A Tough Plan For Raising Children Draws Fire 'Babywise' Guides Worry Pediatricians and Others

By Hanna Rosin

Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, February 27, 1999; Page A01

Start early and teach your baby "highchair manners," parents are advised in a series of popular books on the "Babywise" approach to child rearing. A child as young as 8 months should sit with his hands on the side of his tray or in his lap. To avoid whining and fussing, the baby should learn hand signals to express "please," "thank you" and "I love you." If the child disobeys, parents are told, the best thing is a moderate squeeze or swat to the hand. If the baby is older than 18 months, then it's time for "chastisement" with a flexible instrument, such as a rubberspatula.

Developed by a California couple named Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, the Babywise books are designed to counter what the Ezzos see as a plague of "child-centered parenting." But their goal is not only to raise babies who are less fussy; they want to ensure children who are more morally centered and faithful to God. As the Ezzos see it, teaching children their principles of obedience is "Growing Kids God's Way," as one of their books is titled. And their views have struck a responsive chord among parents who are worried about the effects of overindulging their children and convinced of long-term damage done to society by the child-rearing advice of Benjamin Spock. Their most popular book, "On Becoming Babywise," has sold more than 290,000 copies since it was published in 1995, and by one estimate a million parents have had some contact with the Ezzos' philosophy, through classes, tapes or the books.

But many pediatricians warn that the combination of strict rules packaged as gospel by the Ezzos can be dangerous. Promoting "highchair manners" and telling parents their children can sleep through the night in five weeks instead of the three- to six-month average pushes discipline to extremes, they say. And when those methods are sold as "God's way," parents are afraid to bend the rules and follow their own instincts on feeding, for example, causing their babies to gain weight at dangerously slow rates.

Last fall, in response to a letter from 100 doctors and health care professionals calling some of the Ezzos' claims "untrue, misleading or unsubstantiated," the American Academy of Pediatrics passed a resolution to evaluate programs such as Babywise and its Christian counterparts. The academy has since issued a media alert saying "scheduled feedings designed by parents may put babies at risk for poor weight gain and dehydratio n." Their final evaluation is expected later this year.

Many evangelical groups that share the Ezzos' belief in the need for greater discipline have also joined in the criticism. Christian radio broadcaster James Dobson, who has written several books on child rearing, called the program "too rigid." When Gary Ezzo left Grace Community Church in Simi Valley, Calif., where he started the Babywise program, the board of elders issued a public statement accusing him of confusing "biblical standards and personal preference." Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo declined to be interviewed. But a spokesman said that parents who carry their tenets to extremes are ignoring advice sprinkled throughout their books. The books discourage parents from being "hyperscheduled clock watchers," said Robert Garcia, executive vice president of Growing Families International, the Ezzos' company, and tell them to stay flexible. The books include all the tools to avoid danger -- growth charts and diaper counts. They remind parents that they lose the right to spank if they are not also loving. The proof of their wisdom, Garcia says, is in the hundreds of thousands of happy families who have used their methods -- methods the Ezzos developed while raising their own children.

Neighbors and friends always approached Gary Ezzo to say, "Wow, your kids are so well behaved and polite," recalled Garcia. So in 1984, Ezzo began teaching an informal parenting class at church. The aim in the beginning was not to start a business, and according to Garcia, the Ezzos have never bought radio ads or passed out pamphlets. "Our best advertisement is our own kids," said Garcia. The program spread by word of mouth, from church to church across the country. Initially it had an overtly Christian theme, backed by biblical verse. But when pediatricians told them theydid not feel comfortable recommending it to all families, Garcia said, they wrote "On Becoming Babywise," which stresses the moral effects of their approach but does not mention God. For the Ezzos, choices a parent makes from the first day affect a child's character. "Child-centered parenting," where a parent responds to an infant's every desire, including the one to be fed on demand, may be well intentioned but fosters a "sinful disability called me-ism." Stevie, an imaginary child in one book who is raised this way, is an insufferable brat and a bully. He pushes other kids off the swing, steals toys and is generally "ill prepared for real life." He is, they claim, at higher risk for obesity and learning disability.

Some actions, such as walking or coloring, are morally neutral, the Ezzos write. "But the fact that a child has no moral understanding why food shouldn't be intentionally dropped from a highchair doesn't mean that we should hold back instructions and restrictions," they write. "Parents should insist on moral behavior long before their child is capable of understanding moral concepts."

Signs that an 8-month-old is rebelling include: "arching her back defiantly" in a highchair, touching her food, playing with the remote control. "Failure to correct a child today will lead to moral tyranny tomorrow," they write. Critics say that the Ezzos' warnings about moderation and flexibility are lost in the overall rigid focus on discipline, and they point to some of the messages posted on the Ezzos' Web site as examples of parents who follow their methods instead of common sense.

One parent complained that her 2-year-old remained disobedient despite "the constant stream of welts on her bottom from the glue stick," and wondered what more she could do. A father fretted that his 13-month-old "will go back and forth from isolation to the highchair for up to 4 hours and still refuse to sign 'all done' " -- an Ezzo hand signal method -- "even though she has done it before and knows exactly what we are asking of her."

Another complained that to her "astonishment," her 6-month-old had begun arching his back and fussing when she put him in a highchair. "It's so sad to see that they're really sinners," she concluded. "We're now on Day 5 of Timothy's retraining for naps," a Michigan mother wrote recently. "Yesterday was the most difficult day ever. I thought the screaming and crying for 45 minutes was difficult, but I could endure because I felt sure that this was the right thing to do. However yesterday, when I saw a little blood, it was hard not to panic and question my methods." After writing an editorial criticizing Babywise in a magazine of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Matt Aney said he was flooded with calls from nurses and other pediatricians complaining about Babywise parents who would not give up strict feeding schedules against medical advice. In eight months, Aney has collected about 300 summaries of medical files of babies with diagnoses of abnormally slow weight gain or "failure to thrive."

In one extreme case, a 5-month-old was taken to a hospital when he refused to eat. The parents, who were Christian missionaries who had taken an Ezzo class, were feeding the baby every four hours. ("A flexible 3-4 routine" is what the Ezzos recommend). In two months the baby gained only two ounces, far below the normal ounce per day. The baby spent the next seven months hooked up to a feeding tube. While the Ezzos emphasize the need for a schedule, "there will always be a few special circumstances," said Garcia. And their books give parents all the tools they need to assess those, such as diaper counts and growth charts. Still, he adds, "we found that women who don't stick to a routine run themselves ragged, and it doesn't have to be that way. There's hope, and our goal is to get you to enjoy your child even more."

Richelle Barrett, a Kansas mother who raised two of her three children without the program, said reading "On Being Babywise" actually mellowed her. "Babywise helped me to not be a clock watcher, and get over my perfectionist tendencies," she said. She recalled discovering that one of her sons had been fed off schedule at his nursery school. "I threw a fit," she recalled. "But now I've learned to consider other people's feelings." As a day-care worker, she has tried applying the Ezzos' methods but says the children's mothers often don't use the same approach. "It's frustrating to train them all day according to a higher standard and then have it all blown to pieces when mom walks in the door, but you just do the best you can and leave the rest to God," she wrote on the Web site.

Terri Smedley of Concord, N.C., has not had such a positive experience. She was initially excited when a friend gave her a Babywise book at her baby shower; Smedley has a seizure condition that requires her to get enough rest, and she thought having a baby who slept all night would help. But as soon as the baby was born, she found herself "obsessed" with schedules. "We were so stressed out," she recalled. "We were in bondage to our house. We never went anywhere because we were afraid we might get off schedule." After a few weeks she gave up and "enjoyed the baby much much more that way."

Ginny Hunt, a mother of three in Fredericksburg, Va., also cooled to the experience. Hunt took a video course in California on the method and remembers thinking, "Wow, if we don't do this we'll be putting our child in danger. Who knows what they'll grow up to be like?" She started using Babywise methods with her two older children but when her third came along, she didn't follow the recommended nursing schedule because she already had raised two children as demand feeders. But she did try to let her 4-week-old sleep through the night. Her epiphany came on the third night, when he cried for three hours. "Suddenly, I jumped up and rushed into the room and grabbed the baby and begged his forgiveness," she recalled, saying "I'll never do this to you again." She said she also became disturbed by the behavior of her older children. They were like "Stepford children," she said, asking, "Can I appeal your decision?" every time she said "No" to something. "Of course it worked. They were model children. But the cost was too high. I don't want them to look at me that way," she decided. "I don't want them to view God that way."

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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