Growing Kids God's Way?
A Critique of Growing Families International
By Dr. Barbara Francis
Concerns Regarding Emotional Development
Relevant issues concerning emotional development are simply not presented in the GFI material. The overriding focus of the material is order and obedience; emotional or psychological health is typically either ignored or subsumed under a rubric of "correct" behavior (as defined by GFI as "obedience"). In other words, a child is "healthy" to the degree that he is unquestioningly compliant and obedient to the parents' rules. Peppered throughout the material, in fact, are statements that clearly admonish the parents for their lack of "sobermindedness" if they consider the emotional and /or psychological stages or well being of their child. Because of this, a concern arises in evaluating the GFI approach; God has revealed, through various channels of general revelation, a large body of literature and scientific research that is not in conflict with His character or parenting of us as His children. However, these findings often are in conflict with GFI proclamations.
The stakes are high. If the Ezzos are wrong, GFI and parents strictly enforcing this model are not only ignoring revealed Truth; they are, perhaps, inflicting harm upon the most defenseless of the defenseless under the banner of following God's commands. In light of the severity of these concerns, and the fact that the GFI model contains little in the way of cited research or supportive data from any source other than two fallible human beings, it behooves us to examine, to the best of human understanding and God's revelation, the design of the Architect.
The Ezzos only refer to a very few examples of psychological developmental theory or research, and then derisively. The examples that are given are, without exception, the most extreme and godless choices possible; all are personalities who tend to provoke fear in the hearts and minds of many Christians (e.g., Freud, Skinner). Advances in child research or more balanced models of child development are completely ignored.
In an attempt to balance the equation, a presentation will follow below, utilizing an object-relations, self-psychological perspective that is not only in harmony with non-Christian experts (such as Margaret Mahler, Donald Winnicott, Harry Guntrip, Heinz Kohut, Daniel Stern, T.Berry Brazelton, and Penelope Leach), but is implicitly, and often explicitly, supported in the writings of Christian specialists in human behavior (such as Bruce Narramore, Henry Cloud, John Townsend, Paul Warren, Ross Campbell, and William Sears).
If there is validity to the understanding we currently have regarding child development, it appears that those strictly enforcing the GFI model may not only run the risk of undermining a baby's capacity for trust, but unknowingly may be contributing to a disorder of the self in their child. The desired result of an exceptionally obedient child may be realized; however, the form of obedience created may actually thwart the capacity to internalize empathy, gratitude, and love.
Where does that capacity come from? How do we help our children develop a love affair with God that results in grace-motivated obedience and morality? From a psychological developmental perspective, it comes from the growth of a healthy "self," which includes the development of healthy boundaries. According to Drs. Cloud and Townsend in their book Boundaries, the foundation of self-development lies in the bonding experience of the infant with the parents. These psychologist authors, in fact, suggest that "attachment is the foundation of the soul's existence" (p.64). This perspective stands in stark opposition to the GFI material, which states that incorporating attachment theories in parenting "foster[s] a codependent relationship, in which the child becomes emotionally dependent on the mother's immediate presence and the mother's identity on being needed" (PFP, p.54). Not giving value to the need for emotional attachment as the prelude for healthy development, the Ezzo model substitutes "teaching obedience and self-discipline." While Donald Winnicott, renowned pediatrician and psychologist, urges us to rejoice in the "primary maternal preoccupation" that defines the mother's emotional experience of symbiosis with her infant, GFI says, "Following your maternal instincts…is incompatible with scripture" (PFP, p.142). Where child specialists unanimously agree that consistently and promptly responding to a young infant's needs provides the roots of trust, security, love, and interdependence, GFI claims that "demand feeding" and "demand attention," even of newborn infants, will "train" the baby to become addicted to pleasure, maintain a pattern of demanding immediate gratification, and keep the child self-centered.
Providing that a sturdy attachment and the resulting internal security derived from a mom's sensitive ministrations to him have laid a foundation in the first few months, the baby's God-designed preprogramming propels him into the next stages of development: those that have to do with the baby slowly but surely moving away from complete dependency toward autonomy or independence—the next steps in the development of a fully alive creation of God. This process is not always smooth sailing for child or parent—in fact, it rarely is! This, of course, would create conflict in the GFI model, since it firmly dictates a need for tight control of behavior, self-discipline, and obedience from the child.
This process, referred to as separation and individuation, includes three critical phases necessary for the development of a healthy self: hatching, practicing, and rapprochement. During the period of hatching (which occurs approximately from five to ten months), the baby begins to view her world with wide-eyed wonder as she both physically and emotionally begins to push away from mom and push toward the excitement of the outside world. It is a time of exploration through touch, taste, and feel; through these discoveries, a baby is provided with the basis for feeling safe enough to take life-affirming risks in the future.
While the hatching baby is still a little frightened of these new experiences and still relies a great deal on mom for reassurance and encouragement, the practicing child (between ten and eighteen months) takes great delight in the ability to do things "by self." The exploration takes a new turn as the child's emerging self pushes towards the dawning realization that he is capable of many new adventures without mom. Physical, cognitive, and emotional development coincide to create within the child a short period of healthy omnipotence—short, that is, if needs are met appropriately and the parents impose safe limits. Either extreme at this level, whether permissive parenting (lack of boundaries and limits) or authoritarian parenting (excessive and rigid boundaries), can result in the child being "stuck" at this "omnipotent" level of development. This can be a challenging time for parents; particularly Christian parents who are fearful that the omnipotence means their child is "spoiled" or is intentionally being disobedient.
It is at this level that the GFI material introduces their Preparation for Toddlerhood, from five to fifteen months material. In reading this material, it is clear that the above developmental issues are either ignored or unknown. The seven chapters provided, in fact, often seem to be in direct opposition to basic developmental principles; for example, one entire chapter is titled "Highchair Manners" and focuses on "self-control training with hands." Regardless of verbiage to the contrary, the message to the baby is loud and clear, "Exploration is what mom decides it will be, how mom decides it will be and when mom decides it will be, and it better not be messy!" It's interesting to note that GFI makes claims that following their instructions will promote cognitive development (p. 48, PTY). According to Piaget and other major cognitive developmental experts, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the type of restrictions that the Ezzos demand (e.g., training the baby to keep her hands on the side of the tray, never to drop food, not to attempt to hold the feeding utensil, not to play with food), if anything, would thwart the exploratory play that promotes both cognitive and emotional development.
There is a parallel description of control and order in the enforced use of "playpen time." The Ezzos claim that this parent-controlled, timed use of solitary play either within the confines of a playpen or strictly limited to the space on a blanket nurtures the growth of boundaries and cognitive development. While no one would argue that a playpen can, at times, be a helpful tool in containing an active baby, the claims regarding emotional and cognitive growth are simply not supportable.
In all areas, babies are taught to obey at levels that are not consistent with their capabilities. This skewed perspective results in what could be dangerous interpretations of a child's behavior. For example, the Ezzos claim, "But if you find that your child clings to you, refuses to go to Dad or siblings, and cries when you leave the room, it may be the result of too much playtime with Mom. In this case, the child is overly dependent on Mom for entertainment" (PFTY, p. 66). Those understanding cognitive and emotional development know that the opposite is often true: for a eight to nine months old, dismay at mom's leaving indicates good attachment and is not only normal, but is a sign of cognitive and emotional health.
The third and final stage of the separation-individuation process, "rapp rochement," takes place between eighteen and thirty months and revolves aro und the child progressively facing the realities of the world and giving up her omnipotence. The child slowly realizes that she can't do everything. There is a movement back toward mom and security, but with a different flavor. This time, t he child brings with her a sense of self that isn't a mirror reflection of the p arents' qualities; she has her own thoughts, feelings, and personality. A rapprochement-level child is sometimes pretty difficult to live with; he can be negativistic, oppositional, angry, and temperamental. All of these characteristics revolve around the toddler's need to set his own boundaries; they are a way of saying, "I'm me, and you're you—and sometimes we don't agree!" The parents' handling of this predominant theme is critical for healthy development. To assist in securing a healthy sense of personal identity, the parent can provide necessary lessons by providing appropriate "narcissistic wounding," which means that the parent gently leads the child to the reality that the child is not, in fact, the center of the universe. The way to do this, according to Dr. Paul Warren, is to "ease off pampering…the toddler's priorities must be interwoven into other people's priorities. The child no longer always comes first. This is just as important as the initial pampering (referring to parenting of babies) to instill the new lesson: I can trust fully, even though I am not at the center of the universe. (p. 45, My Toddler). How is this accomplished? By parents being both the authoritarians (by setting rules and maintaining role as "the one in charge") and the consultants (who help solve problems and validate the child's feelings, choices, and identity). What happens when a child's parents only assume one role rather than integrating both? The consultant-without-authoritarian parents will probably tend to lean towards too many leniencies, while the opposite parent may be too harsh. This second parent, the authoritarian, is the one of concern when examining GFI. The recommendations for eighteen- to thirty-month-old children are often simply out of alignment with a respectful view of the emerging new little creation that needs encouragement (with limits!) toward early attempts at independence.
Erik Erikson (1968) refers to this period as "Autonomy vs. Shame and Dou bt," and although analytic thinkers have historically related this to toile t training, the overall concept of the dilemma of the developing self can be gen eralized in the theory. The goals of this stage relate to self-control over one' s impulses (autonomy), healthy pride in oneself, the beginnings of the ability t o make good choices, and an emerging sense of one's own sense of mastery. It is also at this stage, because of the fragility of that emerging self, that the chi ld is acutely susceptible to feelings of shame. This is another area of deep con cern regarding the GFI model. Regardless of the claims to the contrary, a lack o f understanding of developmental needs renders the model highly shaming and, at times, degrading. What I found to be a potentially devastating example of this lack of understanding is found in the advice in "Thoughts on Potty Training" (PFTY, p 113), where the Ezzos state: "As a general rule, parents who trained their children to first-time obedience have fewer problems in potty training than those parents who do not. If soiling continues to be a problem with a child over two and one-half years, hold him accountable for his own accidents. That means he must clean up himself and his soiled clothes." The specific directive is potentially damaging enough since many children, particularly boys, are simply not able to completely potty train by age two and a half. Of even greater concern is the apparent lack of comprehension of the child's needs and capabilities. Outside of the aforementioned autonomy dilemma, many two-and-a-half-year-olds are just learning how to imperfectly dress themselves and address personal hygiene needs as emerging-but-immature large motor skills, and only nascent fine motor skills exist. To expect and hold a child responsible at this level for such a task as cleaning himself from soiled pants is not only inappropriate, but sets up interactions between parent and child than can lead nowhere but to frustration, anger, and shame. Even more relevant, perhaps: why would the parents take such a position on such an inconsequential issue? If parents can justify enforcing this type of expectation of a child without giving thought to the ramifications, it is of grave concern that those parents are relinquishing a desire to know their children as God knows their children; understanding for their child is being exchanged for a set of rules that provides exclusively for the parents' ease, comfort, control, and image. Given the legalistic fervor in which some GFI parents adhere to the Ezzos directives, these kinds of dictums are disturbing.
Unfortunately, during this time period some parents view their children as "selfish" and "disobedient" simply for doing what God designed them to do. For Christian parents, this often gets translated into "sinful." If parents don't understand that what they're experiencing is part of God's developmental plan, they become afraid that their children's sinful nature is running amuck, so they clamp down even harder, becoming more demanding and rigid. It is normal to assume that during this stage your healthy child will probably embarrass you by misbehaving at church or at the grocery store! How can a parent handle this as both authoritarian and consultant? By providing an environment that is safe enough for the child to say "no" (as a way of encouraging the child's own boundaries), as well as setting and keeping age-appropriate limits and boundaries with the child (to help him develop the capability to respect other people's boundaries). By the age of three, the following tasks should be mastered:
1. The ability to be emotionally attached to others, yet without giving up a sense of self and one's freedom to be apart.
2. The ability to say appropriate no's to others without fear of the loss of love.
3. The ability to take appropriate no's from others without withdrawing emotionally. (Boundaries, p. 73)
These tasks are, once again, consistent throughout the literature of cognitive, moral and psychological development as being the model for the foundations of adult maturity and interdependence.
How does this align with Growing Kids God's Way, the follow up to the previous two GFI manuals? If we're loo king at the issue of self-development and boundaries, the material can be a bit confusing. One could make the argument that, in fact, there is a preponderance o f material relating to personal boundary setting (e.g., learning table manners, respecting others' property, or an "appeal" process allowing children to question a parent's decision) which on first glance might indicate a healthy arrangement. A closer investigation of the material, however, makes it clear that mom and dad make all "moral" decisions for the child, regardless of the age. In this paradigm, the child's thoughts, opinions and perspectives are not valued or listened to unless "new factual information…not a personal opinion, analysis or commentary" (GKGW, p.258) can be contributed by the child through a prescribed appeal process. What is a moral decision? The manual provides a full 334 pages to describe detailed descriptions of what these behaviors are, from detailed "Christian" mealtime etiquette with different required behavior between "Dinner at Home with No Guests" and "Buffet Style Dinner with Guests in a Home," (GKGW, p.301-305) to "no bad talk" (GKGW, p.248). Along with this myriad of inconsequential dos and don'ts are some helpful guidelines and tools for parents in providing healthy structure, boundaries, guidance and discipline for their developing child. The problem is that no distinction is made between relevant, important teachings and ones that often border on the ridiculous. All are presented as equally salient aspects of godly parenting. One particularly consistent theme throughout is that the child is forbidden to use the word "no" to a parent, regardless of the request. Since, particularly with younger children, "chastisement" (spanking) is the stated preferred method of "discipline," children learn early not to disobey or challenge. The "appeal" process offered with its detailed guidelines is no doubt helpful for older children and teens but is certainly not an option for a young child. There is simply no recourse; the child must obey first time, every time in a way that is "immediate, complete and without complaint or challenge" (GKGW, p. 256); to take it even further, the child is expected to unfailingly do so cheerfully and with a smile!
Imagine a three-year-old expressing anger at a parent using this model. Or a child who doesn't want to share a favorite toy. What about a two-and-a-half-year-old who throws a tantrum? More terrifying are issues surrounding dangerously inappropriate commands to the child, who is not, by definition, allowed to say no. Research strongly indicates, for example, that girls in authoritarian religious homes are at higher risk for intrafamilial sexual abuse than the normal population. This sad-but-true empirical finding is even more pronounced among fathers who are considered to be more outwardly religious than internally faithful to God and who do not experience God's love as the primary basis of their faith (Seymour, 1987).
Even without these frightening considerations, is it even possible to truly become the unique and fully alive person designed by God when the parents' ideas, standards, and often needs, always have to be right; always take precedence? When the child is viewed as "rebellious" if she doesn't view the world in exactly the same way as her parents, and is, in fact, spanked if she asserts her own boundaries? The answer, according to experts, is a resounding "No!"
What might be the predictions with this type of developmental arrest? The majority of child experts claim that this type of model more often than not leads to the development of a false self that may look "good" on the outside, but is, in fact, a poor and empty substitute for the real self that never had the opportunity or environment for growth and expression. This child, described by Winnicott and others, will typically take one of a number of "survival" routes: he may continue to develop into a people-pleasing, overly compliant individual who goes through life appearing to be "real," but is nowhere near the vibrant individual God originally designed him to be; she could strongly rebel either during the re-emergence of these earlier developmental stages during adolescence or after having moved away from home (experts claim that this type of "rebellion" would actually be a hopeful and healthy move, giving the young person a chance to separate and find her own self—her own identity—certainly not an idea compatible with the GFI stance). He might "break" completely during adolescence or early adulthood (through depression, addictions, etc.) under the internal tension of having to deny the self in the service of others; or she may take on the characteristics of the rigid system to which she was exposed. Given the authoritarian approach within GFI and the strong religious component, one might predict that a large percentage of children would choose either the "people pleaser" tactic, or a rigid, unshakable "likemindedness" and strong identification with the authority figure (i.e., parent).
If theorists and researchers are correct, the preceding characteristics would predispose one to a disorder of the self. Dr. James Masterson (1981) has described a model of narcissistic development that aligns quite closely to these implications. In his model, Masterson clearly defines two types of narcissistic stances; the exhibitionistic and what he calls the "closet narcissist." We are much more familiar with the exhibitionistic form as outlined in DSM IV; characteristics include a grandiose sense of self-importance, fantasies of perfection, a sense of entitlement, hypersensitivity to criticism, and a lack of empathy for others. For the exhibitionistic narcissist, the parent idealizes the child to shape the child to his/her own needs. The child defends against the painful feelings associated with a lack of support for the real self by identifying with the parents' idealization. The child then grows up focused upon maintaining an inflated sense of self, which must be admired and adored through the "perfect mirroring" of the grandiosity by others. This type of narcissist demands fusion in terms of "likemindedness" and fully expects others to perceive and understand the world the same way as he. This persistent need for perfect mirroring to support the grandiose self is the focus of the developmental arrest for this individual.
With all narcissistic disorders, the false self is structured to defend and create a shield of distortion and pleasure for the impaired real self. According to Klein (1995), "It is the role of the false self to save the individual from knowing the truth about the impaired real self, from penetrating the deeper causes of unhappiness, and from seeing the self as it really is: vulnerable, afraid, and unable to let the real self emerge." The false self serves to protect against what Masterson refers to as "abandonment depression," the collective range of painful affects—including depression, anxiety, panic, rage, guilt, helplessness, and hopelessness.
Where the exhibitionistic narcissistic relies upon his demand for perfect mirroring to maintain his false self, the closet narcissist instead withdraws and exhibits the following types of behaviors: Depression, difficulty with self-assertion, apparent clinging in relationships, difficulties expressing anger, an inadequate sense of self and low self-esteem, and denial of destructive impulses.
These two styles seem to be opposite, but are actually flip sides of the same coin. Where the exhibitionistic narcissist appears to lack a need for others, except to reflect his grandiosity, the closet narcissist is exquisitely dependent and vulnerable to others, particularly the primary objects, the parents. Although the intrapsychic structure of both types of narcissistic disorder is the same, they develop for different reasons. Most often in the early stages of development for the closet narcissist, the caregiver attacks or neglects the child's own normal grandiosity, rather than supporting it, and insists that the child provide her own mirroring needs as a condition of receiving any nurturing or approval from the parent. In other words, if she is "obedient" to the demands and requirements of the parents, she may receive something in return. This child withdraws the narcissism "into the closet" because it is simply too painful to leave the healthy grandiose self exposed. For self-protection, the child accedes to the parents' demands. Instead of seeking mirroring from others, she idealizes others—seeking "likemindedness" with them creating within her a distorted form of identity and sense of worth she maintains by living in submission to, and dependent on, the powerful and idealized other. Because of this profound need for fusion with the idealized other, the closet narcissist is even more "vulnerable to failures of likemindedness and ensuing depression" than the exhibitionistic counterpart. (Klein, 1995).
How this might these characteristics look within the church? The exhibitionistic person would tend to present as self-righteous and authoritative, projecting his sinfulness elsewhere (as it is entirely incompatible with his need for perfectionistic grandiosity!). This person, regardless of the external language used, unconsciously believes himself to be exceptionally special and unique, even to God. One gets a clear sense that if he were really honest, he'd admit that God is, in fact, quite lucky to have him! He is typically judgmental, critical, rigid and prejudiced; all, of course, in the name of God. This allows him to project all his "badness" onto others in order to maintain his sense of grandiose perfection. This type of narcissist often is found in roles of authority, power, and leadership, as, quite often, charm camouflages his not-so-attractive attributes. The grandiosity and critical nature in this individual very often hide nicely behind the cloak of righteousness and the need to stamp out sin and evil…in all those other people!
For the closet narcissist, the picture looks different. This individual is the one who believes herself to be so worthless, not even Christ can really save her. Regardless of her words, she believes her salvation to be rooted in unrelenting selfless tasks, unquestioning obedience to authority, always being cheerful and pleasant (even though she is patently depressed), and never complaining. She is often a dedicated and dutiful church member, as her need to be in total submission to an omnipotent other is necessary for her well being. Unfortunately, she in unable to internally comprehend true grace, making her obedience far more connected to a desire to please those around her than God.
For both types of narcissistic disorders, the individual is in an unending battle between the desire to allow the self to "be born" and a terror of the ensuing abandonment depression if the false self fails in its protective functions. The exhibitionistic style remains on its quest for perfect adulation, while the closet style conforms to the dictates of those around her. To run the risk of being authentic, one also runs the risk of abandonment, shame, humiliation, and unbearable pain. In light of our relationship with God, either of these scenarios is tragic when one considers that the hidden self, is, in fact, the person God had in mind when He wove us in the womb for His purpose and His glory. Even more tragic is that, although individuals stuck at this level of development may seem to demonstrate Christian behaviors by appearing loving and obedient, their "godly" actions are typically rooted in fear, emptiness, and the need for external narcissistic supply, rather than the compassion, empathy, and gratitude that come from the thankful and joyful heart of one who is loved simply for being who God designed her to be.
In developing this material, I noted an interesting conundrum concerning issues of narcissistic development within the GFI material. For example, children are not allowed to be demanding, while parents seem to have the right to be extremely demanding. Even newborn babies are to be trained out their need for immediate gratification; yet GFI parents require their own "gratification" to be met first time, every time by their children. Woven throughout the material is an underlying premise that children are the unquestionable bearers of a sinful nature, while parents are uniformly represented as bearers of God's image. One cannot review the material without pondering on the implications of such contradictions.