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Babywise, dissected

It’s generally a bad idea to judge things based on hearsay.  And yet, I really hate the Ezzos and their stupid book Babywise just on reputation.  I’ve read enough excerpts and seen enough stories from healthcare providers about babies having Failure to Thrive on this program to make me very concerned about anyone using their advice.

But, in the interest of fully informed vituperation, I obtained a second-hand copy of Babywise.  I started reading it and picking it apart years ago, but then I needed a break.  Well, I’m back in fighting form and ready to proceed.  Obviously I admit that I have a strong prejudice against this going in, but if they make a decent argument I’m willing to change my mind.  And I have no doubt there’s some good ideas in there – even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes.  But the whole philosophical basis is of concern, and the arguments they’ve made so far are laughably weak and fallacious.

Reading the Preface, I’m seeing two themes. First, the focus is on results, results, results. And for them “results” means the baby sleeping all night long without any parental intervention, and the mother being well rested. No mention so far of meeting baby’s needs, fostering empathy and closeness, or listening to one’s mothering instincts. The other focus is on how they are right and everyone else is wrong. La Leche League gets called out specifically, and the tone seems to be, “Go ahead, look at what those other methods get you” – any mother who is stressed or tired, and any child that has any behavioral hiccup must be the result of inferior baby training methods.

For me, the biggest problem will probably be differences in basic assumptions. They assume that babies should sleep all night without any intervention, and that tired parents are the greatest problem to be avoided. I assume that babies are primates who are wired to need parental intervention quite often when young, and that this intervention brings benefits. It also becomes less frequent, on average, as the baby matures, and the key at the beginning is finding strategies to deal with the need for intervention, rather than trying to extinguish the baby’s calls for help.

Chapter 1 – Your Baby Needs a Family

First, let me note that Ezzo uses two “examples” of children raised in different ways. I put examples in quotes because they are not real children, just made up characters crafted to support Ezzo’s views. Chelsea has the perfect parents according to Ezzo – married, committed, and bound and determined to be her authority figures, not her friends. Marisa, meanwhile, is apparently the daughter of unmarried lesbian democrats who crave her constant approval and dare not thwart her. Got it? Let’s proceed.

Ezzo starts by painting all other parenting approaches as ineffectual, naive, and downright stupid: “You think [these parents] are too sweet. Too kind. They all have the best of intentions. If wishes and dreams were bright lights and lollipops, every day would be bliss. But there’s much more to parenting than just high hopes.”

He then goes on to lay down the prerequisite to parenthood: good old Judeo-Christian marriage. “The husband-wife union is not just a good first step towards child-rearing. It is a necessary one.” OK, pretty clear – traditional marriage is absolutely indispensable to good parenting. Except two sentences later, when he tells single parents they can use his method too. OK – marriage is completely vital, except it’s not really. I didn’t expect things to go off the rails this quickly.

(Credit where credit is due, I can see a lot of wisdom in promoting a solid pair-bond in parents to make kids feel secure and prevent excessive anxiety. A stable home is important to kids – not the most profound revelation, but I’d say they’re right as far as that goes.  Of course, they’re wrong about it having to be one man and one woman united by holy matrimony, though.)

Assuming you’re starting with a solid heterosexual marriage, Ezzo remarks, “To be a good mom or dad, all you need is to continue as before.” Seems like he is echoing a sentiment that seems prevalent in our culture – having a baby shouldn’t cause even a ripple in your life. Anything a baby does to disrupt your sleep, your schedule, or your leisure time is a problem to be fixed. This is confirmed when he trots out “Marisa” as a bad example. He describes her parents making room for her needs in their lives (not going out for a few months because she doesn’t do well with sitters, and not force-feeding her a food she rejects) summing up with, “Welcome to the circus.” Yes, these parents have done two things to accommodate their baby – mass chaos will surely ensue!

I’m coming to see that Gary Ezzo is extremely fond of the False Dilemma fallacy. In fact, it appears to be the foundation of all his parenting advice. Follow Babywise, and your child will be secure, cooperative, kind, good, charitable, honest, honorable and respectful. She will be “a joy to have around.” Fail to follow Babywise, and instead follow your instincts or “the La Leche League attachment-parenting style” and your parenting will be “disabling . . . emotionally crippling . . . devastating.” You will be catering to your child’s every whim, making her totally self-centered and selfish for the rest of her life.

Clearly Ezzo is unfamiliar with the actual tenets of attachment parenting, which emphasizes loving guidance, which can include using authority and behavior modification techniques. Surely there are parents out there who ascribe to a passive, lazy approach, or who consider their little darling a creative genius not to be squelched with the slightest redirection. But these are by no means essential to attachment parenting. More to the point, wherever attachment parenting falls on the continuum, it is patently true that there is a continuum of parenting choices ranging from the very permissive to the very authoritarian. There are a lot of points on the continuum between Ezzo and utter permissiveness, but he refuses to acknowledge them.

All in all, this first chapter paints a picture of an author terrified of losing control. The implication is that one must keep utter mastery of children, from the moment of their birth, or all will be lost and the child will be unruly, selfish, and miserable forever. To him, placing an infant at the center of attention and care in a family, even for a few weeks or months, is a recipe for disaster, never mind how utterly dependent newborns are.

There is another subtext to this chapter, but I’ll leave it for a separate post, as this is quite long enough already.

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About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on December 7, 2011, in Parenting and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. You are a brave woman. After all I have read and heard about Ezzo and his – ahem – “techniques” I couldn’t possibly stomach the reading of such material. Kudos to you for actually dissecting the book. It just confirms my original belief about the “man”.

  2. This guy is dangerous. He’s basically telling mothers that their instincts are all wrong and should feel guilty for not tending to them when it’s not “convenient”. Not to mention the complete dismissal of what we have learned about infant and child development. You really are a brave woman Christine!

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