by modifying our own indulgences? Barbara Curtis, Christian author, teacher and mother of eleven, comments:

"The Ezzos take as their starting point that our society has become too child-centered. In looking around me, I can only disagree. At no time in history, I believe, have parents ever been so self-centered. So many daily parental decisions are based on society's encouragement not to neglect their own needs...Although the discipline of children has deteriorated drastically in the past generation, I do not believe it is due to the fact that parents are putting their children first." (9)

In our culture, children are not in danger of being too central, but in being marginalized. It is a lonely, painful world for a child who observes, by his parents' actions, that his personhood is not as valuable to them as those objects which do succeed in capturing their attention. Filling the void of his loneliness, and following the example of his parents, the child may also turn to objects to occupy the empty place in him which belongs rightfully to human and divine charity; then persons are replaced with objects. Thus are planted the seeds of materialism and depersonalization, foundations of what Pope John Paul II calls "The Culture of Death". And so the cycle of emptiness, selfishness, and violence is perpetuated. To stop it will require that parents make the sacrifice of an authentic gift of self to their children.

Few express themselves so passionately about the sanctifying effects of surrendering to the will of God by accepting the little sufferings sent our way than English Catholic mystic Caryll Houselander. Robin Maas, Houselander biographer and professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, wrote on the life of Caryll Houselander:

"Our absolute need to surrender to God, which is so agonizingly difficult for adults, is supplied by our encounter with infancy. This surrender, [Houselander] claims, becomes not only possible but incredibly attractive, for 'it was by the helplessness of his infant body that Christ first won human love, by His necessities that He bound His first lovers to Him.'" (35)

The mother's understanding that when she gives to her child she is giving to the Christ Child, reminiscent of our Lord's words in Matthew 25: 34-46, gives her strength during times of hardship. Houselander assures her that,

"a woman too weary for articulate prayer will find that for her the best of all prayers is the unspoken act of faith in Christ in her children. When she knows that she is setting the table and baking the cake for the Christ Child, her soul will be at rest." (23)

And the child, of course, desires his mother in the deepest of ways. He doesn't understand that when the mother does not come to him in his need, it is for his own good. He does not understand that the beautiful crib, the colorful toys, the new playpen and the "healthy routine" are for his own good. He wants only her love. James Hymes writes, "not things but ourselves. We give our time, our love, our care. Babies cannot do for themselves. We have to be on hand gladly to meet their needs." (25) Maas again writes of Houselander:

"The coming of any infant into our lives confronts us with the need to give... 'What gift should I give this child?...When he is born [the infant] rejects every gift that is not the gift of self'...Those of us who have, with our own children, resisted this total surrender as unfair and too costly know instantly the demand she is describing. It is implacable, and our efforts to fob something less costly off on our children are always bitterly resented. The insights of modern psychology affirm that our compromises in this respect do not ultimately succeed. Both we and our children pay for it in the end." (35)

There is nothing more important to the mother than her vocation, which is greatly occupied by caring for her children. It is sometimes a temptation for the mother to feel that this "little way" of suffering is not holy enough or important enough. St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis de Sales, Father de Caussade and others remind us that holiness lies more in doing ordinary things with extraordinary love than in doing extraordinary things that extol us but detract from our true, albeit humble, responsibilities. Mother Teresa of Calcutta's life was a source of inspiration where mothers may learn not to be disheartened with their humble but magnificent role.

"We all want to love God, but how? The Little Flower is a most wonderful example. She did small things with great love. Ordinary things with extraordinary love. That is why she became a great saint. I think we can bring this beautiful thing into our lives." (42)

"At the end of life, we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by 'I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was naked and you clothed me; I was homeless and you took me in.' Hungry not only for bread - but hungry for love; naked not only for clothing - but for naked of human dignity and respect; homeless not only for want of a room of bricks - but homeless because of rejection. This is Christ in distressing disguise." (42)

The most magnificent fruits of motherhood spring from the most humble seeds. It is the mother's self-sacrifice, superseding her self-gratification, that produces this fruit. The fruit, of course, is the child who grows into a sound human person. The seed is the mother who, by her acquiescence to her humble commission, "dies" and bears fruit in giving life (John 12: 24-25). Her very vocation is her surest spirituality. Other spiritual exercises are laudable if they are not incompatible with her vocation as wife and mother, especially mother, in the sense that the child is so needful and so helpless, so dependent on her. Unfortunately, sometimes even those inclined to religiosity may disguise parental inattention, even inadvertently, with misdirected spiritual endeavors. Maisie Ward, another Houselander biographer, writes:

"Life demands courage whether lived in a convent or a family. There are women unable to face the self-surrender of a vocation who 'invent for themselves a kind of pseudo-companionate marriage with the Lord in the world, or an extraordinary mission in life, which precludes fulfilling all their ordinary obligations, but eludes definition which might commit them to any self-surrender at all, and is itself a lifelong delaying action.'" (64)

It is one of life's ironies that the voice of wisdom, personified in mothers who lead lives of quiet dedication, is often drowned out by other, louder voices. But this quieter voice is at the ear of God, and its fruits bear witness to it in the world. Of course, the irony dissipates upon the remembrance of Jesus' words in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the meek..." (Matthew 5: 1-12).

The centrality of scheduling and routine in Ezzo's method eclipses such Gospel virtues as charity and sacrifice. Even his assertion that "God is a God of order" (14) is remarkable, not for any falsity, but for the conspicuous absence of God's greater attributes, such as "love" and "mercy". It is true that scheduling may play a constructive role in governing a household by promoting order and, in turn, a sense of predictability. It is also true that scheduling requires some parental sacrifice. However, the sacrifice made in the act of scheduling is less good than that made in the act of directly tending to an immediate need of a person. This is true because scheduling is not a good in and of itself; it is not a priori a means of sanctification. As such, it must be subordinated to greater goods such as sacrificing for those in need. Sheila Kippley explores this point:

"I could never figure out how scheduling food and sleep would make one holier or more disciplined or less selfish. If I eat my meals at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. every day, does that make me holier or more disciplined? I don't think so. And will I be helping my husband and children to be holier if I say to them: 'I'll help you or talk with you at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., and 9 p.m., but don't count on me for any help or conversation in between the appointed times.' I don't think so." (28)

Unfortunately, in the final analysis, sacrifice does not always prevail; mother does not respond, and baby readjusts his expectations of his world. "Eventually what happens is that the mother loses trust in her instincts. The baby loses trust in the mother." (Dr. Sears, ABC World News Tonight, July 1996) Again, Caryll Houselander writes:

"Human motherhood can be the holiest of loves; but it can also be the most unholy. It is capable of a degree of selfishness that is incalculably cruel and destructive, that is too often camouflaged by a thick fog of conventional sentimentalities. Motherhood is safe only when it is sanctified." (24)

Maria Montessori, pioneering and imaginative Catholic educator and the first Italian female physician, echoed this sentiment as she saw the potential of the child being limited by parental selfishness. "Adults are inclined to repress a child's activity. Since they do not want to be disturbed or annoyed, they attempt to make the child passive." Then, "[the child's] protests are regarded as a dangerous and intolerable lack of submission." These words strike at the heart of the Ezzo methodology. As she further develops this thought, she sets before us a potentially tragic outcome:

"An adult sacrifices a child's needs to his own, but he refuses to recognize this fact, since this would be intolerable. He persuades himself that he is exercising a natural right and acting for the future good of the child...The heart is hardened...Conventions which camouflage a man's true feelings are a spiritual lie which help him adapt himself to the organized deviations of society but which gradually turn love into hatred." (40)

Ezzo recommends that parents "harden" their "heart" (14) when they hear their baby cry for no apparent reason. Initially, he warns, the mother may cry or leave the house in anguish. But, when the process is complete, parents will laugh when discussing inconsolable babies. His use of the image "hardening the heart" is particularly unsettling, especially in regard to well-known biblical applications of the phrase such as that used in Psalm 95, which enjoins man to be open to God's grace, not to withdraw tenderness from his child. Similarly, in Ezekiel 36: 26, God promises to transform man's stony heart into one of flesh, not the other way around. Ezzo's utilization of this concept is a complete perversion of its original intent in the Scriptures. It is also important that parents recall that God's word may come to us in a small voice (1 Kings 19: 12). The baby is on many occasions for us that small voice, drawing our hearts to love and directing our eyes to heaven.

But Maria Montessori also saw the possibilities when parents refused to harden their hearts:

"Nature inspires both parents with love for their little ones, and this love is not something artificial...The love we find in infancy shows what kind of love should reign ideally in the grown up world, a love able, of its own nature, to inspire sacrifice, the dedication of one ego to another ego, of one's self to the service of others. In the depth of this love parents renounce their own lives to dedicate them to their children. And this devotion is natural to them. It gives them joy and does not make them feel sacrificial...The efforts parents make for their children are part of parenthood itself. The child awakens what adults think of as an ideal; the ideal of renunciation, of unselfishness, virtues almost unreachable outside of family life." (39)


The question of where the child finds himself in relation to the overall family structure is a crucial one in that its answer colors the way we will define the fundamentally important concept of "the family", the domestic church. The answer differs depending on whether you pose the question to Mr. Ezzo or to representatives of a Catholic spirituality. Ezzo is adamant in his advocacy of a parent-centered family structure, and conversely, he deplores, almost obsessively, the "evils...of child-centered parenting," (14) referring to it as "Satan's tool to destroy the family." (13)

This topic forms one of the central tenets of his philosophy; and this conviction is one of his major shortcomings, not because of whom he puts, or does not put, in the "center", but because of his insistence that someone has to occupy the "center" in the first place. Ezzo's dogma of parental centrality and filial peripherality is a distortion of a true sense of familial relationships. To understand this, it is important to first define "centrality" as this term properly relates to persons within a family as well as how it is misused in Mr. Ezzo's writing.

It is not incorrect to say that parents are central to the family in their role as the physical origin of their children, in cooperation with God's creative power. Nor is it incorrect to say that parents are central in the act of raising their children. In both these roles they derive their authority from God, Who is, of course, most central to the viability of the family. Although there is clearly a difference in the roles of the parents and the children within the family, as will be discussed below, there is not a difference in the intrinsic worth of each family member dependent upon his position in the family. For this reason, it does not follow that parents must be central in the family as objects of attention (i.e. the "center of attention"), which is what Mr. Ezzo intimates.

In Christian families, it has been said that the following priorities must be observed: First God, then spouse, then child. This statement contains a grain of truth but can easily lead to a great falsehood. We demonstrate our love for God precisely by loving our spouse, and that for our spouse by loving our child. We do not love God at the expense of our spouse, or our spouse at the expense of our child. Love is a boundless treasure that increases when it is given away; it is not a limited commodity that must be parsimoniously divided.

When family members are endowed with an intrinsic value that is based on their position in the family structure (as opposed to their essential personhood), or when attention or love are preferentially apportioned dogmatically on the basis of such position (as opposed to the needs of the person), familial charity falls short of its potential. Consequently, an organic community of persons fulfilling appropriate roles is replaced by a simplistic and artificial hierarchy of relative powers. By excessively focusing on establishing a rigid hegemony among persons where no such tension need exist, Mr. Ezzo seems to promote an atmosphere of antagonism and competition. His theories on this issue are probably an unfortunate response to fear of social and familial disintegration, the causes of which seem to be confused by Ezzo - the causes do not originate from overly responsive family members. The following statements are examples:

"Daddy will play with Chelsea afterward, but Mommy comes first," [followed on the next page by] "If you desire excellence in parenting, you must protect your marriage." (15)

"Notice a very important exclusion: children were not present with Adam and Eve when God rested from His work of creation. After He had formed the woman, God authoritatively declared that His creation was very good. We believe that statement to be significant. If children were necessary to complete man and woman, God would have created them before making such a declaration. Therefore, the marriage relationship lacks nothing. Woman alone completes man, and man alone completes woman. Thus, the husband and wife form the nucleus of the family unit. Children do not complete the family, they expand it." (13) (Author's note: Does Mr. Ezzo imply that the advent of children somehow made creation less good? Actually, before God rested, He "blessed them, saying: 'Be fertile and multiply'" (Genesis 1:28), implying that children are a latent requirement for the completion of His work.)

Contradicting Mr. Ezzo, the Child Abuse Council warns that,

"having a strong marriage with poor parenting skills certainly will not establish a sense of confidence within a child. It does not matter how a child observes the emotional closeness of both parents if the interaction with the child is inappropriate," [and] "the focus [with Ezzo] always goes back to putting the husband/wife relationship first, to the point of excluding, rather than blending, the relationship with the children and focusing on the family." (10)

It is ironic that some of his writings on infancy contain more references to the primacy of marriage than to the nurturance of infants. The Child Abuse Prevention Council observed that Birth by Design contained about five times as many references to marriage as a priority than to the love or nurturance of children:

"If this were a book on marital relationships this tally would make sense, but [it] is a book on prepared childbirth." (10)

The essential Catholic concept of the family, as delivered to us from writings of the saints and the Magisterium itself, is a place of mutuality and reciprocity where all the members charitably sacrifice for each other. This concept does not disavow the reality of specific roles or parental authority. On the contrary, the authoritative role of husband/father and wife/mother, and the obedient role of the child is unquestionable. Also, no one would argue with the fact that a healthy husband-wife relationship is essential to a strong marriage, which, in turn, is instrumental to a cohesive family. However, the distinction lies in the manner in which these roles are played out, which should display mutual humility, reverence and charity. As such, the father and mother are generous stewards of their children and one another, demonstrating authority rather than wielding authoritarian power. Furthermore, attention is not preferentially bestowed as a matter of dogma upon one party over another; rather, it is directed to wherever the need beckons as appropriate. Pope John Paul II writes:

"All members of the family...have the grace and the responsibility of building, day by day, the communion of persons, making the family 'a school of deeper humanity': this happens when there is care and love for the little ones... Family communion can only be preserved and perfected through a great spirit of sacrifice." (49)

"The whole family seeks to practice respect for the dignity of each individual and to offer a disinterested service to those most in need of it." (49)

Might not those "most in need" be the children? Yes, indeed. In the section of Familiaris Consortio entitled "The Rights of Children," the Pope states,

"...special attention must be devoted to the children by developing a profound esteem for their personal dignity, and a great respect and generous concern for their rights. This is true for every child, but it becomes all the more urgent the smaller the child is and the more it is in need of everything..." (49)

This dignity of the child is not a focal point in Ezzo's literature. And in contradiction to his claim that children are merely additions to the husband and wife, the Fathers of Vatican II affirm:

"A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of their mutual giving as its fruit and fulfillment." (7)

"Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents....The true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior, Who through them will enlarge and enrich His own family day by day...They are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love." (62a, n. 50)

Thus, in contradistinction to the Ezzo philosophy, it is clear that the child occupies a rather honorable position in the family dynamic according to a Catholic paradigm. Would one dare to press even further, to assign a central role in the family to the child, thereby demonstrating a complete reversal of Ezzo's theory?

Mother Teresa, at the White House prayer breakfast, appeals:

"Let us bring the child back. The child is God's gift to the family...In this year of the family we must bring the child back to the center of our care and concern. This is the only way our world can survive because our children are our only hope for the future." (41)

The child is also placed at the focal point of family life by Father Benedict Ashley, O.P., whose synthesis of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and Catholic theology has contributed to the discourse on the theology of mother and child. A distillation of this topic from his lectures at the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family are presented in Father Virtue's dissertation:

"In the moral theology of motherhood, which is a theology of the maternal heart and body, the primary principle is embodied self-giving. The two secondary principles are to give the best care to the child and to put its needs first....The good of the human species and human community are served by giving the best care to the offspring as the parents put first the needs of the children." (63)

It is not difficult to see that the needs of infants and young children are far greater than those of functional adults. Mature parents should not feel that this biological fact threatens their marriage; mothers and fathers should not feel that they have to fearfully protect themselves from their children, which is what Mr. Ezzo describes as the correct frame of mind. This mindset produces an atmosphere of mistrust, defensiveness and insecurity.

Rather, the parents' maturity should dictate that, while not neglecting their attention to each other, they should cooperate with one another to meet the needs of their children. In a spirit of justice and stewardship, they give their love to the children, who desperately need it, and, unlike adults, can not rationalize its absence. The parents' cooperation with each other in the just goal of raising the children, for whom they are mutually responsible, demonstrates one of the greatest manifestations of their love for one another. They are bonded together in charity in their fulfillment of this common goal, a goal dignified with the status of a vocation. Such an atmosphere is one of welcome, trust and security.

We don't have to look far in the Scriptures to find prominent examples of parents who actually put their livelihoods and their lives at risk by placing the needs of their children before their own. The infancy narratives of Moses (Exodus 2: 1-10) and Jesus (Matthew 2: 13-23) show many parallels and beautifully demonstrate parental sacrifice's awesome consequences.

However, the viewpoints expressed above should not be misconstrued as an attempt to establish a permanent family hierarchy in the same manner as Mr. Ezzo, in this case with the child at its center. They merely illustrate that the child has a dignity which merits his occupying this position in certain circumstances and in the context of a normative family relationship. The same cannot be said from the viewpoint of the inflexible, parent-centered Ezzo system. Actually, the fruitless debate over parent-centeredness versus child-centeredness can easily be settled. When family members cease to focus on themselves and begin to serve one another, their object of attention is Christ (Matthew 25: 40); such a family is implicitly Christ-centered.


A healthy relationship between parent and child, as envisioned by Mr. Ezzo, is a relatively distant and detached one. Despite his attempts to credibly validate this position, it is largely insupportable. The most shocking example he uses to justify his opinion draws an analogy between the baby abandoned by the mother and Christ "abandoned" by the Father:

"If you're going to work from a biblical mindset, you need to understand how God responded to the cries of His children. Praise God that the Father did not intervene when His Son cried out on the cross (Matthew 27:46). If He had stopped the process, there would be no redemption for us today. Our Heavenly Father's non-intervention to His Son's cry at that moment was the right response, bringing peace to all who trust in Him (Romans 5:1). (13)

There are serious errors in this passage that may mislead an unwary reader. First, Ezzo's description of God the Father suggests a figure detached from the sufferings of His children, including His only begotten Son. Second, he equates, at least on the issue of responsiveness, two essentially incomparable relationships - that between the Divine Persons and that between the parent and child.

Ezzo asks us to examine "how God responded to the cries of His children." If the context of the Scriptures is fully appreciated, it becomes clear that God on numerous occasions responded mercifully to the cries of His children (e.g., Exodus 2: 23-25, 8: 13,14; Numbers 20: 16; Psalm 34; Isaiah 58: 9, 49: 15; Sirach 2:10, etc.). Such passages describe a God of mercy and consolation. If the Father demonstrated such tender inclinations toward His imperfect creatures, surely He would do so toward His beloved Son. Indeed, the Father and Son are bound together, with the Holy Spirit, in the Trinity - a unique communion of infinite love in which it is unimaginable that any Person could forsake the Others. Undoubtedly, Jesus felt terrific pain of abandonment momentarily during the Crucifixion. This is because to the extent that He carried the massive burden of our sin, He experienced profound human isolation. The Catechism tells us: "But in the redeeming love that always united Him to the Father, He assumed us in the state of our waywardness of sin, to the point that He could say in our name from the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (7) Also, in every aspect of His life, Jesus provided us with the example of how to live - in the agony of the Cross, as the Good Shepherd, He led us through the "valley of the shadow of death" (Psalm 23)

The Son's sense of abandonment does not necessarily entail that the Father actually did turn His back on Jesus. Again, the Catechism states:

"Our salvation flows from God's initiative of love for us, because 'He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation of our sins' (1 John 4:10). 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself' (2 Corinthians 5:19)" (7)

The pain felt by the Son on the Cross was not ignored by the Father, for it was but an echo of the pain felt by the Father when His creation disobeyed Him, tremendous, divine pain (Genesis 6: 5-6). And only a second tremendous, divine pain could redeem the fallen world through the sacrifice of the Cross. The Father and Son completely understood this sober truth and yet proceeded, in a cooperative way, in the work of redemption. We must not forget the cooperative nature of the Crucifixion. To intimate that Christ's salvific act was consummated merely because of the Father's "non-intervention" is to deny Christ's role as an active protagonist in this event (John 10: 18). While it is true that the Father did not intervene, this is a result not of a unilateral whimsical decision on His part, but rather, because the Crucifixion was a necessary chapter in salvation history involving the full participation of each Person.

Jesus' pain on the Cross was genuine and profound. Nevertheless, His lament in Matthew 27:46, though desperate, actually contained a grain of hope, for it recalled the first words of Psalm 22, which ends in joyous expectation of the salvation of the world. The recollection of this verse, moreover, was a conscious attempt by the Evangelists to reference Old Testament prophesy in validation of the Crucifixion. Additionally, Christ's sense of abandonment was not absolute, for His very last words on the Cross demonstrated trust in His Father's presence: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit!" (Luke 23: 46) Although momentarily isolated on the Cross, Jesus was coming into His glory, and His Father would soon console Him.

The second argument against Ezzo's comparison is based on important differences between the nature of the relationship among the Divine Persons and that of the human parent and child. Although this essay argues elsewhere that the parent and child may imitate and participate in the Trinitarian communion, the two relationships are infinitely different in their essence. Jesus was a Divine Person whose mission was to be the sacrificial Lamb of God. More compellingly, He was a mature adult Who was prepared to voluntarily accept this sacrifice. In contrast, the infant is an immature being created to seek out his mother, not to be "crucified" against his will. The mother is created to respond to her child, not to ignore him, which God would never truly do to His creatures. Both mother and infant were created to bond to each other in love, not reenact the Crucifixion, which would be as inappropriate as it would be ineffective.

Finally, on closer inspection of the words used in this Gospel passage, "Jesus cried out in a loud voice..." (Matthew 27: 46), it becomes clear that the Evangelists are expressing an act of "exclamation" rather than "weeping". This distinction separates the image of the Crucified Christ from that of the powerless, crying infant pleading for his mother. The idea that a woman should abandon a needy baby was so preposterous to God that He used the mother-child image as a metaphor for His own fidelity to His people: "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (Isaiah 49: 15).


Ezzo's Perspective

Examining Mr. Ezzo's writings about discipline reveals other potential pitfalls for the well intentioned parent. There is an air of repression which fails to allow an honest assessment of real emotional needs. There is an overriding directive to "control" and "train" children. Even the choice of words in the title, "Growing Kids God's Way," is significant in that it employs the transitive form of the verb "to grow," a form usually applied, not to autonomous human beings, but to passive objects like cattle or corn. In Preparation for the Toddler Years, babies and toddlers are to be punished, in some senses excessively, for the things that they are universally apt to do for their proper developmental benefit.

Babies normally play with their food and explore their environment with their hands. Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget, dominant forces in the history of child psychology, both stress the importance of sensory-motor, especially tactile, experiences in this age group. Montessori writes, "the hand is the chief teacher of the child." (67) In the Ezzo household, such exploratory touching is often deemed unacceptable. In a recent letter, Lois L. Huneycutt, Ph.D. quipped that in Growing Kids God's Way, "parents who 'babyproof' their homes are admonished that they are doing the wrong thing -- houses should not be babyproofed, babies should be houseproofed!" For the transgressing child, the punishment sequence proceeds from an overly wordy verbal reprimand to a swat on the hand to isolation of the child. Actually, hand slapping is the equivalent of silencing the "teacher"; studies have shown that slapping a toddler's hand delays his exploratory development up to seven months later. (61) Also, Mr. Ezzo proposes an unusual and rather unnatural method of communication; preverbal babies (8 - 12 months) must use sign language to signal their needs. Only the correct sign will be rewarded with the desired response. It seems that in this system parents are doomed to fight their child's nature every step of the way.

Some of Ezzo's admonitions to parents are quite severe and rather numerous. For example, punishments are to be meted out to babies who "defiantly" arch their backs in their high chairs ("high chair violations") and for accidental soiling of clothing during potty training (which toddlers must then clean up themselves). According to the Opus Dei publication, Authority and Obedience: Focus on Family Life, avoiding "excessively numerous prohibitions" is one of the important recommendations for child discipline, others of which include applying developmentally appropriate expectations and sanctions, and avoiding coercion and corporal punishment. (43) In the Ezzo method, many restrictions are imposed for trivial matters (e.g. purposefully placing a very young child on a blanket only to forbid him to move off of it), to the extent that one gets the impression that obedience is valued more for its own sake than as a means to an end, such as to ensure the physical safety or proper maturation of the child. While obedience is an important quality, its primary importance lies in its ability to open the child to what is best for him.

A particularly unfortunate and sadly ironic aspect of a discipline style which evaluates the child from an inappropriate developmental perspective is that it causes unnecessary difficulties, when one considers that if a child is permitted to develop at a more natural pace and with proper guidance, he would acquire more "favorable" behavioral traits anyway during the normal maturation process. For instance, the messy and assertive toddler often progresses in the course of healthy development to the fastidious, rule-oriented child. Why should a parent force a "round peg" into a "square hole" when a round hole will, in due time, make itself available.

One senses in Ezzo's material a deficiency in communication between parent and child. An element of this feature extends even into adulthood; Mr. Ezzo believes that children should not be educated about human reproductive sexuality, even up until marriage. This is based on the belief that the mere knowledge of sexual anatomy and function, or accurate naming of sexual organs, takes away childhood innocence, such knowledge being intrinsically evil and corrupting, even when taught by moral parents who focus on respect and responsibility.

Admittedly, the field of sexual education as experienced in contemporary society is mired in errors which make it offensive to Christians, among others. However, parents may fulfill an educative role in this area with much more morality and delicacy. Without initiating a discussion of a sexual nature, the parents should, nonetheless, directly and honestly address such issues if confronted by the child. However, the response should be concise, avoiding overdescriptiveness or suggestiveness, and at the level of the child's understanding, respecting his natural latency. The Child Abuse Prevention Council states: "Most experts direct parents to teach children the truth while putting the focus on moral and responsible behavior. Giving age appropriate facts to children in a moral way will promote a healthy attitude." (10) The council concludes that the truth will promote children who are healthier, more honest and communicative with their parents, less inclined to seek the answers to their sexual questions outside the home, and more confidant in opposing sexual abuse.

Of course, spanking is an important part of the Ezzo discipline package. This essay does not debate the merits of corporal punishment, except to say that it is generally acknowledged not to be the best discipline tool and that it is opposed, not only by many doctors, but also by saints and other Catholics who ministered to children (e.g., St. John Bosco, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Father Flanagan [founder of Boystown], Maria Montessori, the Ursuline Sisters teaching order, etc.).

What is troubling about Ezzo's position is that it raises the suggestion that "the only option to spanking is 'manipulating with guilt and/or conditional love...'" (10) This attributes too great a status to corporal punishment (or "chastisement," as Ezzo calls it) and ignores that the best discipline methods have nothing whatsoever to do with manipulation, guilt or conditional love. The very fact that he sees the world of discipline as alternating between these two options illustrates that at the heart of his methodology is the issue of control, either gained or lost. Discipline is actually a far richer subject, as detailed later.

Also, several issues surrounding the implementation of Ezzo's physical punishment program are particularly objectionable. Not infrequently, corporal punishment is inappropriately applied by an adult with insufficient emotional maturity, providing an ideal setting for child abuse. These concerns are addressed by the Child Abuse Prevention Council in their review of Mr. Ezzo's literature, in which they specifically point out its deficiencies in cautioning against the dangers of inappropriately administered corporal punishment. Even parents who condone spanking as a viable disciplinary measure would probably reject Ezzo's suggested use of a strip of "firm rubber" to "strike children". (13) When instruments are used to inflict punishment, the risk of bodily injury is significantly increased. One member of the Child Abuse Prevention Council concluded that:

"As a...Christian...I cannot believe slapping an infant's hand or using a spanking tube on a toddler's bottom will bring a love of God in his heart. Overall, I would not recommend this program; in fact, I would discourage parents from becoming involved in it." (10)

Additionally, Mr. Ezzo imbues the issue of "chastisement" with unbecoming and dubious religious overtones:

"Just as immunizations protect a child from potentially deadly diseases, the pain of chastisement protects him from the devastating results of future foolish decisions." (13)

"But many parents listen to a strange voice speaking contrary to Scripture that says, 'But God is love, and it is His love and patience that allow me to bear my child's corruption and not strike the sweet thing.' The Holy Spirit speaks back to the voice and says, 'He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly' (Proverbs 13: 24). You do not love your child but hate him, if you do not correct him early." (13)

"Again we hear the strange voice. 'Oh, but I cannot endure to hear him cry.' But what are the next words of the Holy Spirit? 'And let not thy soul spare for his crying' (Proverbs 19: 18b). How well the spirit of God speaks to human folly. Do not let the child's complaining move you to a false compassion, for a false clemency is a greater cruelty." (13)

There are two important points of discussion regarding the above passages. First of all, it is a common occurrence in the Christian community to justify corporal punishment based on several Old Testament Scripture passages, notably those from Proverbs (e.g., 22:15, 13:24, 23:13-14, 29:15). These passages emphasize discipline with the rod.

The Hebrew word for this instrument, shebet, means "stick" and it is used in many different contexts. (61) It is used, for example, in Psalm 23 as the rod of the Good Shepherd: "thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." Shepherds used their rods to protect their sheep from predators; the staff was used to guide the sheep, not hit them. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows His sheep and, far from striking them, He laid down His life for them (John 10: 1-18). Our Lord vociferously condemned the use of harmful physical force (e.g., Matthew 26: 51-53; 5: 38-9). At no time in Jesus' life is there record of Him striking anyone, and it is unimaginable that He would do so to a child. On the contrary, He Himself, the Lamb of God, was violated.

Affirmative biblical references to force or violence are manifestly outweighed by those to gentleness and forgiveness, especially in the New Testament. And to acknowledge the importance of mercy is not to diminish that of justice. Justice, one of the four cardinal virtues of the Catholic faith, "consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due." (7) As such, justice is not opposite to mercy; rather, true mercy acts with justice and true justice considers mercy.

The second point is that it is disconcerting that Ezzo makes the Holy Spirit the protagonist of chastisement. This is extremely inconsistent with this Person of the Holy Trinity, whose gifts (Isaiah 11: 1-2) and fruits (Galatians 5: 22-23) do not include (let alone command) a provision for punishment (let alone physical punishment). His attributes are actually far richer, leading one to a profound, loving and respectful relationship with God. The "little voice" Ezzo describes being heard by the reluctant parent is doubtful that of the Holy Spirit. To be accurate, it is the voice of Solomon dubbed by Gary Ezzo.


Although there are objectionable points regarding Mr. Ezzo's ideas about physical discipline, the greatest harm from his disciplinary method probably stems from its emotional and psychological aspects, which result in shaming and distancing as opposed to building a stronger self-image in the child and a deeper level of communication between him and his parents. This occurs because inflexible control, rather than sensitive guidance, forms the basis of his philosophy.

The healthiest disciplinary methods are those which are based most closely upon the etymology of the word: "discipline" implies a teacher-student relationship, as the Latin root discipuli means "disciple" or "student". There is an important distinction between discipline and punishment, whose Latin root, punire, means to "impose a penalty" or "inflict pain". (45) While punishment may be an occasional instrument of discipline, it should not form its very heart. In fact, the goal of discipline is to be so effective that punishment is rendered unnecessary.

The effective teacher operates not by force but by guidance. The Holy Father, in his recent encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, writes:

"Man's lordship is not absolute...[it is] ministerial: it is a real reflection of the unique and infinite lordship of God. Hence man must exercise it with wisdom and love, sharing in the boundless wisdom and love of God." (48)

Quoting from Gaudium et Spes, he then condemns any action which "violates the integrity of the human person such as...attempts to coerce the will." (62a)
Saint Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church, reiterates: "All things need be done by love, not force." (45) He advises, "[discipline] little by little, slowly, gently as the angels do, by pleasing suggestions and without harshness," for he visualized angels as possessing "kindness, sweetness, firmness, patience, amiability, and holy tact." (33) Caryll Houselander writes, "God's approach to not a way of detachment but of attachment...God approaches gently, often secretly, always in love, never through violence and fear." (24)

The main attitude of discipline should be positive (i.e. building the character of the child), not negative (i.e. achieving the child's submission). The main goal of discipline is to help children to love and respect themselves, others, and ultimately God, and to:

"do the right things for the right reasons - to help them grow into secure, happy and loving persons able to step out into the world with confidence in their own ability to succeed in whatever they set out to do." (30)

This is best accomplished by teaching the child how to internalize the ideas of right and wrong, thus forming a healthy conscience. Dr. Sears writes, "A moral child has an inner code of right and wrong that is linked to his inner sense of well-being...The root of being a moral sensitivity to oneself and to others... Children learn empathy from people who treat them empathetically." (61) Empathy is at the heart of the Golden Rule. Internalizing these exemplified moral precepts allows the child to draw them from inside himself, making him capable of reacting independently during times of crisis.

The opposite of internalization is reliance upon external commands to provide direction during occasions of stress or temptation. This disposition, which may result from an overly coercive disciplinary history, may have the untoward effect of fostering an attitude of "blind obedience" to authority, even potentially dangerous forms; and in the absence of an externally imposed directive, moral decision-making ability may be impaired. What is lacking in such a compliant person is the inner determination of will that springs from the confidence of strong moral analytical skills. Such a person may more likely be motivated by servile fear (based on fear of punishment), which is far less congruous with a deep relationship with God than is filial fear (based on empathy and charity); love, in its perfection, contains no servile fear at all (1 John 4: 18). Additionally, his actions may more likely be based on observation of external rules (moralism, scrupulosity) than on attending the interior voice of true morality, which lays the foundation for an abiding relationship with God. One who has been controlled may also be more likely to attempt to exercise control over others, including God - manifested by such spiritual faults as superstitious beliefs, legalism, reliance on external signs, prayer bargaining, presumption, or despair. Such control in our spiritual life is illusory and in direct opposition to being open to the will and providence of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

The importance of internalization of moral judgment is not only affirmed by numerous professionals in the child development field (e.g. Montessori believes that discipline comes from within; Dr. Sears speaks of the child's internalization of family values during the pre-school years, etc.), but is also supported in our Christian salvation history. Realizing the shortcomings of the externally imposed law of the Old Testament, God planned the creation of the New Covenant in which He "will put My law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts" (Jeremiah 31: 31-34). Jesus reiterates this idea when he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well, informing her that the time is coming when worship will not be determined so much by externals as by its basis in "spirit and truth", an internal disposition (John: 4: 21-24). Internal conscience, not external law, produces the most dignified manifestation of obedience, the surest path to salvation, and the only way to truly love.

The instrument of the conscience is the will. A strong will, if nurtured and guided, is a powerful instrument of moral judgment which can be used to serve God. Consider the strength of will possessed by the great saints of the Church and the many benefits conferred by a strong will in facing life's challenges. If the will is perceived merely as a challenge to parental authority and consequently squelched, the child may be irreversibly losing a God-given talent. A parent should carefully examine his or her motives before opposing the child's will, ensuring that they are in the interest of the child. If such motives are selfish or based simply on the parent's desire to control, perhaps it is the parent rather than the child who should change (Matthew 7: 1-5).

The most potentially destructive aspect of Mr. Ezzo's disciplinary method may be his directive of "spiritual inertia" in which the parent wrests "control" of the child's "heart" in order to allow God to take the child over:

"The principles of Growing Kids God's Way...[are designed to work on] the inner attitudes of the heart. We believe if you can get to the heart of the child you can control the child. Only when you control the child can you properly train him or her in the issues of life. That is our challenge to you: capture the heart of your child." (13)

"By [spiritual inertia] I mean, once parents have instilled biblical patterns into the child, their training should carry him to the point where God's spirit can take control of the reins of his heart." (14) (Author's note: as detailed below, God will not, and man must not control a man's heart, according to Catholic teaching.)

The words Mr. Ezzo chooses are critical to understanding the ramifications of his proposition of "spiritual inertia". Metaphysically, the "heart" is defined as "one's innermost character, feelings, or inclinations." The word "inclination" is also used in the primary definition of the "will". The common nature of "heart" and "will" are seen in such phrases as "don't lose heart", as well as in words such as "courage", a word which means "firmness of mind and will" and which is derived from the Latin cor, which means "heart". (66) This etymological exercise is important as it discloses that "spiritual inertia" is an attempt to control the will of the child.

A docile will may submit (producing a compliant, but not necessarily healthy, person), but if the will is strong, it may not easily bend and consequently risks being bruised or broken. Ezzo probably bases the necessity of this offering to God on the conviction that the child is "depraved" - a view not shared as such by Catholics. Rather, the concept of "spiritual inertia" again bespeaks more of an influence by John Calvin, who remarked: "God makes and forms that will within us, which is to say no other thing than that God by His spirit trains, inclines, moderates our heart, and that He rules it as His own possession." (4a) Note that Calvin also equates the heart and the will in this context.

Once the will is weakened, it is assumed that it will subsequently be safely realigned with the will of God. This is an extremely dangerous presupposition; a weakened will may also be susceptible to any number of influences other than God, some of which may be mortally harmful. Horrible examples of this practice may be found in cults (a label often applied to GFI) which use brainwashing to indoctrinate members, or in concentration camps which forcibly destroy the resolve of the human person.

It is an abusive act for one to coerce the will of another (let alone if it is performed by a parent toward his child, who trusts completely that his parent will give him only good things [Matthew 7: 9-11] ). To do so is an assault on human dignity specifically condemned by the Holy Father. Furthermore, it is falsely presumptuous that any person should have the power to control another's will, even though it be to convey it toward a "good" end. According to Catholicism, even God in His omnipotence does not use force to draw His creatures to Him; much less should His creatures do so.

The will must be inviolable; rather, it must be strengthened and guided toward God. The will was created to be free, for only a will that is free can truly choose to love God and neighbor. The Catechism states:

"God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. 'God willed that man should be 'left in the hand of his own counsel,' so that he might of his own accord seek the Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to Him....Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his own acts." (7)

It is fundamentally the only pro-life view which not only seeks to secure the continued viability of the physical being, but further works to ensure the dignity and freedom of the human person, qualities which elevate life and distinguish it from mere existence. Furthermore, to seriously compromise the child's will risks leaving him morally and emotionally crippled and potentially less resistant to harmful temptations. It is incumbent upon parents and other responsible adults to see to it that none of His "little ones" are led astray (Matthew 18: 6-7).

Dr. Ross Campbell, respected Christian child psychiatrist and parenting author, has seen some of the adverse results of such control-oriented discipline principles:

"I have seen the results of this [control oriented] approach. Children who were passive, compliant, very quiet, withdrawn and easily controlled when they were young, lacked a strong, healthy love-attachment to their parents, and gradually became defiant, resentful, difficult to control, self-centered, non-giving, nonaffectionate, insensitive, nonforgiving, noncompassionate, resistant to authority, and unkind as adolescents." (5)

"Application of behavioral control techniques without a foundation of unconditional love is barbaric and unscriptural. You may have a child who is well-behaved when he is young, but the results are most discouraging in the long run. Only a healthy love-bond relationship lasts through all of life's crises." (5)

Rather, the manner in which the internal development of the conscience and the formation of the will are best accomplished requires sensitivity, patience, love and consistency on the part of the parent. And, as Campbell mentions, the most effective way to guide the child is by a strong, trusting relationship with the parents; relationship is more impressive than rules upon the heart of the child. Dr. Baars writes of the importance of educating (versus training) the child in true morality, not with rigidity or coercion, but by keeping in mind the developmental capacities and unique, individual needs of each child, appealing to the child's desire to do what is good.

"Of course, this educational process requires much more knowledge and effort on the part of the parents and educators; it requires much more than giving the child a licking...Moreover, the child needs the daily, living example of parents who live a moral life." (2)

This requires modeling appropriate behavior, which is much more challenging to the parent than mere commands, but ultimately far more rewarding. Such modeling occurs throughout the parents' life with the child; and again, it begins with the first moments between a mother and her infant. Dr. Ratner explains how this relationship,

"...becomes the prototype of the child's future relationships with others. If the child experiences the fidelity of his prime caregiver especially in the period when the child's needs are greatest and which when met engender security, confidence and trust, that example will remain with him for life. It becomes the pattern on which all future friendships are based, a pattern which even [opens] the way to his relationship with God." (54)

Patience and sensitivity to appropriate child development and to the particular needs of one's own individual child can not be overemphasized. The analogy of a garden has often been applied to this subject, in which the parent is the wise gardener and the child is the flower. Once the seed has been planted, the color and scent of the flower cannot be changed. Nor is "the stem pulled on to hasten its growth; at no time are the blossoms pried open to reveal their beauty sooner..." (30) But the gardener, fulfilling the rightful role of the parent, may "prune the plants, pick the weeds, and fertilize the soil so the flowers will bloom more beautifully." (61) The idea here demonstrates the contrast between controlling and channeling; to control God's creation leads to frustration, while channeling what God has set in motion may lead it back to God. The fruits of disciplinary measures which channel, according to Dr. Sears, are: empathy, sensitivity, sense of justice, awareness, intimacy, confidence, expressiveness, persistence, interdependence, ability to make wise choices, future parenting skills, closeness, ease in disciplining and trust. (62)

A special concern arises when discussing the topic of infant discipline. At such an early age, when instinctual behaviors are strongly operative and rational ones nonexistent, a baby does not understand the concepts of punishment or rules. Although he may tenuously grasp a cause and effect relationship, this is at a very primitive level and is unaccompanied by morality associations. Rather, it is appreciated at the level of trust versus mistrust in the parental figure. The results of harsh disciplinary tactics on an infant, such as isolation or physical punishment, impact negatively not only on his moral development, but especially on his deepest psychological formation.

A toddler is not much more advanced than an infant in his capability to understand the cause and effect relationship of discipline, associating it more with issues surrounding frustrated autonomy than with the shaping of moral behavior. The skills of mental retention and associative capacity necessary to connect behavior and punishment are probably made around age three. Before that time, a harsh punishment, such as a spanking, will be taken as a personal attack, a betrayal of parental confidence rather than a deserved consequence of one's own actions. Montessori writes: "A child must first learn to command himself before he can carry out the command of another." (30)

Another important point to remember is that impulsive behavior is natural to the child, and it is difficult for him to control. It is not the job of the adult to reciprocate one impulsive act with another, but to demonstrate the fruits of maturity by showing children how to compose themselves. Also, adults can easily overpower children but this is not a sufficient reason for them to do so; rather, they must exercise their power as a good shepherd who demonstrates that it is respectful skill, not brute force, that carries the day.

"Watching some children play in a sandbox, I saw a little boy take a truck away from another child. The 'victim' a year or two older, struck out at once to retrieve the toy and hit the perpetrator. Mama climbed into the sandbox wrathfully, smacked her child and said, 'That'll teach you not to hit someone smaller than you.'" (34)

It is unrealistic to expect children to be immune to impulsiveness. Furthermore, when confronted with unusually impulsive behavior, it may be worthwhile to consider if it is symptom of a deeper problem . As children's behavior often reflects that of the adults around them, we adults may take the opportunity to ask ourselves if we are meeting their needs. Or are we expecting them to give something which we have failed to give them. One of the most important concepts offered by Dr. Campbell is that of the "emotional tank". He writes, "Only if the emotional tank is full, can a child be expected to be at his best or to do his best." (5) Before we have discouraged with punishment, have we encouraged with appropriate attention and generosity?

Sound behavior is acquired over years of forming good habits resulting from patient, consistent discipline and, especially, praiseworthy parental modeling. The Church teaches that it is not until the age of reason, generally about the seventh year or so, that a child is capable of fully comprehending the moral consequences of his actions. Before that time, the purpose of discipline is to develop the personality so that it is receptive to a true sense of morality once the appropriate developmental age is attained.


In closing, it must be admitted that there are some truths in Mr. Ezzo's literature (artfully dispersed among half-truths and opinion), however, the errors are plentiful and serious. More importantly, such errors may be subtle, leading to greater errors the farther one travels on the road of his methodology. As discussed, the dangers are considerable.

This essay argues that Mr. Ezzo's child rearing system is incompatible with the Catholic faith. Among Christian theological perspectives, its tenets bear a closer resemblance to Calvinism than to Catholicism, emphasizing such concepts as unilateral authoritarian leadership, severe discipline, the depravity of man and futility of his efforts. Also present are themes of exclusivity and intolerance in the face of opposing ideologies. It is an important reminder to Catholic parents that we must avoid, by doctrine or example, inadvertently instilling a non-Catholic catechesis in our children.

Why would Ezzo, not himself a Catholic, possibly appeal to a Catholic audience? For one, he weaves his errors closely about truths making them palatable to those to whom his ideology appeals, perhaps resonating with a Jansenist-type sentiment in the Church. Of Jansen, Father John Hardon, S.J., writes :

"Vincent de Paul admitted it is not always easy to recognize the latent errors in Jansenism, since they are frequently interlarded with otherwise orthodox statements of Catholic teaching. All heretical innovators do the same." (22)

Similarly, G.K. Chesterton quipped, there is no falsehood so false as that which most closely approximates the truth.

On a less philosophical level, his ideas may attract because of the simplistic solutions he offers to common childhood problems, ideas which may be enthusiastically embraced without much reflection. Catholics who truly understand their faith and have some appreciation of child development will have less of a problem perceiving and opposing the flaws in Ezzo's philosophy. This essay set out to demonstrate these flaws clearly and comprehensively, especially in the light of Catholicism; it is critical, especially for the sake of the impressionable new parent, that we distinctly elucidate these errors.

Admittedly, Ezzo offers quick and easy solutions which may initially convenience parents. However, there is evidence to suggest that although such methods may produce results, these may ultimately be at the expense of the optimal development of the child and the health of the family. Of course, nothing that is true comes easily, "for the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life..." (Matthew 7:14 - and Jesus is presenting this challenge to responsible adults, not their dependent children!)

There is a notable absence of appropriate parental sacrifice in his methodology, depriving the parent of an occasion to grow in holiness, and instead, increasing the opportunity for self-indulgence. Spouses who argue that his message strengthens the marriage will find, upon closer examination and review of the Church's teaching, that the marriage can not truly be strengthened by parents marginalizing their children and focusing on themselves. Rather, building a marriage is accomplished by parents lovingly embracing the fruit of their conjugal union, as well as each other, and together devoting their energies toward the joys and responsibilities of family life.

Agreeably, there are frightening occurrences in the world that threaten the heart of the family and even the Christian culture itself. Understandably, parents are concerned about how to best raise their children in the face of such dangers. It is impossible, however, that the solution lies in deviating from Catholic teaching or abandoning great scientific discoveries that serve to better illustrate appropriate child development, only to adopt an insupportable, pseudo-scriptural, "traditional" parenting ideology which does not, at its heart, truly respect the child or the family. Nor is it advisable to return to the past which, for all its nostalgia, contained errors in the understanding of the human person. Such actions would result in, so to speak, throwing the baby out with the bath water. Many true scientific findings as well as the Catholic Church's theological positions on parenting are beautiful fruits of human reason and gifts from God. We must go boldly into the future taking what is good from the past and the present. In particular, we must relearn the true significance of natural law and its cooperative role with revealed truth. Although parenting is a challenging endeavor, it will be facilitated insofar as it is in correspondence with natural law.

Catholics may counteract the effects of Mr. Ezzo's philosophy by opposing the dissemination, sale or endorsement of his work in parishes, retreat centers and other Catholic bookstores. This may be accomplished by communication between and with participation of individual Catholics, as well as by appealing to those in positions of ecclesiastical authority. Meanwhile, we must all work to deepen the knowledge of child development among the faithful and accurately illustrate the Church's position on this subject. The regeneration of our Catholic heritage depends on the accurate transmission of our Faith and Tradition, most importantly by our loving example, especially to our children. Also, we may wish to pray that the Ezzos and the ministry of GFI and its followers undergo a change of heart, developing a greater understanding of the child and sensitivity to his needs and a greater appreciation of parents who may disagree with GFI but who are, nonetheless, also of Christ's flock.

There are many alternative books and periodicals dealing with the subject of parenting, including numerous from Christian/Catholic perspectives. This essay hopes to serve as a starting point toward the discovery of such sources.


1. American Academy of Pediatrics, Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5

1a American Academy of Pediatrics, Policy Statement: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk (RE9729), Pediatrics, December 1997, 100 (6)

1b Aquilina, Mike, "Do the Ezzo's know best?", Our Sunday Visitor, 86(49), 5 April 1998

2. Baars, Conrad, M.D., Feeling and Healing Your Emotions

2a Baars, Conrad, M.D., Anna Terruwe, M.D., Healing the Unaffirmed

3. Balthasar, Hans Urs Von, Unless You Become Like This Child

4. Brazelton, T. Berry, M.D., On Becoming a Family

4a Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion

5. Campbell, Ross, M.D., How to Really Love Your Child

6. Cardinal Mindszenty, The Mother

6a Carton, Barbara, "Striking Behavior: The Ezzos Sell Parents Some Tough Advice: Don't Spare the Rod." Wall Street Journal, p. A1, 17 February 1998

7. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994

8. Cotton, Alfred C., Care of Children, The Library of Home Economics, 1907

9. Curtis, Barbara, "Whose Way, After All?" HTML document, 1996 (

10. Child Abuse Prevention Council of Orange County Parent Program Review

Committee, "Religious Parenting Programs: Their Relationship to Child Abuse

Prevention," May 14, 1996

11. Erikson, Erik, Human Strength and the Cycle of Generations

12. Erikson, Erik, Identity and the Life Cycle

13. Ezzo, Gary and Anne Marie, Growing Kids God's Way: Ethics for Parenting

14. Ezzo, Gary and Anne Marie, Preparation for Parenting: A Biblical Perspective

15. Ezzo, Gary and Robert Bucknam, M.D., On Becoming Babywise

16. Ferber, Richard, M.D., Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems

17. Focus on the Family, correspondence addressing Ezzo's materials, November, 1997

18. Finley, Mitch and Kathy, Building Christian Families

19. Fraiberg, Selma, The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling The Problems of

Early Childhood

20. Grace Community Church, Statement of the Elders, October 16, 1997

21. Giussani, Luigi, "Spiritual Exercises of Communion and Liberation", April 29, 1989,

Rimini, Italy (Courtesy of Margie McCarthy, S.T.D., Assistant Professor of

Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family)

21a Griffith, Kelly, "Raising Babies God's Way May Not Be the Right Way," Bradenton Herald, April, 1997

22. Hardon, John, S.J., "First Confession: an Historical and Theological Analysis, 1972

23. Houselander, Caryll, The Reed of God

24. Houselander, Caryll, Wood of the Cradle: Wood of the Cross

25. Hymes, James, L., Jr., The Child Under Six

26. Kippley, John and Sheila, The Art of Natural Family Planning, 4th Ed., 1996

26a Kippley, Sheila, Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing

27. Kippley, Sheila, "Couple to Couple League Family Foundations", May/June1997

28. Kippley, Sheila, "Couple to Couple League Family Foundations", July/August 1997

29. Kurcinka, Mary Sheedy, Raising Your Spirited Child

30. La Leche League International, "Loving Guidance," On Discipline: A Symposium, 1973

31. La Leche League International, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding

32. Lawrence, Ruth, M.D., Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, 4th Ed.

33. Leifeld, Wendy, Mothers of the Saints: Portraits of Ten Mothers of the Saints and

Three Saints who were Mothers

34. LeShan, Eda, "Please Don't Hit Your Kids," Mothering, Spring 1996

35. Maas, Robin, Ph.D., "Caryll Houselander, An Appreciation, Crisis, October, 1995

36. Maynard, Roy, "The Ezzos Know Best", World, June 1, 1996

37. Maynard, Roy, "A Response from Roy Maynard" HTML document, July 13, 1996 (

38. McKenna, James, Ph.D., "Bedsharing Promotes Breastfeeding," Pediatrics 1997, 100 (2)

39. Montessori, Maria, The Absorbent Mind

40. Montessori, Maria, The Secret of Childhood

41. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Prayer breakfast at the White House, February 3, 1994

42. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Words to Love By

42a National Catholic Register, vol.74, no.13, "Pope Encourages Research Into Prenatal Psychological Development"

43. Otero, Oliveros, Authority and Obedience: Focus on Family Life

44. Patterson, Eric, "Wise Advice for Babies?" Boulder Weekly, March 20, 1997

45. Popcak, Gregory, MSW, LCSW, "Ten Reasons I Can't Spank: a Catholic

Counselor's Critical Examination of Corporal Punishment", The Cheerful Cherub

46. Pope John Paul II, Agenda for the Third Millennium

47. Pope John Paul II, "Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences," May, 1995

48. Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

49. Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio

50. Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem

51. Pope John Paul II, The Original Unity of Man and Woman

52. Ratner, Herbert, M.D., "A Mother's Face," Child and Family, 20 (1)

53. Ratner, Herbert, M.D., "Generous Motherhood," Child and Family, Spring, 1969, 8 (2)

54. Ratner, Herbert, M.D., "The Natural Institution of the Family", Child and Family, 20 (2)

55. Rein, Steven and Kateri, "Concerns about the Ezzo's Preparation for Parenting

Class," HTML document, April 28, 1997 (

56. St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

57. Salk, Lee, M.D. and Rita Kramer, How to Raise a Human Being

58. Sears, William, M.D., A Parent's Guide to Understanding and Preventing Sudden

Infant Death Syndrome

59. Sears, William, M.D., Nighttime Parenting: How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep

60. Sears, William, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N., The Complete Book of Christian

Parenting and Child Care: A Medical and Moral Guide to Raising Happy,

Healthy Children.

61. Sears, William, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N., The Discipline Book

62. Sears, William, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N., Parenting the Fussy Baby and High-Need Child

62a Vatican II Fathers, Gaudium et Spes

63. Virtue, William, D., S.T.D. (diocese of Peoria, IL), Mother and Infant: The Moral Theology of Embodied Self Giving in Motherhood In Light of the Exemplar Couple Mary and Jesus Christ

64. Ward, Maisie, Caryll Houselander: That Divine Eccentric

65. Westminster Catechism (

65a. Wendel, Francois, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought

66. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1974

67. Wolf, Aline, Look at the Child

68. The Revised Standard Version Bible, 1973

69. The New American Bible, Catholic Edition, 1986

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