Growing Kids God's Way?
A Critique of Growing Families International
By Dr. Barbara Francis
Concerns Regarding Views on Sex Education
GFI has developed its own "comprehensive" sex education curriculum, Reflections of Moral Innocence, which is to be used for all ages of children up until marriage. This material, according to The Child Abuse Prevention Council of Orange County (who did an extensive evaluation of the GFI program), "presents the greatest concern for children." They continue, "As in Growing Kids God's Way, the Ezzos state that God's Word is not specific on the topic of providing sex education for our children, but, if the recommendations given by the Ezzos are not followed, frightening things will happen to parent and child because they [the Ezzos] speak from a biblical perspective." (1996)
What has provoked this reaction? Basically, it's due to the fact that the GFI material is built upon the premise that the knowledge of sexual anatomy as well as the anatomical function of the sex organs takes away from childhood innocence. They further imply that this knowledge is evil and corrupting in itself. Couple this with the explicit contention that children are inherently perverse and corrupt and must not have their "evil imaginations activated" (RMI), and one gets the overall tenor of the entire program. Their perspective extends, for example, to describing sexual anatomy and the sexual implications of menstruation exclusively through the metaphor of a flower, banning children from attending art exhibits that include any form of nudity including statues (equating this with allowing your children to view pornography), and not providing any information on sexual function or behaviors—even on your child's wedding night!
The Ezzos are certainly correct in their belief that children in our society are being overwhelmed and inundated with sexual material they are unable to process. They are also correct in their statement that sex education is the responsibility of the parent. But outside of that, their model stands in direct contradiction to experts on child development and human sexuality in both secular and Christian communities.
While the Ezzos' perspective reflects secrecy, fear, and the "evil" nature of children, other well-respected Christian child experts such as Josh McDowell (1987), Dr. James Dobson (1982), Grace Ketterman, M.D. (1981), Dr. Bruce Narramore (1991), Paul Warren, M.D. (1994), Dr. Ross Campbell (1984), Jay Kesler (1988), and John Nieder (1984) describe sex education focusing on positive attitudes, direct-but-age-appropriate explanations regarding body parts and function, openness, and a natural, comfortable approach. The contrasts between the two schools of instruction are quite striking. Where the Ezzos instruct parents to "help [your eighteen-month-old] to get control" of his sexual perversity and passions by enforcing a "Don't Touch!" demand when the child touches his penis (if the child self-explores after this command, it is considered to be "disobedience," with resultant punishment), Ketterman states, "Let me suggest that you try to allow the infant to explore the genital area, just as he does his eyes and nose." Ketterman's contention that sexuality needs to be treated by parents as another part of God's wonderful design is echoed by other experts. Where Gary Ezzo believes that calling a penis a penis triggers "sexual thoughts and sensations," leading the child to think about "sex, not urination," others contend that not discussing sexuality in a natural, respectful way creates an environment of fear and taboos leading to distorted and unhealthy attitudes about sex. Experts believe that punishing a child for having curiosity about his genitals creates a preoccupation with them, while Ezzo contends that punishment roots out the curiosity.
How about preparing one's child for marriage? GFI states that no sex education is to be provided outside of the flower metaphor, believing that the couple will discover the realities on their own. Once again, other Christian experts disagree. Whether it's Ed Wheat, M.D. (1984), Clifford and Joyce Penner (1994), or Norm Wright (1984), those trained and experienced in helping Christians prepare for marriage (and in treating the resultant dysfunction when preparation has been faulty) strongly encourage direct—and even explicit—instruction on both physical and psychological sexual functioning before the wedding night.
A primary concern regarding the GFI material is, once again, the implicit message of fear and guilt.
It seems to insinuate that if you want to follow God, you will do it their way. In this case, the message takes on a frightening tenor that seems to imply that parents will be responsible for raising sexual perverts if GFI methods aren't followed. GFI states that they developed their views from a "biblical perspective," that theirs are the "basic truths of human sexuality," and they assure parents that their "goal [is] to put courage in you" for listening to "God's voice" (all quotes from RMI); the bases for these assumptions aren't addressed. Even more troubling are some serious claims made that are not only erroneous but are potentially dangerous. Gary Ezzo states, "Boys who get excited about women's clothing have been exposed to their moms' early on"; this is but one example that strongly implies the development of immorality, sexual perversions, and fetishes for not adhering to rigid GFI directives. It's interesting that the obvious implication is that being aroused by women's clothing is perverse and negative, when in a healthy adult sexual relationship, being aroused by a spouse in intimate apparel can be a delightful addition to desire and sexual play! But to address the darker meaning of Ezzo's pronouncement, GFI is simply inaccurate; this type of perversion is known to develop when a substitute attachment object is needed because comfort, nurturing, and human contact are not sufficiently provided.
It would be ill-advised not to factor in the dangerous component of the potential for sexual abuse concomitant with undisputed parental power, an inability of the child ever to say "no" to parents, and the secrecy inherent in this particular program; and please don't make the tragic mistake of believing Christians don't sexually abuse their children. As cited in an earlier section of this paper, the rates are actually higher than for the normal population. In my own practice, I have worked with a number of women whose sexually abusing fathers were everything from Christian college deans to pastors to elders. The horrendous tragedy of every one of these cases is that the fathers' exploitation of their daughters was actually perpetrated under the guise of a "God-given right" to teach one's daughter properly about sex. I am in no way suggesting that GFI promotes such exploitation, but I am suggesting that the structure of the program could be misused in diabolical ways.
One might wonder, in reading through the GFI directives, how one protects his or her children from contact with material in our society that might undermine GFI's position, or might expose children to something GFI considers improper. According to experts, this issue is often a major argument for providing healthy and comprehensive sex education at home; if kids don't hear it from parents, they'll hear it on the playground or the locker room. The Ezzos deal with this dilemma through their recommendation to build and function solely within one's own "moral community," an attitude that others feel leads to religious isolationism and a disquieting spirit of divisiveness in the church.
In response to such concerns, in their public statement regarding GFI (10/16/97), the elder board at Grace Community Church of Sun Valley, where Gary Ezzo was a staff member and where their programs began, states that GFI parents tend to insulate their children even from other Christian children who are not indoctrinated with GFI principles. This, according to their statement, has resulted in some GFI parents severing all relationships with non-GFI families, and includes not allowing their children to attend church youth functions (since these functions might be attended by those not "in the community" and non-Christian children). This has even extended to GFI developing their own private "Community Schools" where children can be enrolled by invitation only. Grace contends that "To some degree, GFI teaching is directly responsible for encouraging this attitude."
Although this highly important subject warrants more thorough assessment, this introductory presentation will hopefully provoke enough concern to prompt readers to prayerfully read and evaluate the primary sources for themselves.