On Becoming Childwise: A Critique
by Laurie Moody
This is a basic critique of Childwise with an emphasis on aspects of interest to Christian readers of Childwise. There is more to be said, but I'm going to keep it brief. The edition I evaluated was Childwise, by Ezzo and Bucknam, copyrighted 1999.
The book is geared for children 3 to 7 years. There is no discussion in the book at the beginning that educates the reader as to typical areas of development during this age span. Critical to the parent's ability to enforce boundaries is the ability to set appropriate boundaries for each age. I find it disappointing that a book that purports to be a guide to parenting during this age range does not include any information at all on how to set age-appropriate boundaries. I think that parents who lack this important information are more likely to exasperate their children, by expecting sustained levels of behavior of a higher order than a 3-7 year old is usually capable of. There are some sections in the book where a lack of discussion about typical development is evident.
Chapter One is crafted to draw the reader onto Ezzo's turf by horrifying him or her with examples of children holding their parents hostage. The examples are exaggerated and ridiculous. Do you know anyone in real life who picked up a bottle again and again and again as their 12 month old dropped it from the high chair only to teach her baby that when mommy goes away she comes back? While object permanence IS something babies do need to learn (although the developmental stage for learning this concept comes closer to 9 months), I find it very hard to believe that most parents so fear damaging their child's psychological development that they feel they must keep up the "fetch game" indefinitely.
How about the example of the mother who so fears telling her kids they can't play outside on the swing set since it is raining that she goes out in the rain, dismantles it, and sets it up in the living room? Know anyone in real life who has done that?
Using extreme examples, Ezzo brings readers along as they naturally identify themselves as more discerning and reasonable than the parents in the examples. Ezzo sets Childwise up as the reasonable contrasting alternative. He also begins setting the stage for a different kind of fear: "If I don't parent as Childwise suggests, then my kids might be like that unruly monster who left a bowel movement on some lady's lawn because his mom didn't want to stifle his self expression!" (Yes, there really is an example like that in the book! pages 27-28). The basic idea of this chapter is "Have no fear--we can help you keep your kids from becoming monsters."
This chapter presents some ideas with which it is easy to agree. Children do need to feel secure in their mom and dad's love for one another. I thought it interesting that right up front he says that allowing a child to come into the parent's bed at night sends a family "full speed ahead into marital doom (p. 36)." He doesn't qualify this by considering that a child might be having a bad dream, that dad works double shifts and the child doesn't see him often, or the dad is just back from a military leave. Nope--he just leads the reader to think that all night waking is in some way related to an insecurity in the parent's marriage and that 15 minutes a day of mom and dad sitting on the couch talking to each other will solve the problem. While I have no commitment to a "family bed" philosophy (in the sense of having a "family bed" only for our children's emotional needs, etc.), we do allow our kids to come into our bed from time to time for other reasons such as thunderstorms, bad dreams, or simple convenience when a baby wakes at night to nurse. We have lots of other time to nurture our marriage--even time alone in bed when our children aren't there. It is an exaggeration and a fear tactic to say this will cause "marital doom."
The idea that sitting and talking on the couch will really solve such a myriad of problems is simplistic, but parents who choose to do this will probably find some benefit to it (as long as their expectations aren't that it will solve all their problems or their child's problems). I can see how some families with a strong bond could adopt this general idea in a respectful way without ignoring their children's legitimate needs during that time. On the other hand, it is ludicrous to think that parents who don't adopt this practice, but nurture their marriage in some other way, will have chronically insecure children and marriages.
I agree in many ways with the concept that parents should not be afraid of their authority as parents. Permissive parenting is dangerous, and leading a child to think that they bear no responsibility for their own actions by not responding appropriately to correct the child can lead to negative repercussions for the child, family, and even society as a whole.
I agree in general that in the early years parental authority provides most of the guidance for children's decisions and that as the child grows he/she should be taking more and more responsibility for right actions and motives. This idea is not unique to Gary Ezzo--it is also present in other books like Boundaries for Kids by Cloud and Townsend. Parents should be helping their children grow to accept responsibility for their own choices and actions.
But as has been true all along in this book, Childwise takes a good principle and diminishes its usefulness by adding some unhealthy ideas to it. For instance, he continues with the theme from Babywise on page 51 by saying that in infancy the parents "determine when the child will eat, sleep, stay awake, have a bath, play on the blanket, or go for a stroller ride." Is it really to be that regimented, and can parents really make a baby sleep, eat and stay awake like that? He says that parents are not to be authoritarian in their parenting, but obviously he believes that they should be excessively controlling in the infant stage.
While I agree that parents should be the parents--not buddies (in the sense that parents are afraid to say "no" because it removes the "buddy status"), I find an overemphasis on this idea can lead parents to fail to adequately develop important relationships with their children while they are young. It puts the focus only on being the authority as opposed to getting to know the child's likes and dislikes, playing with them just for fun, etc. Perhaps families who buy this concept that grew up in a loving family with strong relationships can balance his "Parent now, be friends later" principle without neglecting to build strong relationships even in the early years. Parents who lack strong role models and confidence, however, can miss out on the relationship-building that is essential to the later discipleship of their children as they grow into the junior and senior high years.
Eric and Julie Abel, former partners of the Ezzos in the leadership of the Ezzos' parenting ministry Growing Families International (GFI), addressed this in their statement available on the web at http://www.abelhome.com/GFI.htm. They say:
And we have experience where some of the techniques in the material have proved to be a detriment to our own family. As one example, GFI stresses that the "Friendship Phase" should be the end result of parenting. This non-biblical perspective caused us to disregard an early relationship with our children...damage that has taken time to correct. We now view friendship with our children not as a phase but a parental attitude and action that can begin from day one. We have determined not to neglect the parental authority mentioned in scripture but to also emphasize the other Christian obligations we are required to have toward our fellow man. The GFI curriculum has a tendency to [diminish] children rather [than] raise them to the same level of humanness as the parent. As a result, we have found that many followers never build the sort of relationship with their children that we believe God requires among people.
Gary Ezzo is right, children do need parents who are willing to lead them and teach them right from wrong, but this doesn't have to happen in a vacuum without relationship-building or friendship. The good parts of this chapter can be found elsewhere, and the bad parts can damage the early years of a child's relationship with his/her parents.
Again, we have a good beginning where I find things with which to agree. I believe we can help our child's moral development--even in the early years. I want my children to be courteous, respectful, sensitive to the needs of others, obedient, fun to be with, and characterized by self-control and a cooperative attitude (see page 64 for a longer list). I agree that "by intent or neglect, parents are still the greatest influence on their children (p. 64)." I do find that he sets up parents in this chapter for some possible disappointment later though. He leads parents to believe that if they follow Childwise principles faithfully that the teen years "do not have to be stressful or full of storm. On the contrary, they can, and probably will, be some of the best and most joyous years of your parenting (p. 65)."
Eric and Julie Abel also addressed this point in their statement (available on the web at http://web.archive.org/web/20040207163332/abelhome.com/GFI.htm ). They say:
Because of the huge emphasis that is placed on conformity to practice, GFI places too much importance on a parent's responsibility and ability to mold a child's behavior. For instance, GFI claims that parents can avoid the "terrible twos" and "teenage rebellion" with proper child training. Such extreme statements are not biblical. In fact, the contrary seems to be true. Rebellion is something that the scriptures say we will all experience during our lifetime. Rebellion is inherent in our humanness. It is our opinion that GFI followers are ill prepared for those difficult times in the life of every family.
The reality is that moral training is not the key to reaching a child's heart. Moral training can never do what the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit can do. Moral training simply gives a child the intellectual ability to distinguish right from wrong, and parents should do this kind of training. To lead parents to believe though, that this moral training will prevent rebellion and other problems later in parenting is simplistic at best and dangerous at worst.
The other concern I have in this chapter would be similar to any concern I would have where a religious program seeks to remove all Scriptural foundations and focuses on the common elements where secularists would agree. That is his emphasis on the "first principle" or the Golden Rule. I believe it is possible for parents using the Childwise plan to help their children do such morally right things that they question their need of a Savior. If they are so good and their behavior is so good, why would they need religious instruction or the God of the Bible?
Don't misunderstand me--I want to live in a society where people have basic virtues of honesty, respect, integrity, etc. I just have to ask if GFI has not made a major compromise with the principles that they claim are important in their religious materials by publishing the secular counterparts. I do agree that we should teach our children to treat others as they themselves would desire to be treated. I fail to understand though, how Childwise would be very attractive to a Christian who is seeking to build that principle on the foundation of Scripture and on the example that Christ Himself gave us by how He lived. Childwise is only a shallow representation of what Jesus teaches us about this principle in the New Testament. And did you know that Childwise states that "the first principle ethic: gives a child the best chance of growing into a happy, well-adjusted, and successful adult (p. 72)." Got any problems with that statement as a believer in salvation by grace alone through faith alone? I do.
I agree with Ezzo's statement that we should "teach the way of virtue, not just the avoidance of wrong (p. 77)." He is right--many times parents do focus on correcting bad behavior and do neglect focusing on training what is right and good. I think it is a worse problem though, that parents nag the bad behavior of their children and fail to recognize what they do right and well. In addition, I agree with this statement at the beginning of this chapter: "effective parents know they cannot lead their child any farther than they have gone themselves (p. 78)." Ezzo correctly summarizes that parents must live what they teach and expect, and that hypocrisy will damage parental credibility (p. 79).
I agree further that parents should teach their children the "why" behind the right thing to do. I do disagree that parents should wait to do this training until their child turns three years old. Children are capable of more than we think sometimes. I've found that my children can assimilate reasons behind things very early--much sooner than the third birthday.
I did find something interesting towards the end of this chapter. At the beginning of stating Moral Precept # 6 "Avoid Legalism When Giving Instruction," Ezzo says, "If you're a Babywise parent, you will remember this warning (p. 85)." This is a good example of how GFI encourages exclusivism and separatism. They use labels like this in their other materials too, "Prep baby," "Growing Kids God's Way kids/families," and it encourages pride and a judgmental attitude among followers.
This is where Gary starts getting into some murky water with the concept that all children should be brought to the same "higher" standard. While I agree with him that "virtues are absolute and not swayed by temperament (p. 91)," I do not agree that he corners the market on which behaviors are virtues. I think that many times he simply highlights those behaviors that personally annoy him and makes a mountain out of a molehill.
The best example I have of this is the shy child. In my opinion, if a three-year-old girl is shy, and very uncomfortable talking to strangers, the person with the problem is the adult who expects a "thank you" in return for a compliment, not the child. After all, did the adult give the compliment because they desire appreciation for it or because they genuinely liked something?
I do agree that parents should try to help shy children be comfortable with themselves and others--even to go so far as encouraging conversation, the polite niceties of socialization, etc. But I do not agree with punishing a shy child as Ezzo suggests--especially considering that with practice and gentle encouragement, this courtesy will come in time.
In addition to that concern, I find it troubling that Ezzo does not make any exceptions for children with special needs in this chapter. What of the child with a mild form of autism who is yet undiagnosed? If a parent were to follow Ezzo's advice without exception, they would be punishing a child for something he/she could not control.
The last concern I have with the idea of forcing children to talk to an adult--even a stranger who compliments them, is that there is the potential of creating a comfort with strangers who may seek to hurt a young child. That is not in the best interest of the child.
I agree with his opinion that children should be taught to respect the property of others. I also agree with the concept that we teach children something valuable if they know what it takes to earn something.
Furthermore, I agree that certain courtesies should be taught to children and that adults should model them, such as offering a seat to an elderly person, but I think it sad that Gary Ezzo doesn't stress treating children courteously too. It is almost as if they are second-class citizens. I can't find a single item in this chapter where parents are urged to think self-sacrificially and consider the children as the smaller and weaker person.
Another issue that Gary Ezzo raises that seems like a pet peeve of his is the Mr. and Mrs. issue. While I personally like to be called by some sort of title by young children (most of the time that is "Miss Firstname" or "Mrs. Firstname") this is really a matter of cultural preference. In the Growing Kids God's Way video tapes, Ezzo instructs parents to ignore the request of any adult that doesn't want to be called by a Mr. or Mrs. type title. Certainly a desire to consider others first and not be a legalist would lead a parent to "consider context" in this issue, not the rule of Mr./Mrs. titles.
When discussing respect for siblings in this chapter, Ezzo says, "Do not be satisfied with siblings who just tolerate each other. Instead, aim for the higher standard of sacrificial love." (Again, I find it interesting that he is asking the children to think and love sacrificially, but not once does he encourage the parents to do the same in their relationship with the children.) I do like what he has to say about encouraging siblings to get along. I agree with him about tattling and helping children learn how to work through conflict lovingly and with physical self-control. Overall, there are quite a few things with which to agree in this chapter. Can these be found elsewhere without the negatives in the chapter and the rest of the book? How about A Child's Book of Virtues by William Bennett or a good Bible story book that teaches these same virtues by example?
Right away in the beginning of this chapter I found something shocking. On page 115, Gary Ezzo says this, "There is an old Jewish proverb that states: 'Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul.' In this context, the word discipline means to educate your child. It doesn't mean to punish but to train." The footnote for that quote gives Proverbs 29:17 as the reference.
Some Christians would say that Ezzo is making a compromise here in his secular materials by downgrading a Bible verse to an "old Jewish proverb" but my concern goes beyond that.
In the fifth edition of Ezzo's Christian version of the Childwise book, Growing Kids God's Way, (printed in 1998, just the year before Childwise was released) Ezzo argues strongly that Christian parents must close their ears to secular anti-spanking "voices that speak contrary to Scripture" and must spank their children, using this same Bible verse, Proverbs 29:17, as one of the verses supporting "chastisement" (the word he uses in Growing Kids God's Way for "spanking"), thus contradicting what he says in Childwise!
Gary Ezzo clearly believes in spanking, or chastisement as he puts it, from a basic review of Growing Kids God's Way, which leaves me wondering why he is watering down his own message in the book Childwise. I know that we can not discern the motive of Gary's heart here, but could it be possible that if he were to preach the hard line message of spanking in Childwise that his sales might not do very well? If Gary Ezzo really believes what he teaches in Growing Kids God's Way, then Childwise, at least in this area, is a huge compromise of his own values.
As the chapter continues, again there are good things to find. Ezzo tells parents they should state requests in the form of positives instead of always stating things negatively. The principle of teaching the right way to do something in a time of non-conflict is a valuable message as well. I agree that parents should not be threatening and repeating, and that the "five minute warning" is a good tool for parents to use to make obedience easier for their children. Teaching children to give a verbal response after instruction and/or to come to the parent for instruction are also good tips.
But I have to ask the question again: what makes Childwise attractive to the Christian parent? If a parent agrees with Ezzo's views as stated in Growing Kids God's Way, then Childwise is a book of compromise for Ezzo's values, one could assume, to make it more palatable for the secular audience. If he will compromise his own stated values and message is he a trustworthy source for parenting information?
I found a lot in this chapter with which to agree. I'll just make a short list for the sake of convenience: distinguishing childish behavior from defiance (though the lack of inclusion of typical child development in Childwise could lead parents to wrongly label behaviors) , correction should promote learning (reinforces giving the "why" behind parental instruction), make the punishment fit the crime (considering such things as the age of the child, the frequency of the offense, context of the moment, how the child is characterized by behaving, and parental balance), expecting your child to make amends (apology and/or restitution).
I will say that I found somewhat ironic in this chapter a few quotes such as: "Teach your children to admit they're wrong when they're wrong. It is the first step in mending wounds (p. 137)," and "Children and adults who are in the habit of asking for forgiveness take ownership of their wrong actions (p. 137)." Gary Ezzo has spoken sarcastically and unkindly of those who would disagree with him before they ever even heard of him. And after creating a controversy by his own actions and words, he failed to take the "first step in mending wounds" himself. He has published seven different editions of Preparation for Parenting and four different editions of its secular counterpart Babywise, changing and adjusting the materials to reflect some of the criticism it received, without once admitting he was wrong at all. Is this a person from whom you want to be receiving parenting guidance? He doesn't practice what he preaches. See http://www.ezzo.info for more information on this.
Chapter Nine starts off well, in my opinion. I agree with him that preventative parenting is far better than reactive parenting. I agree that giving children more responsibility than they can handle based upon their maturation will lead to problems. He rightly concludes that five year olds should not have the privileges and responsibilities better suited to a twelve year old.
Where we begin to differ is in the implementation or the application of his philosophy. At the end of the section labeled "Decision-making freedoms--too many choices too early" he says, "Offering unlimited choices is one way children become wise in their own eyes. You cannot give a child unlimited decision-making powers without also giving him an unwielding [sic] sense of power (p. 159)."
He uses a ridiculous example to prove his point, similar to the examples he gave in chapter one, of a child who "make[s] everyone get out of one car and into another because he wants to ride in the blue one (p. 159)." He uses the terms "unlimited choices" and "too many choices" and then says this, "Please keep this in perspective. We are not saying you should hold back all choices from your children (p. 159)." That is, however, exactly what he proceeds to do in the next section. He redefines the problem from "unlimited" and "too many choices" to: "Remember, the real problem is not giving children choices, but doing so prematurely and to he point of overindulgence (p. 160)." He uses the example of a four year old child he names Jason that proceeds through a morning of rejecting all of his mom's offers to choose a different cup, drink, condiment, place to sit, and story book and then proceeds to tell his mom he is going off to play on his swing set. Then later when his mom wants him to pick up his toys to eat lunch, and Jason balks, Ezzo concludes that Jason doesn't want to obey his mom because he controlled all the choices that morning and he feels he is "master of his own destiny (p. 161)." Ezzo rightly concludes that we don't have to give choices for everything. Parents shouldn't be wimps and be afraid to lead their children and even limit the choices of young children.
But just as he has elsewhere in the book, Ezzo sets up the extremes so his own opinion looks reasonable. He spent most of the chapter leading up to his plan, which is removing all choices until the child is willing to accept that level of control; and only then should the child be given limited choices. He coins a phrase in this book that he actually brings over from the Growing Kids God's Way series, "addicted to choice (p. 162)."
The parent is supposed to test to see if a "child is addicted to choice by simply observing what happens when all choices are taken away. For example, if at breakfast you offered milk in a clear glass, cereal (your choice) in a plain bowl, and a piece of buttered toast on a plate, would your child accept this without complaint (p. 162)?"
Any child except the very most passive sort is going to wonder what mom or dad is up to by changing the typical pattern all of a sudden. Even if a child is used to only choosing from one of two cereal choices, and/or one of two juice choices, the sudden change is going to likely draw some comment.
This is, in my opinion, a good example of a violation of Ephesians 6:4, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." The parent is basically throwing down the gauntlet and daring the child to say anything about it. The parent is setting the child up for trouble, in effect, purposely tempting him or her to communicate in a sinful way. As children develop the ability for more skills and communication, choices should gradually increase. This should be happening long before a child turns three (the starting age of this book). Certainly a parent may be giving too many choices and "freedoms" (Ezzo's word for responsibilities and privileges), and may need to scale back on some of them, but to purposely remove all of them just to "test" to see if the child is "addicted to choice" is a recipe for disaster, the results of which do not necessarily mean that the child is "addicted to choice."
A better source for the information included in this chapter is the book, Boundaries with Kids by Cloud and Townsend. In addition, all parents would benefit by reading a very basic text on child development so that they have a more reasonable understanding of what most children can do and handle in certain age ranges.
Ezzo's construct sets parents up to control everything, even denying a friendship relationship with their children until they reach the teen years or beyond. Except for children with more passive temperaments, this approach can damage the child's ability to make developmentally appropriate decisions, and more seriously, the parent-child relationship. At the end of the chapter, Ezzo discusses "verbal freedoms," which is his way of addressing children in this age range (3-7 as covered in the book) who take the liberty of telling their parents what they are going to do as opposed to asking permission of them. He also addresses children arguing with parental instruction. In general, I agree that children who are 3-7 should not feel free to just go off down the street wherever and whenever they want. In addition, I believe parents should not allow back talk or disrespectful tone of voice to go uncorrected. There are many other Christian authors who address such topics without the glaring problems of this chapter, such as Lehman, Dobson, Cloud and Townsend, Smalley, and Campbell. Even the author probably most criticized by Ezzo, Dr. Sears, says that parents should be comfortable in their role as the parent--the authority in the child's life.
This chapter addresses transferring ownership to children of their own responsibilities and behaviors. He separates the pre-accountability phase from the accountability phase by saying that in the pre-accountability phase the emphasis is on training and practice of a behavior, and after that time, there should be consequences for when child does not meet expectations. I'm not comfortable with the idea that he believes parents own the behaviors of their children until the accountability phase. For instance, he says that if a two year old spills syrup on the family dog that he/she can't give the dog a bath. Well, perhaps they can't alone, but they can help the parent give the dog a bath. A similar example is when a four year old spills a can of paint. He makes the point that the four year old can't clean up the mess by himself without making more of a mess. He can, however, help clean up the mess. I think this is still a reflection of his belief that very young children should be strictly controlled. Very young children can begin taking responsibility for their actions and the consequences that go with them. Cloud and Townsend do a great job with this topic from the standpoint of common child development in Boundaries for Kids, and I'm sure there are other authors who do as well.
One idea I thought was very good in this chapter is that parents are told to ask their children, "do you have the freedom to do that?" with any particular behavior or action. If a child wants to play at the neighbor's house and he already knows he is supposed to do chores and homework first, instead of asking him about those tasks, the mother is supposed to ask simply if he has the "freedom" to go. This puts the burden of remembering back on the child. I can see this as a very handy tool for parenting older children especially. The reflective sit time idea comes next. He describes this as an opportunity, after an undesirable behavior, for the child to think about what happened, what should have happened, and how the child can make it right. I see this as a huge improvement on the typical time out idea. Instead of punishing, the parent is trying to get the child to realize what needs to change, from the motivation of his/her own heart instead of the parent's. Overall, a positive chapter with some good ideas in my opinion.
I really like how he begins this chapter with a focus on encouraging children as a part of their overall correction. In the section on verbal affirmation, he makes the point that parents should focus their encouragement on character attributes more often than on visual appearance. He also says not to overdo praise to the point that children have the wrong motive for doing the right thing. He talks about giving incentives to reach a particular goal, but discourages doing it long-term so that it essentially becomes a bribe, thus perverting the motive of the child to do the action or behavior. Ezzo states that he believes incentives should be connected to skills rather than obedience or behavior. He also addresses correcting childish behavior (as opposed to behavior with malicious intent) with verbal correction and logical consequences.
One thing I found very surprising was his lack of willingness to share his views on spanking in the book, since elsewhere he teaches that "parents who love will" spank.In Growing Kids God's Way, he very clearly communicates that he believes that spanking is the best way to deal with disobedience, even going so far as to say that parents who do not spank when a behavior calls for a spanking are in sin, and are keeping their child under the weight of guilt and sin.
But in Childwise, after brief comments about the controversy over spanking, Ezzo merely states that parents should not be abusive, gives statistics indicating that most people consider spanking to be an appropriate response, and says that Childwise will not discuss spanking because of "the complexity associated with the method (p. 214)." He does, however, include a footnote suggesting that parents who want to know more about spanking as a method of correction look for a Growing Kids God's Way class to attend.
So which is it? Does he believe what he says in Growing Kids God's Way, or is that something he is only willing to share with those taking his religious classes? I have to question the reason he gave for not sharing his views on spanking in the book Childwise. Again, it seems that in Childwise, Ezzo is compromising the values he preaches in Growing Kids God's Way.
He ends the chapter with discussion on natural consequences, more on logical consequences, and the use of isolation. Even though the book is geared for children three to seven years of age, he mentions that isolation is an appropriate technique to use for babies as young as nine months.
The last couple of chapters deal with some common sense approaches to things like tantrums, whining, power struggles, lying, stealing, chores, etc. There are some good ideas, but none, in my opinion make this book worth the purchase. There are lots of parenting books that have similar chapters with creative ideas that do not have the negatives associated with this book.
Laurie Moody is a mother of 4 who holds a BS in elementary education and has 20 years of experience in teaching and childcare. She is also a Certified Lactation Consultant. She was affiliated with the Ezzos' ministry as a volunteer "contact mom" for a year and a half and also taught Growing Kids God's Way to parents.