Growing Families International (GFI), the creator of a church-based series of parenting curricula, currently claims over 500,000 adherents in 3500 churches and 34 countries. The parenting modules extend from birth through the teenage years. Recently, GFI translated their material to secular publications (e.g., Babywise) This presentation focuses upon four of the teaching modules: Preparation for Parenting, newborns to age four months (PFP); Preparation for the Toddler Years, from five to fifteen months (PFTY); Growing Kids God's Way, for toddlers through elementary school age (GKGW); and Reflections of Moral Innocence, the GFI sex education curriculum for all ages of children.
My first exposure to GFI came through clinical experience in early 1997. Being a therapist in private practice, supervising a number of interns for a Christian counseling center, and evaluating intakes for the lay counseling ministry at my church allow me exposure to a wide cross-section of individuals. I began hearing stories that disturbed me greatly: a mother presented her three-year-old as "rebellious and disobedient" for behaviors that were, in fact, healthy and appropriate for a pre-schooler; a Sunday School teacher of young couples shared astonishment at the pride a young mother expressed for allowing her three-month-old infant to cry for forty-five minutes; a pastor was dismayed and concerned by the verbal chastisement he heard from one parent toward another church member for her "lack of spirituality" in nursing her newborn infant on demand. The common thread between these and a number of other examples was a profoundly literal and rigid adherence to a parenting program. That program was GFI's.
Concern regarding these reports led to a personal examination of the material. While I saw good guidelines relating to, for example, learning another's "love language" for healthy communication or concern for protecting the sexual innocence of children, I was troubled at the overall tenor in its approach to parenting. My concerns were not only in the content of the material, but also in its negative perception of children, the legalistic tone of the presentation, and the adherence of its followers that verged on idolatry.
Even more disconcerting was that this self-proclaimed "truly biblical" model of parenting offered meager attention to a child's need for a renewed heart, the working of the Holy Spirit within our children as they develop or in us as we parent. This lack of integration of guidance through the Spirit of God seems to lend itself to a style of parenting sorely lacking in grace, empathy, understanding, and compassion. For example, while in GFI mothers are informed that their instincts toward their babies are unscriptural and ungodly, others would say that these experiences are more likely to be ministrations of the Holy Spirit. In GFI, there is a fundamental assumption that following the rules will produce the desired child. To believe that any of us have that kind of ultimate power over our children completely negates both the doctrine of free will and the working of God in our child's life; besides Adam and Eve had the perfect Parent and still chose to sin!
I presented my concerns at the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in November 1997, and the response to my presentation was rather alarming. From a small GFI constituency, I received personal attacks, for which I was prepared given past experiences. What was a surprise was the overwhelming response from the majority of conferees that carried this one single message: "Thank you for speaking out against this program." This sentiment was conveyed in many ways, but without exception contained terms like "having the courage to…" and "having guts.…" Simply to present concerns about a parenting model being extensively taught within the Body of Christ takes courage and guts? Those responses, in and of themselves, warrant a serious and prayerful examination of GFI. What are so many people afraid of?
The material presented here is by no means exhaustive. It is only representative of certain aspects of the GFI material, primarily those that relate to emotional, psychological, and sexual development. There is also discussion on concerns regarding the internal integrity and consistency of the GFI material; these concerns raise ethical questions pertaining to the claims of GFI and must be addressed if we are to be able to discern their claims accurately. I have also included comments on cultural concerns, certainly an issue worthy of further evaluation. Other subjects that still need to addressed are those of moral and cognitive development. As in other areas, GFI makes claims based on their own assumptions without references, support, or corroboration of proven theory and research. Many of their claims, in fact, stand in opposition to well-regarded and accepted data. These are certainly topics of importance; hopefully, they will be addressed more fully in the future.
This will, no doubt, appear to be a one-sided presentation. There are two reasons for this. First, since the GFI material is based almost exclusively on the ideas and beliefs of one source, Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, it is impossible to do anything but a circular analysis of their claims. They provide only rare examples of research or other corroborative support of their material from general revelation; from special revelation, their scriptural basis is in proof-texts.
The second, and more obvious reason, is concern that this model is being accepted within the conservative Christian community without scrutiny or examination. With titles like Growing Kids God's Way and other allusions to "God's plan," it is often unquestioningly accepted as the ultimate, exclusive, and infallible model for raising children.
GFI states that their focus and intent is to present a biblical model for raising children who are moral, self-disciplined, and obedient to God. While these goals are certainly admirable, any theory of parenting is based on the psychology of the authors, whether or not that psychology is acknowledged. Likewise, it is certain that the underpinnings are based on a particular theology. Since both areas of inquiry are man-made attempts at understanding God, both are fallible. Considering the authoritative claims GFI makes regarding an area as close to the heart of God as parenting children, we can do no less than to attempt—through the prayerful leading of the Holy Spirit—to examine these claims in light of God's Truth as revealed through both special and general revelation.
In reviewing this material, recognize the human biases on both sides. My goal is not to convince but rather to expose readers to information they may not be aware of and to raise questions that need to be asked.