This is a very hard blog post to write. But in order for the next post to make sense, I think I need to face the music.
In the Spring semester of 1999 at Indiana University, I took Children and Religion with Robert Orsi. The best thing I learned from Professor Orsi was how to conduct a class discussion; he was a whiz — a natural. And the texts he assigned still ring out in my memory. All in all, a very successful class.
But my project, now, is an embarrassment. I think admitting that might be good for other grad students, good for scholarship in general, good for understanding where I stand now, and good for imagining where I might stand in the future. It’s all very humbling.
Nine years ago, all the rage in conservative Evangelicalism was a little-known man named Gary Ezzo who claimed that his child rearing expertise was “God’s Way.” What had started as a “parenting class” at John MacArthur’s church became nothing short of an empire.
All my contemporaries were having babies (while I was “nursing” textbooks and endnotes), and they were all talking about Gary Ezzo and his approach to “Growing Kids God’s Way.” I decided to pick this trend for my project for Orsi’s class. Seemed obvious enough.
I will reluctantly show you the paper. Go ahead — you can read it. But before you do . . . let me just say — I was wrong. As a mom who now calls herself an Attachment Parent — Ezzo’s ridiculous, muddled-headed foil to his seemingly commonsensical, Godly parent — I know I was wrong. My denotative descriptions of Attachment Parenting are pretty fair, I would say now, but the moral conclusions I make are just incorrect. Sure — there may be parents who would fit that negative description, but that would be like judging all Americans on the antics of Paris Hilton.
I won’t torture you or me by going line by line over all my errors. Instead I’ll just back up a tad and identify the reasons for the problems:
- My method was so totally new, and I was completely unprepared. I was attempting to do an ethnography — what seemed to me to be a rhetorical analysis of regular conversations. I didn’t know how to collect those conversations, and I was running into many brick walls. I didn’t know my way around or over them.
- Because I was having trouble finding people who were willing to talk to me, more than a few of my subjects were close friends. I wanted to tell their story as best I could. I wanted to be more than fair, I think, and I wanted them to think I was being fair.
- There was so much criticism of the medical problems in Ezzo that I really couldn’t parse it all. There I was — a Ph.D. student in rhetoric and religion and an Associate Instructor. I was just plain overwhelmed, and I had to draw the line somewhere. I wasn’t trained to judge medical info, and so I just cast that aside for this project. I said to myself, “I’m not a doctor. I can’t interpret all that. I can only talk about their words.”
- And quite honestly, I wasn’t a parent. What did I know about any of this stuff?
- I could only get the secular, watered-down version of Ezzo’s plan from Babywise. I couldn’t really get the comprehensive Ezzo text — Growing Kids God’s Way — because they wouldn’t let it out of “trained hands.” I’d have to take a big series of classes in order to get at it, and that’s something a busy grad student can’t do. Sure — alarm bells went off at that point, but I was desperate to think the best about this organization.
- I have to repeat and unpack that last sentence: I was desperate to think the best about this organization. Every good fundy knows that we have to field more than a normal share of criticism. It doesn’t take long in your adult life to realize that the media can really be pretty sloppy in dealing with the facts. As you grow up in the subculture, you catch the idea that the real problem is that people inside the group just don’t have the words to express themselves or the arguments to defend themselves. They need an apologist, right? A loyal, er . . . rather an empathetic, skilled apologist. That idea of loyalty pushes any criticism out of bounds as simply unreasonable griping and immoral living. I was still learning that at this point in my study. At IU, I researched many, many approaches to social change, and it seemed to me that those inside any culture were more effective at enacting social change than those outside (i.e. Martin Luther King does more than Malcolm X. Or so it could be argued.). And I was fully, loyally inside. I needed to prove to the Ezzo community that I was inside. And that meant to deliberately choose to think the best of the organization (and push all criticism outside the boundaries).
- I took Ezzo’s criticism of Attachment Parenting at face value. I shouldn’t have. He presents a very, very skewed view. His unflattering snapshot of attachment parents, I now know, more closely represents Alfie Kohn’s advice more than William Sears’.
- I didn’t know child-rearing literature enough to know that the things I was praising in his text were not at all new to him — baby signing, including children in the family, anticipating and scripting solutions, love languages, etc. That all exists elsewhere and in qualified sources.
- And . . . unfortunately, I let myself get bullied. Early in my research, a GFI employee called me and yelled — yes, yelled — at me for even thinking about doing this project. In escalated tones, he bellowed, “Why should we trust you? Why should we think you’re going to be fair?” And I shrugged and said, “You can’t. You just have my word is all. I’m a fellow Christian, and I want to do the right thing.” After hanging up, my mind was reeling. How can I communicate that I’m not out to get them? This is a test case for me. If I am going to write the dissertation that I want to write, I have to be empathetic (i.e. prove my loyalty) to my research subjects. . . . You can see why this was a tough crossroads.
So there you have it. For what it’s worth.
What’s amazing to me now is how God — in spite of my goofy, short-sighted conclusions — was already using my error to make something beautiful. I’m just amazed at that. But I’ll save it for the next post.
If I ever run into Prof. Orsi, I want to tell him all this. I don’t think he’d mind, but he’s a very busy and important man. I don’t know if he’d remember. I know he was a little befuddled by my conclusions. So am I now. And I’d like to tell him how God used him and that class and my errors for His best.
More to come. . . .
[tags]Children and Religion, Robert Orsi, Gary Ezzo, Babywise, Attachment Parenting, William Sears, Empathetic Rhetorical Criticism[/tags]