Kenneth Grunden, age 2, is an authority on many subjects, including puppies. He ambles down a walkway, explaining that puppies are "silly and messy." His assertions seem to be well-founded. On a concrete sidewalk, six puppies defy any scientific notion of order in creation. As Kenneth tries to point to different ones and explain their individual attributes, it becomes clear that the natural state of puppies is chaos.
Without being unkind, one might suspect that the natural state of Kenneth's home is similarly chaotic-he's one of seven children, five of whom are still at home.
But in this case, that suspicion would be wrong. In the Grunden home, there is order amid chaos. It's a busy Saturday afternoon. Two of the boys have just returned from a baseball game. Susannah, 4, sings to herself as she tools around on her tricycle; Laura Kay, the baby, wants to sit on laps and taste sunglasses.
Somehow, this all works smoothly. Parents Ricky and Marsha Grunden credit the principles they learned through a Christian parenting curriculum called Growing Kids God's Way. Their kids are good kids: They obey their parents the first time; they look out for each other; they're polite and respectful to each other and to visitors.
"It's changed our lives," Ricky says of the parenting curriculum. "We now have information we need to be biblical parents. I can't recommend it highly enough."
Growing Kids God's Way is a growing phenomenon in evangelical churches. It is also controversial. Nearly 10 years ago, Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, parents of two daughters, first taught their child-rearing principles at the California church where he served as associate pastor. Since then, Growing Kids God's Way, along with Preparation for Parenting, Preparation for the Toddler Years, and Reaching the Heart of Your Teenager, have been used by more than 400,000 parents. This summer, Growing Families International (GFI), the Ezzo umbrella group, plans a push into 100 churches in the Phoenix area. Later this year, GFI expects to tally its millionth "Ezzo baby."
Critics of Growing Kids God's Way say the Ezzos make claims-including medical ones that can't be backed up-and deal in generalities that can't apply to all children and parents. Critics also say that the program's title suggests that the Ezzos' methods are God's methods and the corollary: that any other method is wrong.
What is Growing Kids God's Way? It's a step-by-step, cradle-to-the-dormroom set of instructions for how to parent. The program was designed for use in churches. But even in churches without organized classes, young parents often pass around the audiotapes and workbooks, then get together informally to compare notes and progress. The Ezzo program's popularity comes in reaction to lots of other parenting advice, Christian or not, that makes children the center of their family's universe. The Ezzo program is a sharp departure from the popular emphasis on building self-esteem.
Preparation for Parenting, "Prep" for short, is the most controversial part of the Ezzos' program. In Prep the Ezzos teach new parents to schedule their baby's sleeptime, playtime, and mealtime. Instead of feeding babies when they are hungry (on demand), the Ezzos advocate feeding newborns every three hours. Although they cite some Bible verses to support their program, they base their teaching primarily on the idea that since God is a God of order, the concept of "demand" feeding is wrong and unhealthy, leading to "metabolic chaos," while "parent-directed feeding" leads to healthier babies and happier moms.
The Ezzos guarantee the program will work-unless the mom has a problem. "The principles have worked for thousands of parents, and when faithfully applied, will work wonderfully for you," the Ezzos write. But they also say, "If your baby seems to be hungry all the time, the problem is not with the routine in general, but with your routine ... you may not be milk-sufficient."
The Ezzos urge parents not to let themselves be ruled by their babies: Let the babies "cry it out," they advise. As long as there is nothing else causing that cry-such as a wet diaper or a more serious problem-it won't hurt a baby to cry for 15 to 20 minutes; within a few days, they assure anxious parents, the baby will settle into the routine.
But Prep does not always work as smoothly as the Ezzos promise.
Suzan Watkinson of Bethlehem, Pa., was pregnant with her first baby when she heard about the Ezzos. Her church's Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) group went through the Prep video series. Suzan and her husband Steven, both then 23, fit the mold of typical Ezzo parents: young professionals from the suburbs without family close by.
After seeing the video series, Suzan began to have reservations about the program. Nonetheless, after her baby's birth, she tried to schedule feeding and follow the other routines: "I tried for about two weeks and I had to give it up ... it wouldn't work."
Members of her group were critical when she went off the schedule: "I felt like I had done everything wrong ... [they] think I'm weird, that I'm doing something unbiblical. I don't get any support, and I feel like I'm constantly being watched and criticized."
Valerie Jacobsen, 31, a registered nurse in southeast Wisconsin, had a similar experience with proponents of the Ezzo program. She was already a mother of two and expecting her third child when a friend told her about the Ezzos.
"We were having tea and my friend said to me, 'Did you know God wants you to schedule feed your baby and wean your baby by one year?' I said, 'No, I didn't know that,'" she recounted. "I wanted the things he [Gary Ezzo] promised: I wanted godly children; I wanted to do things God's way."
Valerie and her husband Paul studied the Prep audio tapes and the Bible. "I think if we had not done the Bible study, I would have been convinced by the tapes that this was my only option," Valerie said.
She later found that other friends and even a sister-in-law were using the program. "When they learned that I disagreed with it, they felt sorry for me. Some have told me vehemently that I'm in rebellion against God."
Stories like that are part of the reason William Sears, a California pediatrician and author of baby books with and without a Christian perspective, criticizes the Ezzos. Dr. Sears advocates most of the things Gary Ezzo warns against: "attachment parenting," demand feeding, letting children sleep with parents, and the validity of a mother's instincts (Gary Ezzo says humans don't have instincts). Dr. Sears says, "The Ezzo program is damaging. It divides churches. It hurts babies. It ignores a very fundamental principle in child rearing, the difference in temperaments among children."
Parents looking for middle ground between the Ezzos and Dr. Sears might turn to Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. They would find, however, that Dr. Dobson has little to say about infancy. Officially, Focus on the Family does say about the Ezzo program that "we would stop short of recommending this material in its entirety. The Ezzos' plan has much to offer, but may not necessarily be the last or best word on parenting."
Although critics charge the Ezzo program with inflexibility, Anne Marie Ezzo makes it clear to her leadership classes that "part of your job is to remind parents not to be rigid. This is not a rigid course." But some adherents seem to ignore Anne Marie Ezzo's warning, perhaps because the program claims to be based on biblical principles that are hard to compromise.
Some of those biblical insights raise eyebrows. In Preparation for Parenting, the Ezzos use the crucifixion to justify letting an infant cry. "Praise God that the Father did not intervene when His Son cried out on the cross," they write. They also make the dubious theological claim that their method can generate "a type of spiritual inertia" in children. "Once the parents have instilled biblical patterns into their child, their training should carry him to the point where God's Spirit will take control of the reins of his heart," Gary Ezzo writes in The Bible and Common-Sense Parenting. "Without sufficient spiritual inertia generated in the formative years (birth through 12), the child will ultimately limit the influence of God in his life."
Even the Ezzos' most enthusiastic supporters acknowledge that it takes more than a program to bring up a child in the way that he should go. "It takes years of faithfulness," Ricky Grunden said. "Years of living biblically and showing them with your life. If you have a tool like this, that's great, but it's not a shortcut. There are no shortcuts."
Nor, the critics say, is there just one way to raise children God's way-unless it is with humility.