On Becoming Childwise: Parenting Your Child from Three to Seven Years by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam, M.D. Multnomah Publishers, 261 pages

On Becoming Childwise, the latest entry in Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam's controversial series of child-rearing books, is an attempt to retool for mainstream readers the conservative Christian agenda that served them well in their previous best-selling guides for parents.

The book, aimed at parents of three-to-seven-year-olds, "is not intended to give all the answers or provide the reader with all he or she will ever need to know about the process of raising a child." With this disclaimer, Ezzo, a former pastor who heads a for-profit family ministry in California, and Bucknam, a Colorado pediatrician, launch a pre-emptive strike against the sort of criticism stirred up by On Becoming Babywise and Babywise II. These have become embroiled in controversy for advocating that newborns be put on strict feeding schedules, which the American Academy of Pediatrics has declared a potentially dangerous practice.

Despite their popularity with parents (On Becoming Babywise has sold more than 290,000 copies since it was published in 1995), the books have drawn censure from the AAP, the mainstream media, and, perhaps most tellingly, even from several evangelical Christian organizations. The Christian Research Institute, a respected Christian authority on cults, issued a statement that although Ezzo's for-profit organization, Growing Families International, is not a cult, it exhibits "a pattern of cultic behavior, including Scripture twisting, authoritarianism, exclusivism, isolationism, and physical and emotional endangerment."

The firestorm has left its mark on this sequel, which has been stripped of most biblical references as well as the strict disciplinary techniques--including the injunction to spank children with a flexible instrument--advocated in previous Ezzo works and seminars. The casual reader who plucks "Childwise" from the parenting shelves will encounter, at least initially, a soothing reasonableness. For instance, the authors advise new parents to relax. "You're going to do just fine," they counsel, "and so are your children." If this sounds familiar, it's because Dr. Spock provides the same reassurance in his sturdy classic, Baby and Child Care.

However, while Spock goes on to tell parents to trust their instincts, Ezzo and Bucknam launch an attack on overindulgent, feelings-directed, and child-centered parenting, which they see as the root cause of out-of-control kids. The antidotes to parental wimpiness are the 15 "Childwise Principles," which the authors expand on throughout the book. Each chapter ends with drill-type "Questions for Review," such as "Name the three universal goals of parenting," "Name the three subdivisions of honesty," and the like.

Of course, most moms and dads would agree with the authors' claim that parents want to enjoy their children, to raise them to be "a joy to be with and a blessing to those around them." But the portraits of youngsters who stray from the ideal may not strike parents as particularly worrisome. There's the child who insists on wearing purple shorts when Mom has selected yellow ones, the five-year-old who refuses to leave the playground, and the toddlers who leave "mushed crayons covering the floor, dolly clothes.heaped about, and naked Ken and Barbie dolls."

In these examples, which Ezzo and Bucknam characterize as horrors created by "child-centered" parenting, reasonableness gives way to an extreme preoccupation with order. (This is a book that spends four pages extolling the virtue of teaching a child to sit with his hands folded.) Must parents obsess over the color of a three-year-old's shorts? As for appropriate clothing for Barbie and Ken.well, life is fleeting. Yet the authors feel deeply that permitting a child to select his attire--or his breakfast cereal, his juice cup, or even where he sits during story time--promotes "addiction to choice." Left unchecked, this malady gives young children an "unwielding [sic] sense of power."

This is a book that spends four pages extolling the virtue of teaching a child to sit with his hands folded.

Such discipline issues occupy roughly half the book. Although the authors advocate "isolation" as a "disciplinary tool" for children as young as nine months, in this book they steer swiftly past the shoal of spanking, calling it a "private matter between parent and child [that] should be offered with love and within limits." (In a footnote they refer readers interested in "the proper use of spanking as a tool of discipline" to Ezzo's classes.)

Far more problematic, for this reviewer, is their insistence that the purpose of "correction" is for a child to achieve "true repentance," a state in which "the heart has been cleaned out." As an example of successful correction, Ezzo and Bucknam cite the case of an eight-year-old girl who blurts out what her older sister's birthday gift will be. Dad sits the child by herself in another room, to "morally process" what she has done. The little girl remains in "reflective sit-time" for an hour, until she produces an adequate confession: She has stolen her sister's "joy" and can never give it back. At this point even a devout opponent of corporal punishment may wish that Dad had simply swatted the child and put an end to her ordeal. For Ezzo and Bucknam, however, the scene is a parenting triumph, demonstrating that the mother and father have "invested moral truth" into the child's heart. Some readers may interpret this inquisitorial proceeding less generously.

Given that Bucknam and Ezzo based this book--as they did the "Babywise" guides--on the parenting seminars offered by Growing Families International, should a nonbeliever buy it? Many are doing so. The book currently ranks only slightly below Dr. Spock's in Amazon.com sales.

Perhaps the appeal of On Becoming Childwise is precisely its simplicity and certainty. The authors promise that their rules will impose order on chaos and shape children who won't rebel as teenagers. This is reassuring news for anxious parents.

In truth, some of the advice moms and dads will discover here is both commonsensical and useful. Moreover, many of the authors' "Childwise Principles" (tend to your marriage; follow the Golden Rule) are unassailable. Yet parents can find the same pointers--use positive reinforcement; comment on the behavior, rather than the child--in guides that don't glorify order and obedience as the highest goals of parenting.

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