Growing Kids the Ezzo Way

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken April 5, 1998

Some of you already know what “Ezzo” means. For the rest of you, an explanation is in order.

When Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo first taught a class on Christian parenting in 1984, twelve parents attended. The next time they offered the class, 160 parents signed up to take it, and the Ezzos were off and running. Soon they were publishing books, selling videos and hosting conferences for parents all over America. Growing Families International now boasts that it has trained half a million parents worldwide.

The main Ezzo curriculum is called Growing Kids God’s Way. The Ezzos also sell two different books for new parents—an explicitly Christian book called Preparation for Parenting and a hot-selling book for the secular audience called On Becoming Babywise [Sisters, Oregon: Questar, 1995].

I introduce these materials in order to give some pastoral guidance. I know of a church in the Western United States which has become polarized into two factions. The Ezzo parents, I am told, are evangelists for Growing Kids God’s Way. They suspect that their counterparts are not really committed to biblical parenting. For their part, the anti-Ezzo parents make snide remarks about the way the Ezzo parents are raising their children.

Having read much of the training material myself, I am happy for Christian parents to read the Ezzo books, although I do not give them an unqualified endorsement.

Before I mention some of the limitations of growing kids the Ezzo way, let me mention some of the strengths:

Growing Kids God’s Way takes the God-given responsibility of parenting seriously,

• it recognizes that children are sinful by nature,

• its goal is to produce children who love and serve the Lord from the heart,

• it contains plenty of practical wisdom for daily family life,

• it stresses the necessity of fathers establishing intimacy with their children, and

• it more or less correctly explains the difference between spanking as it is generally practiced in our culture and the biblical concept of chastisement (cf. Prov. 23:13-14).

One of the more controversial principles the Ezzos espouse is that family life should be parent-centered. All other family relationships are secondary to the marriage. Rather than always catering to the whims of their children, Christian parents should help them adapt their desires to the needs of the family.

What is right about this emphasis is that the relationship between a mother and a father ought to be the strength of a family. Nothing gives more security to children than knowing that their dad loves their mom, and always will. It is also true that it is a mistake for parents to idolize their children.

One potential weakness of a parent-centered approach, however, is failing to recognize the degree to which parenting is sacrifice. Parents need to be reminded of this because their natural inclination is to be selfish. But children do not exist for the sake of their parents; just the opposite (cf. 2 Cor. 12:14). So parents should be quick to meet their children’s real needs (which are different, of course, from mere desires). “Which of you,” Jesus asks, “if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matt. 7:9-10).

Another potential danger is treating these or other parenting manuals as more than they actually are. Many Christians are looking for guidance about how to become godly parents. The best way to get it is to seek the counsel of Christian parents whose children you admire. Reading a variety of good books about parenting can also be helpful. The temptation, though, is to trust some parenting technique to save you.

With that in mind, the title of the main Ezzo manual is a little alarming: Growing Kids God’s Way, as if this is the only biblical way to parent. Actually, one of the most important things the Ezzos say comes near the beginning of that book:

The basis for Growing Kids God’s Way is a theological framework and the experience and research that we have acquired in the process of successfully rearing our own children. However, it is only one perspective assisting parents in their responsibilities. While biblical doctrine provides the basis for parental standards, Scripture has very few specific mandates for practical applications [Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, Growing Kids God’s Way: Biblical Ethics for Parenting, 4th edn, Chatsworth, CA: Growing Families International, 1993, p. 15].

It makes me uneasy when the Ezzos claim to be “successful parents,” since the truly outstanding parents I know would never make that claim.

Their main point, however, is extremely helpful: the Bible contains very few rules for parenting. Therefore, most practical instruction about family life needs to be recognized for what it is: advice. Figuring out the difference between good advice and bad advice is where wisdom comes in. I suspect that much of the controversy about growing kids the Ezzo way arises because some parents end up giving the materials almost biblical status.

One other area where the Ezzos may lead parents astray is in their use of the Bible. For example, they caution parents not to pick up their infants every time they cry. Instead, they should learn to identify different kinds of cries; not every whimper demands a cuddle. Fair enough.

However, in support of letting children cry themselves to sleep, the Ezzos say, “God is not sitting on His throne waiting to jump up at our every cry, trying to prove that He loves us.” They also cite Matthew 27:46: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Using that verse to tell you when to pick up a crying baby is not merely nonsense; it is sacrilege.

My point is simply that reading books on parenting requires wisdom. If there were only one way to raise godly children, God would have told us what it is. Since he hasn’t, Christian parents must work out this area of life, like all others, with prayer and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12).

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