Being wise parents means being open to learning from different perspectives

by Michael and Alicia Hernon

There have been many times in our life as parents when we wished we could turn to someone and say “Tell me what to do in this situation!” We remember feeling overwhelmed when we realized, after the birth of our first child, that we were the ones responsible for making the decisions regarding her welfare. It’s not as simple as we would like it to be. In the end, no one can tell you how to be a good parent to your child. With grace and mercy from God you have to figure it out yourself, because every child has different needs and responses and so does every parent.

Before our first child was born we read lots of books on childbirth and on infant care, including some that came from the “attachment parenting” philosophy, as well as Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo’s method book Babywise. We also listened to his popular Ezzo tape series: “Preparation for Parenting.”   These resources were very helpful, though confusing at times because each presented its theory in a way that said “This is God’s plan for family life.” The conflicting information made it difficult to know what was best to do.  

We came to the conclusion that neither side in the debate has the whole truth. It reminds us of studying psychology in college. The personality theories of Erikson, Freud, Piaget, Rousseau, and the rest, all have some truth in them, but each is incomplete, because human understanding is limited. Each psychologist saw only from his perspective, as we all do, which could never capture the whole truth about human personality.

In parenting we have found the same thing. We didn’t passively accept everything a given author said; instead we took a bit of this and a bit of that, and mixed it with our own instinct and wisdom, in making decisions about what we were going to do for our own children.  

Kay and Dan Cummins wrote an article (Vol.III, issue 6) sharply criticizing the Ezzo method, which puts a strong emphasis on scheduling, order and discipline in child-rearing. This method has come under scrutiny by many groups including attachment parenting advocates such as the Couple to Couple League, who, like the Cummins, consider it dangerous and un-catholic.  

There are certainly things in Babywise with which we don’t agree. But do we believe it was valuable in helping us to make decisions about how to care for our infant? Yes, definitely.  

In the attack against the Ezzos and their organization we have heard many valid criticisms, but we have yet to hear anyone articulate convincing reasons why this can be very helpful and why it is so attractive to so many. We do not believe that it is attractive because it feeds the fire of our naturally selfish nature. For some it may, just as those who believe that they should not be separated from their children for a second can slip into the pride of believing that they are the only ones in the world who can comfort their child. We are all open to error.

Though the Ezzo’s ideas have some errors in them, we think it would be unwise to dismiss all of what they have to say. We think Babywise very helpfully addresses the need babies (like the rest of us) have for order, or predictability. Think about it. What would your life be like if you didn’t know when you would wake up, when your food would be ready, if you would go to work or go to church or stay home all day? Some people are more organized than others, but most families have some sort of routine that they follow in eating and sleeping and working. Why is it selfish to have an infant follow that same sort of routine? It really isn’t.

Now, where we and most people differ with the Ezzos is on how to get your infant to fall into that routine. On some points they are too rigid for our taste, but they are not totally off the mark. What people who haven’t read the book seldom realize is that the Ezzos explicitly caution against the very rigidity and extremism they are so often accused of. For instance, they say in Babywise 2:   “As we stated in Babywise, its important that you avoid the extremes in parenting…Mothers and fathers who parent in the extremes create problems when they elevate their parenting philosophy above what is best for the child at any given moment. That is, they elevate the rule of behavior above the principle the rule represents. ..the most notable aspect of a legalist is that they reject context.   There will be times when the context of a situation will dictate a temporary suspension of some general guidelines. As a parent, you are endowed with experience, wisdom and common sense. Trust these attributes first, not your emotions at a given moment or the rigidity of the clock.” (Babywise Vol.2, p.20)

Furthermore, the Ezzos are not the only people in the world who suggest putting babies on some kind of routine. We know plenty of people who do this without having read Babywise at all, so we don’t think they are saying something revolutionary or evil, as some imply.

As parents seeking wisdom we should be able to read what the Ezzos have to say, and separate what agrees with our values from what doesn’t. To dismiss them simply because they are Protestant, or because they see nothing wrong with contraception is prejudiced. It is saying that our Protestant brothers and sisters can teach us nothing, and for that matter, secular sources can teach us nothing because they do not share our view of human nature. If we as Catholics are grounded in the Church’s teaching on man then we shouldn’t be afraid to read the ideas of those who do not have the fullness of truth.  

The Catechism gives no specific directives on how to raise our children, it gives us the outline and we must fill it in ourselves according to our own values and needs. Why can’t we explore other sources for wisdom without losing our Catholic footing?

In addition to Babywise the Ezzos have also put out a 20 week series called Growing Kids God’s Way. This series doesn’t go into infant care, but discusses parenting in general. The videos are meant to be seen with a group and there are reading and group discussions beginning and ending each session. Two years ago, after our second child was born, we attended this series with a number of other Catholic couples in Steubenville, some with older families, some with younger. It was very helpful to go through this as a group, because together we could sift through the material, and discuss what agreed with the Church’s teaching and what didn’t. We could keep each other from falling into error, while gaining wisdom from what we heard.  

Our group found very little in the series that contradicted what we believe as Catholics. The majority of the information, say 95%, was very helpful to us and in many ways it has made us better parents. For example, Chapter 4 is on “How to say ‘I love you’” which discusses how each of us have a different “love language,” children included, and when we discover it we can love each other better. The Ezzos also present a beautiful chapter called “The Father’s Mandate,” which discusses the unique and extremely important role of a father in the lives of his children. Mr. Ezzo also provides, at the end, a flow chart for discipline.   This chart is extremely helpful in showing the correct way to guide your children and how to provide consequences, positive and negative, for their behavior. It includes such elements as instruction, verbal praise, encouragement, verbal reminder, dialogue questions (to ensure understanding of directions) admonishment, related consequences, the difference between foolishness (which is punishable) and childishness (which is not), logical consequences and yes, corporal punishment. This is very different from the picture the Cummins presented of a rigid method using “aggressive spanking… and religious instruction heavily weighted in favor of obedience, discipline and punishment.” In contrast we have found the Ezzo’s explanation of discipline to be an excellent resource, for the author’s realize, as most parents do, that disciplinary issues are not always black and white.

Another point on which we differ from the Cummins is their attack on the Ezzos assertion that children do not complete a family, but expand it. We agree with this and we see no contradiction between it and our Catholic faith. When we were betrothed the priest said that when we became husband and wife we would be a family. Infertile couples are still a family. A family with one child is as much of a family as one with ten children. Yes, as Pope John Paul II says love is fruitful and children spring from that love, how does that say that children are the center of the family? They are not and cannot be. They are part of the family. The Ezzos assertion that the husband and wife are the center of the family is very true, for if that relationship is weak, or nonexistent, the whole family suffers irreparably. Moms and dads need to make their relationship a high priority because they will be together for their entire lives, while their children will move on to pursue their own vocations. If the children are the center of the home, what happens when they aren’t there anymore? This doesn’t seem to be God’s plan.

Also, the greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother. Considering that statement in light of our own experiences growing up and the truth in it is evident. Why is it so wrong for Mr. Ezzo to point this obvious fact out? He never says children are not important, just that the whole sense of family is contingent on the husband-wife relationship and this relationship must be cared for if we intend to be good parents.

We understand why the Cummins take issue with the statement that children have a natural disposition for waywardness, but as we said in our discussions when we went through the series, this is just an example of their Protestantism coming out. The Catholic interpretation of this would be that we are born good with a fallen nature.  

As Catholics we recognize that between baptism and the age of reason there is a period of baptismal innocence, but as any of you out there with toddlers can attest, children need discipline and guidance even during this time. This fact in no way devalues children. They need guidance like all of us. To say that Ezzo’s primary question is “How do we dominate our immoral children so as to make our lives more pleasant and convenient” is unjust, and betrays a strong bias against the Ezzos.   We would say that the Ezzo’s primary question is “How do we communication moral truths to our children so they will get to heaven?” Peace for the parents is a by-product of this, but it is not the goal.

Finally, we do not see how putting your baby on a routine, or teaching them moral truths through discipline and love leads one to have a contraceptive mentality. We must say the Cummins article did make us examine our motives in guiding our children and that is good, but we do not believe that desiring order in our home makes us selfish parents.

We have 3 children under 4 and we have to initiate some kind of order in our life or we would be unable to care for all of our children or each other.  

We can see that having a predictable life makes us more open to having children because they are not seen as disrupters of our family, but welcome members in it.

There are very few issues as personal as the way we raise our children. All of us need to be very careful about making parenting issues black and white, because the reality is none of us will parent exactly alike, but our children could all turn out to be holy men and women. The danger comes when we start believing that our way is the only way and begin condemning those philosophies that are at odds with our own. We would all be better off if we examined other ideas with an open mind, and who knows, we could find ourselves being better parents.

Alicia (Doman, ‘94) and Michael (‘94) Hernon live in Steubenville. Michael is Assistant Director of Financial Aid at FUS.