The link between contraception and the Ezzo parenting method

by Dan and Kay Cummins

Faithful Catholics today recognize the destructive effects of contraception and decry the devaluing of human life brought on by an irresponsible approach to sex. The Pope has preached on these subjects quite powerfully in his encyclicals, and his language and tone suggest that they are among the “crisis issues” that will determine whether our civilization ceases to be a “culture of death” and becomes instead a source of life for the body and the soul.

But what is at the origins of our society’s love affair with contraception? Why is it so difficult even to imagine an American society that would refuse to practice contraception on moral grounds, when only forty years ago many married couples would have been ashamed to admit that they used artificial methods?   How did they become so acceptable to us?

The truth is that contraception was originally promoted as a way to lessen the burdens of family life, particularly the burdens of child-rearing. It was meant to help those poor parents who couldn’t possibly raise all those kids and still have time to be happy with each other; to enjoy an evening out alone, time with friends, the freedom to travel, etc.   With birth control, there would be fewer kids, more sex, more money, more time, more of everything. And the kids would be better off too, for the simple reason that Mom and Dad would be happier, less stressed, more patient and forgiving, wealthier, and more capable of spending time and attention on their children, since there would be only two or three instead of eight or ten. There would also be less divorce, as Mom and Dad would have no reason to abandon such an orderly, predictable, comfortable and care-free lifestyle.

We all know that things did not turn out this way. Contraception has only aggravated the problems it promised to solve. A standard explanation is that it made sex cheap; that men and women both became sexual predators, and that in this sort of atmosphere marriage and commitment made no sense. This is true, but it really only describes what happened after it became widely accepted, and why it has been so difficult to reverse the trend towards a contraceptive mentality. It does not go back to the root of the problem, which involves the question of how the idea of using contraception could have become so popular in the first place. It does not explain why Margaret Sanger was so successful in convincing American society to adopt the contraceptive mentality, and it does not explain why so many ordinary and well-meaning Christian couples today embrace contraception as a matter of course, without so much as a second thought .

To know why so many Christian couples seem incapable of seriously questioning contraception, we must discover what it is in their approach to child-rearing that makes contraception seem so appropriate and even necessary.  

Appearing on the scene of Christian family life in the last several years is a new child-rearing method promulgated by former Protestant minister Gary Ezzo. His books include Preparation for Parenting: A Biblical Perspective (for infants or newborns) or Babywise (secular version) and Growing Kids God’s Way (for toddlers through childhood). In our view, the Ezzo method represents just the sort of approach to family life that makes ordinary and well-meaning couples vulnerable to the contraceptive tidal wave and all the baggage that it carries in its wake. (This includes even some couples who consciously reject contraception, but are nonetheless being subtly influenced by a contraceptive mentality in child-rearing practices.)

Contrary to Catholic thought, Ezzo argues that God made man and woman completely sufficient unto themselves. In his Bible, men and women do not need children to complete their lives together, and marriage is not primarily ordered toward children. He makes this statement at the very beginning of his book, as a foundation and preparation for all that comes later on in the text: “Notice a very important exclusion: children were not present with Adam and Eve when God rested from His work of creation. After He had formed the woman, God authoritatively declared that His creation was very good. We believe that statement to be significant. If children were necessary to complete man and woman, God would have created them before making such a declaration. Therefore, the marriage relationship lacks nothing. Woman alone completes man, and man alone completes woman. Thus, the husband and wife form the nucleus of the family unit. Children do not complete the family,they expand it.” (Growing Kids God’s Way, p.62)

Contrast this with the Pope’s words in his Agenda for the Third Millennium: “The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that conjugal love ‘naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of their mutual giving as its fruit and fulfillment’” (p. 107). Compare Ezzo’s attitude with that of the Pope and the whole of Catholic thought, and the immediate difficulty of reconciling Ezzo with a Catholic view of family life becomes painfully clear.

Like a good Calvinist, Ezzo thinks of children as morally depraved and in need of stern discipline right from the very start of life, long before they have reached the age of reason and become capable of willfully engaging in immoral behavior. “A child is not born morally good but with a natural predisposition for moral waywardness.” (Growing Kid’s God’s Way, p.18) Even at this very early stage, then, Ezzo devalues the child, and in the process every human person. Thus for Ezzo, the primary question for parents is: how do we dominate our immoral children so as to make our lives more pleasant, convenient or even bearable?

To accomplish his task of enabling parents to more easily control their innately wayward children, Ezzo makes a variety of fairly predictable recommendations, including but not limited to, extremely rigid and potentially dangerous sleeping and feeding schedules,1 aggressive spanking when “necessary,”2 frequent isolation and separation of babies from parents,3 and religious instruction heavily weighted in favor of obedience, discipline and punishment. Some of these recommendations may have resulted in health problems for babies reared by parents using Ezzo. Well-documented cases of failure to thrive have been associated with Ezzo’s method, and a number of medical specialists have become concerned enough to write an open letter to the American Academy of Pediatrics about the problem.4

Apart from the medical problems associated with the method, the result of all of these highly questionable methods is a view of family life in which children tend to be seen as dangers and threats whose primary responsibility within the family is to resist their “evil” impulses so as to make and/or keep their parents happy. In the Ezzo family, children have a tremendous obligation and responsibility to serve their parents, while the parents’ responsibilities to the child seem to focus on what is convenient.

The parents’ crucial responsibility to offer the child intimate emotional and psychological affection,5 which the child naturally craves and needs in order to become a mature and capable adult, gives way to what Ezzo sees as a prior and far more important need for the presence of a strong moral disciplinarian in the home. He writes: “The duty of parents is to restrain the natural corruption by instilling into the child the self-disciplines of life.” (Growing Kids God’s Way, p. 23) This moral discipline, Ezzo implies, is what will give life and peace to the soul of the child, rather than constant affection and a simple willingness to “be there” for our children whenever they need us. And Ezzo does not stop with arguing that the affection and presence of parents will fail to accomplish something that moral discipline alone can achieve, he goes on to imply that the constant affection and presence of parents is actually a positive threat to the well-being of the child. “If you’re going to work from a biblical mind set, you need to understand how God responded to the cries of His Children. Praise God that the Father did not intervene when His Son cried out on the cross (Matthew 27:46). If He had stopped the process, there would be no redemption for us today. Our Heavenly Father’s non-intervention to His Son’s cry at that moment was the right response, bringing peace to all who trust in Him (Romans 5:1).” (Preparation for Parenting, p.122)

Supposedly, the baby who is nurtured and surrounded with affection and intimacy becomes too attached to his parents.   A baby too “loved” by his parents might forget that the world is full of suffering and adversity, and even our babies had better learn sooner rather than later that life is hard.

Experience teaches that the Ezzo principles are little more than prejudices, and that children raised in such harsh, disciplinary homes learn very little about charity, honesty, mercy and courage.6

All of these prejudices, in varying forms and degrees, might be said to shape and color the environment of an “Ezzo home.” We are aware of the danger of caricature, but the basic tendencies of Ezzo’s theory are clear. In our opinion, it is precisely in the sort of family environment encouraged by Ezzo that contraception becomes so attractive and makes so much sense. If order in the home and a certain distance and severity between parents and children become paramount goals, then why embrace the unpredictability of a house full of kids and the heartbreak of loving kids even when some of them lose their way and bring such pain into our lives? (For even God, the Perfect Parent, loses his children too, by their free will.) And why, if kids are all morally depraved the second they leave the womb, should we embrace their entrance into the world as unconditionally good no matter what the circumstances? Could it be, then, that it is a world-view like Ezzo’s that is at the root of our current troubles?

Dan Cummins recently received his Master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Dallas, and is currently working with Fidelity Investments. Kay (O’Meara, ‘88) Cummins is mother to Christian (4) and Olivia (3).

  1. “Your strategy will be made up of three basic activities that repeat themselves throughout the day: feeding time, wake time, and nap time. Please note: The order of events cannot be changed during the day. Feeding must be first; wake time must be second; and nap time is third.” (Preparation for Parenting, p. 101) ↑
  2. “The management responsibilities of the Master’s children include the use of controlled force. Our society calls it spanking; the Bible calls it chastisement. Chastisement means to inflict pain with controlled force on an individual to amend an inner attitude.” (Preparation for Parenting, p.209) ↑
  3. “A normal baby may cry as much as three hours total per day, and five to forty-five minutes in any session.”   “...leaving the room is often the best response.” (Preparation for Parenting, p. 128 and p.126) ↑
  4. Letter of Concern to the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding Preparation for Parenting “On Becoming Babywise”, Terner, Kathleen, Feb. 1997, 26681 Sotelo, Mission Viejo, CA 92692. ↑
  5. “In the family, which is a community of persons, special attention must be devoted to the children by developing a profound esteem for their personal dignity, and a great respect and generous concern for their rights. This is true for every child, but it becomes all the more urgent the smaller the child is and the more it is in need of everything…” (Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul ll, p.43) ↑
  6. St. Francis de Sales gave this advice to St. Jeanne de Chantal in disciplining her son: “Do all of this little by little, slowly, gently as the angels do, by pleasing suggestions and without harshness.” (Mothers of the Saints, by Wendy Leifeld, p.146). ↑

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