Growing Families International

A controversial parenting program, often criticized for its strict and authoritarian methods.

Growing Families International (GFI), founded by Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo in the 1980s, began as a series of weekly parenting talks at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. The Ezzos, alarmed by what they perceived as the permissive parenting culture of the time, advocated for a return to what they considered biblically-based parenting practices. Their program, which included curricula such as “Preparation for Parenting” and “Growing Kids God’s Way,” quickly gained popularity and expanded nationwide​​.

Central to GFI’s teachings is the concept of “couch time,” a daily 15-minute period during which parents are advised to interact with each other without acknowledging their children, unless the child is experiencing a significant emergency. This practice, along with others promoted by GFI, is intended to reinforce the parent-child hierarchy and teach children about their place within the family unit. The Ezzos’ methods are rooted in their interpretation of biblical passages, which they apply to contemporary parenting dilemmas​​.

However, GFI and the Ezzos’ approach to parenting have not been without controversy. Critics, including health care professionals and former followers, have raised concerns about the program’s strict feeding schedules, insistence on parental control over infant sleep, play, and feeding times, and the potential for physical and emotional endangerment. In the late 1990s, approximately 100 health-care providers expressed concern to the American Academy of Pediatrics about the effects of following the “Babywise” method, one of the books authored by Gary Ezzo. Reports of infants experiencing health issues such as low weight gain, dehydration, and symptoms of depression after their parents adopted GFI’s recommended practices prompted calls for investigation​​.

Despite its widespread adoption and the backing of notable evangelical leaders, GFI’s practices have been criticized for exhibiting cultic characteristics, such as scripture twisting, authoritarianism, exclusivism, isolationism, and endangerment, both physical and emotional. These characteristics have led to public censure from Christian leaders and organizations, which argue that GFI’s methods diverge significantly from mainstream Christian doctrine and parenting advice​​.

In response to these criticisms, GFI and the Ezzos have defended their approach, citing its biblical foundation and success stories among followers. Nonetheless, the debate over GFI’s practices underscores the tension between religiously motivated parenting philosophies and broader societal norms and medical advice regarding child rearing​​​​.

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