Group Magazine Reprint
A popular but controversial Christian parenting program might have plunged a million kids into dangerous waters as they enter adolescence
by Ken McDuff
Trevor poked his triumphant, beaming face into my office. ``It works!'' he exclaimed.
Trevor's one-month-old boy was sleeping through the night, and he wanted me to know that the the techniques taught by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo in their popular-but-controversial parenting program, Growing Kids God's Way (GKGW), had been successful.
But successful at what? Too often we judge a parenting style by its immediate results. What can we expect, though, when ``Ezzo-babies'' - as they're sometimes called - grow up?
GKGW and its related curriculum, Preparation for Parenting, have been taught in nearly 4,000 churches over the past 10 years. The Ezzos' organization, Growing Families International, has provided resources to 400,000 families, representing more than a million children. As the first wave of children grown ``God's way'' approach adolescence, it's a good time to evaluate the fruits of the GKGW parenting style.
GKGW methods, practiced consistently, do seem to produce ``good'' kids - they obey their parents, they're generally polite and respectful, and they're well-behaved (particularly in their parents' presence). But, as with any parenting style, there are dangers in applying GKGW's tenants without generous portions of common sense and parental affection.
Consider three potential dangers.
Danger # 1: Parents motivated by self-interest.
The GKGW philosophy is parent-centered. The Ezzos warn that too much parental attention and sacrifice makes for a child who's self-centered and ill-prepared for real life. They encourage parents to resist placing their kids at the center of family life. The child must be taught quickly that the world does not revolve around him; otherwise, they say, the child ``will develop a self-centered perception that will carry into every relationship.''
In practice, a parent-centered philosophy translates too easily into parenting goals conceived out of selfishness. Though parents (including me) don't like to admit it, we often have hidden motives behind our parenting tactics. We want to look good to our friends; we want to be unbothered by our child's activity. So, we require our children to behave in certain ways - not for their benefit, but for ours.
But God's parenting pattern is sacrificial. Author Kevin Huggins - a 20 year veteran youth leader, now a professor of Christian counseling at Philadelphia College of the Bible - reminds us in Parenting Adolescents, ``Christ's death was his profound expression of self-denial and self-sacrifice, the same elements a parent must express if he is to be relationally mature (highly involved with and responsive toward his kids)''. When parents fail to consistently respond to a child's needs so that their lifestyle can be preserved, the second danger can result.
Danger # 2: Kids who never learn to trust.
When my wife gave birth to our first child, our primary goal was to create in our daughter a sense of trust and security - a feeling that she didn't face life alone. We responded to her cries quickly and consistently, with as much wisdom as first-time parents could muster. For a season, we altered our lifestyle to accommodate her needs. We were always nearby - and we didn't fret about spoiling her or being manipulated.
According to the Ezzos, that's not God's way. Children need to learn to cope with life's difficulties, they assert, away from their parents. By practicing what the Ezzos call "attachment parenting,'' my wife and I were "fostering an emotional disability we [Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, co-authors of On Becoming Babywise] call me-ism.''
But others disagree. "To an infant,'' responds Kevin Huggins, "every desire seems crucial... When these desires are not immediately fulfilled by the infant's primary caretakers, he experiences his first relational disappointment. This disappointment arouses within him a tendency to mistrust the abilities and intentions of his parents to give him what is vital for his existence... He develops his first real problem in thinking: 'If I'm going to feel safe and secure, I must do something to get my world to respond to me.' ''
As a GKGW child grows, how can she gain the approval that she desires? That leads us to the third danger.
Danger # 3: Kids who win approval by their good behavior.
GKGW promotes high parental control. Parents are encouraged to be "governors'' in their children's lives until the children develop the self-control and moral awareness that allows self-government. Certain behaviors are expected, and GKGW parents are quick to force conformity when necessary. The Ezzos contend that the Holy Spirit will eventually take over, building on those established patterns of compliant behavior. They call it ``spiritual inertia.''
Critics see little difference between what the Ezzos advocate and behaviorism - the use of negative reinforcement (spanking, hand-slapping, ``time outs,'' and so on) to bring about desired behaviors. Of course, what parent doesn't use some form of behavioristic technique? Why not? It ``works.'' Research studies reveal that firm and consistent parental control is associated with positive outcomes, especially when mixed with generous amounts of parental warmth.
But when parents withhold warmth and involvement, they can still get their kids to comply. Because the Ezzos' materials habitually prefer the word ``parenting'' to ``love,'' they leave the door open for parents to use strategies mechanically. Now what happens when these compliant but emotionally unengaged kids move into adolescence? Teenagers experience sudden and drastic changes, not only in physical appearance but also in how they perceive and relate to their world. They question what they must do to be loved and to have impact on their world. If their compliance flows from a desire to win others' approval and acceptance rather than faithfulness to Christ, the demands and struggles of adolescence can lead a young person into new, unexpected behaviors. These behaviors may take on the form of greater, even compulsive efforts to obey. But if a young person starts to believe his actions can never be good enough, he may turn to rebellious acts and defiance to signal his internal struggle.
What can you do to help a teenager whose outward compliance may not reflect a heart that's inclined toward God?
Watch for ``signal behaviors'' that indicate internal frustrations. If a teenager's strategy for winning love, security, and impact by being compliantly good fails, she may resort to ``signal behaviors'' such a compulsiveness, rule-breaking, defiant acts, or disregarding a parent's instructions. Think of it as an S.O.S. It's a time when a young person needs a friend to help her explore what's going on deep within. If she doesn't get help, destructive behaviors may follow.
Help parents reflect on their parenting styles and goals. Parents are the primary influencers of their children, even in adolescence. Too often, though, they fail to understand the struggles their children face. You can help parents reflect on the effects of their parenting style and provide insight on what their teenagers are doing, thinking, and feeling - and why. An excellent resource is Parenting Adolescents by Kevin Huggins (NavPress, 1989), also available as a small-group video series.
Help teenagers understand that only Christ can meet their need for relational fulfillment. Proverbs 19:22 reveals that ``what a man desires is unfailing love.'' Teenagers' self-sufficient strategies and behaviors are foolish attempts to gain dependable, unconditional love - a love that'll never be fully met in any human relationship, only in God's lovingkindness. When a compliant young person wonders why his compliance doesn't bring the relationship he desires, point him to the One who'll love him regardless of his failed efforts at goodness.
When kids start to see that they can't satisfy their deepest desires for love and acceptance by molding themselves to what others demand - that's when they're most open to Christ's love. Help them to talk about their heart's desires, then to find fulfillment in relationship with the living God.
By the way, my daughter, Karisa, is 15 now. She loves God and cares deeply about others, especially the underdogs of the world. Her heart is reflected in her life's goal: to be a missionary. A dad couldn't be more pleased with his daughter. Don't get me wrong - Karisa's not perfect, but neither are her parents. But God has established broad boundaries for successful parenting.
``Scripture has very few specific mandates... It provides spiritual goals of parenting, but not exact or specific how-to's.'' These words of Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, found in the first chapter of Preparation for Parenting, should remind us that those responsible for the spiritual nurture of our youth - parents and youth workers alike - must continually evaluate and refine their methods, depending more on God's grace than their own expertise and ingenuity. That's God's way.
Ken McDuff is an associate pastor of family ministries in California. He's wrestled with the fruits of the GKGW program for seven years in his church, where the program has caused serious divisions among parents.
Group Magazine, July/August 1997, Volume 23, Number 5, pp. 39-42.
Reprinted by permission from Group Magazine, © 1997, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80538.