Dr. Phil's new parenting line.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
Sept. 27 2004 6:55 PM

Family Values

Dr. Phil's opportunistic parental-advice franchise.

Book cover

"Let me tell you something, Mom," Dr. Phil lectured an "out-of-control" mother on a two-hour CBS special last week, taking his daytime doctor act to prime time. "You need to stop, and stop it right now." He was right; she was a family menace. But at least she knew it. You can't say the same about Dr. Phil in his new incarnation as the nation's "commando parenting" expert. There's a term for a guy who publicly humiliates not just parents, but kids, bombarding viewers with a high-decibel spectacle of real-life family dysfunction—all in the service of flacking a new book, Family First, that promises domestic joy and peace. It's a term Dr. Phil uses a lot: abusive.

Inside last year's antiobesity crusader—Dr. Phil's Ultimate Weight Solution soared to the top of the best-seller lists—it turns out there was a "reparenting" missionary dying to get out and indulge in some super-nannying. Entering his third solo TV season, Oprah's former sidekick was ready with a back-to-school bonanza: the CBS special heralding his new focus on the family (move over, Dr. Dobson). What more opportune moment than the launch of a book to burnish his child-rearing credentials and give viewers a mega-dose of the parenting turmoil he's now made the theme of his daily show? "Please help, Dr. Phil," is the regular plea of his frazzled guests. But when it comes to families, the truth is that Dr. Phil is an interloper who adds to the trouble.

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Parenting success requires that you be consistent, according to the doctor—which is just what his book and his show aren't. Family First is supremely cool-headed. The guiding assumption of Dr. Phil's "step-by-step plan" to help parents become "system managers" at home is that families are just that: systems, in which everybody—from hubby on down to baby—has a role to play. In place of Spockian empathy, we have corporate efficiency for the dual-income family whirlwind. The manual features seven parenting "tools," checklists to fill out, "audits" to conduct—and even a downloadable "behavioral contract" so parent and kid can spell out a disciplinary deal, in the hope that neither will get angry or whiny when a party fails to comply. "Accountability" along with "consistency" are the watchwords of the behaviorist approach. The Family First ad campaign touts the originality of the doctor's strategies, but don't be fooled. The book is yet another version of the managerial parenting approach that was born 40 years ago in Carl Rogers' communication techniques and has since blossomed into business guru Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families (1997) and countless knockoffs. All paperwork and plans and no anecdotes, Family First is pallid (except for the revelation of Dr. Phil's new trauma credential: His father, heretofore hailed as his hero, was an alcoholic). Between covers, Dr. Phil loses not just his Texan twang, but his tang.

It's in front of the cameras that a notably more combative Dr. Tough Love comes to life. The premise (or the pretense) of Dr. Phil's show is that he's dealing with families in search of peace—families, he asserted at the start of the CBS special, that "may be a lot like yours." But then his cameras zoomed in for a tour of households from hell. One featured a rampaging mother whose husband struck back at her by not speaking to their son for a year. Another family was terrorized by a kid who displayed "nine of the 14 characteristics of a serial killer." Too many toys and too much television in your house? For his lurid prime-time show, Dr. Phil found a girl so showered with stuff by her mother that every room overflowed and a boy whose mother let him sit in front of the television nine hours a day.

As the camera cross-cut from grainy footage of their household disarray (piles of plush animals, bleeped-out cursing) to the parents now perched on his studio stage, in chairs so high their feet swung like children's, Dr. Phil presided as he does on his daytime shows, as the confrontational domestic redesigner. Have a toddler who won't go to sleep? Just cut a bedroom door in half (and lock the bottom), he instructed the stunned parents of one difficult tyke; strip a destructive kid's room, he told another couple. Dr. Phil enjoys their bug-eyed response to his no-nonsense tactics and especially likes to make the men squirm at his sway with their wives. At one point, he smugly lorded it over a screwed-up dad who admitted he hadn't wanted to get involved with Dr. Phil: "Yeah, you and every husband in America."

But in parading troubled families across his stage, Dr. Phil sabotages his own parenting principles. In a prefatory "letter to parents" in Family First, Dr. Phil proclaims himself on a mission to empower America's "disconnected" families. He wants, he says, to help parents counteract the pernicious influences—not least "a massive and slick media"—that are corroding their sense of control in a frenetic world. But his show, by its very format, vamps up alarm about America's families. It makes parents look like chumps and turns children into hapless victims, compounding precisely the ills it aims to cure.

By sandwiching pathology in between potty tips (Dr. Phil touts a one-day miracle) and practical advice about picky eaters, etc.—and spicing the mix with the refrain that "you may be scarring your children every day without knowing it"—Dr. Phil's show suggests that every household in a run-of-the-mill mess could slip into chaos at a moment's notice. It's a disconcerting message, however you take it. Balk at the notion, and you feel smugly superior to your fellow Americans. Buy into it, and you're left panicked that the country is coming apart at the seams. Waver somewhere between the two poles, as I bet most viewers do, and you'll begin to wonder, thanks to a nudge from Dr. Phil, whether you too could "be raising a criminal."

And Dr. Phil's style of setting his hapless participants straight hardly inspires confidence. By now we're all used to watching adult volunteers getting prodded, scolded, and shamed in public (on Dr. Phil's upcoming docket are both presidential candidates). But the participants on Dr. Phil's shows aren't just another crop of reality show contestants, psyched for the exhibitionistic thrill of going through contortions in front of a huge audience and then getting their comeuppance (or the jackpot). You'd think Dr. Phil might ask himself whether addressing parents as if they were impulsive 2-year-olds is a good way to convey his message that regaining parental authority entails maturity. The spectacle of adults being bullied and breaking down doesn't seem particularly edifying for kids—especially if what they need most, as Dr. Phil suggests, is to be able to respect, and rely on, parental guidance.

But that's nothing compared to dragging children themselves into the spotlight, which Dr. Phil's "systems" approach requires. Like the judges on American Juniors, he does go easier on the kids, whom he generally sees as having been dealt a raw deal in a disorderly, divorce-prone world. Still, Dr. Phil gets them spilling their guts on video and in his studio—and whatever you think of the growing trend of underage reality TV stars, public child therapy is another story. It's bad enough that the 8-year-old boy on the HBO show Family Bonds got filmed crying as he learned to ride a bike. But Dr. Phil goes considerably further. On the CBS special, a 13-year-old was cornered by the camera as he tearfully confessed that he was sure his dad, who had refused to talk to him for a year, thought he was worthless. And the decision to film the subsequent father-son rapprochement as the two communed beside a stream seems indefensible. Eyes darting uneasily toward the unseen film crew, they looked as though they would have liked to crawl under the rocks they were sitting on.

Just listen to Dr. Phil himself, who has preached about "our duty ... to make sure we are counteracting rather than contributing to the craziness" that undermines the haven of the family in a media-saturated age. In Family First,he is blunt about the deference that children deserve: "Keep your problem-solving communications and exchanges private. Don't ever take your child to task in the presence of peers, relatives or siblings, unless they're directly involved in the situation." The crowning Tool No. 7 in Dr. Phil's parenting kit, he might recall, is "walk the talk."