Smack the child, praise the Lord!

A Californian couple believe babies should be beaten into obedience. Now they are bringing their methods to Britain. And childcare expert Penelope Leach is leading the battle to keep them away. By Mary Braid
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Gary and Ann Marie Ezzo have caused a storm in the United States with their controversial programme for bringing up baby the Lord's way, with critics claiming their extreme views have resulted in infants being rushed to hospital suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration.

A month before they wash up on British shores, bringing their strict child-rearing "first-time obedience" programme in which even babies get a taste of corporal punishment, the evangelical couple from California are already being roundly denounced. "I don't want them over here speaking to our parents," says the British child-care expert Penelope Leach, already the Ezzos' arch enemy on the US conference circuit.

Leach makes no apologies for sounding draconian about the Ezzos, whom she condemned this week at a BMA children's conference in London. "Everyone has a right to their opinion until it amounts to cruelty to babies," she says. "What they say should carry a government health warning."

The antipathy is mutual. Gary Ezzo claims parental indulgence has brought "moral decline" to the US and Britain. He sees Leach as the devil's agent and will, in turn, denounce her child-centred philosophy at public appearances in Britain next month.

The Ezzos look benign enough, if a touch over-starched. Mrs Ezzo, a nurse, favours chaste Puritan lace collars and her husband a scrubbed, closely shorn Mormon look. A few years ago the couple were nobodies. Then they started parenting classes at their local church, apparently because their own well-disciplined brood was the envy of the congregation.

Business has boomed as American parents have clamoured for the Ezzos' heavily Christian teaching materials, and their secular books in which God gets hardly a mention on the journey to the lucrative wider market. Their promise of well-behaved children, who sleep through the night, has created the multimillion-dollar "ministry" Growing Families International.

It is easy to see why the Ezzos are reviled by the child-care establishment. In On Becoming Babywise, a best-seller in the States, they decree that babies as young as eight months can be taught high-chair manners, such as special Ezzo "signs" for "please" and "thank you", and to sit up straight with their arms by their sides. They recommend that baby's arms are held in position until the message sinks in.

That the difference between right and wrong cannot yet be appreciated should not prevent morally degenerative behaviour being stamped out, so parents must stop babies banging on high-chair tables, flipping over plates and wilfully arching their backs, by swotting baby's hand or squeezing it until "it causes discomfort".

It is best to obey at the earliest opportunity for the corporal punishment stakes rise as baby grows. At 18 months children should be smacked for poor table manners, with a plastic spatula to "inflict pain but not break bones or damage skin tissue". And if that causes tears, mothers should not worry because "God did not intervene when His Son cried out on the cross". The Ezzos advise parents to put themselves first and make baby fit their routine, which might explain why their message drifted from the pews to the mass market.

"Teach the child to obey according to the character of true obedience, immediately, completely, without challenge and without complaint," they advise, warning parents not to cuddle too much or to follow the Leach principle of feeding on demand unless they want to be slaves to their children. They recommend feeding every four hours and offer a method that promises to have a new baby soon sleeping through the night.

The Ezzos have horrified child development experts by advising mothers to leave even six-month-olds alone in their playpens for up to 30 minutes, twice a day. To avoid "unhealthy attachment", mothers must stay out of sight and persevere even through tears. "[If left to cry] your baby will not lose brain cells, experience a drop in IQ or have feelings of rejection that will leave him manic depressive at age 30," states Babywise. Their strictest - and surely most unrealistic - dictum is that a child not potty trained by two and a half must be made to take responsibility for cleaning up its own mess.

According to Arthur Roderick, of the Maranatha Foundation for Christian Education Europe, the Swindon-based evangelical organisation which is bringing the Ezzos to Britain, the couple are misunderstood and misrepresented. He claims to have seen nothing about toddlers cleaning up their own mess or any other extreme advice in the materials the Ezzos have sent to him. Of allegations that children on the Ezzo programme have been hospitalised, Mr Roderick says the Ezzos cannot be responsible for "disciples that go ten times further" than they recommend.

The couple, who say the British press is prejudiced, are not giving interviews before they arrive on 27 October but Mr Roderick says they have the support of mainstream American evangelical churches. It is not so. The Ezzos have divided evangelical Christians. Their former church has distanced itself from their programme and leading Christian figures claim they are distorting scripture. The American Association of Paediatricians has received a flood of complaints about the couple, and is currently investigating their methods.

Earlier this year The Washington Post printed some worrying messages posted on the Ezzos' website which suggested their programme was being over-zealously applied, especially by those who seem to believe it carries the Lord's endorsement. One exasperated mother complained that her two- year-old was still disobedient despite the welts on her bottom.

A father said that even after discipline his 13-month-old daughter was still refusing to give the Ezzo sign for "all done" after eating, and a mother said she was astonished that her six-month-old had begun to arch her back in her high chair. "It's sad to see that they are really sinners," she wrote.

While Leach insists that the most worrying aspect of the Ezzos' theory is that it interferes with normal child development, one mother told The Washington Post that she felt the Ezzo programme had turned her offspring into "Stepford children". But every attack on the Ezzos brings a little flurry of complaints from American parents who claim their advice transformed a difficult baby.

Mr Roderick, who supplies teaching materials to 40 independent evangelical schools in Britain and 400 Christian families who teach their children at home, is the only distributor in Britain of the Ezzo programme. He swears by it. His own nine grandchildren - all under four - are on it and well-behaved. Corporal punishment, he insists, is only a small element in the philosophy but a useful deterrent for "a wayward or sinful child". Without proper discipline, he argues, we will always have "13-year-old boys impregnating 12-year-old girls".

Surely it is an overreaction to think that the programme, despite its popularity in America, will reach the mainstream in less loopy Britain? Leach warns against complacency. Smacking is still popular with British parents - about 75 per cent still smack the under-ones. Offering a simple message in complicated times, the Ezzo programme, Leach warns, could well find a home on deprived, desperate sink estates, especially when Tony Blair's government has such "unreasonable expectations" of parents.

Rachel Hodgkin, senior policy officer with the National Children's Bureau and a supporter of the anti-corporal punishment campaign Epoch, urges the Government to condemn the Ezzo methods ahead of the visit. "As far as I can see, it is all about breaking a child's spirit as early as you can," she says. "It should be taken seriously. I think the Department of Health should come out and say that this amounts to emotional and physical neglect of babies."