TBR: Family First

I’ve never read a book before because I hated the ad campaign.  But I did this time.  There was a big billboard at the metro station where I wait for my train every morning: "You couldn’t raise your children by the book because there wasn’t one…. until now."  This ticked me off immensely, but I decided that it wasn’t fair to give a book a negative review based only on the ad campaign, so I requested it from the library.

The book, in case you managed to escape the ads, is Family First: Your Step-by-Step Plan for Creating a Phenomenal Family, by television’s "Dr." Phil McGraw. 

However, when I got the book, much to my surprise, I discovered that I agreed with much of what McGraw says.  He opposes corporal punishment, supports listening to what your child has to say.  He promotes setting goals for your family, negotiation, and behaving in the ways that you’d like to see your children behave.  He discusses different types of personalities, and suggests adjusting your parenting style to match your child’s personality.  He tells you to limit your children’s television consumption and to establish family rituals.  Not exactly groundbreaking, but not horrifying either.

Perhaps the most controversial advice in the book is his advocacy of creating external consequences for whatever aspects of your child’s behavior is unsatisfying — whether it’s back talk, bad grades, or drug use.  He recommends figuring out what rewards and punishments are meaningful to the child, specifying exactly what behaviors are needed to get the rewards and avoid the punishments, and applying them accordingly until the desired results are achieved.  While he acknowleges that sometimes there are underlying causes that require professional help, he believes that in most cases it makes sense to address the "maladaptive behavior" directly.

I think there’s some truth to this argument.  I’m not in the camp that believes that any artificial incentives are wrong.  I used M&Ms to potty-train my son, and believe that it made all of our lives more pleasant.  And while I bitterly objected to my parents’ threat to not let me go to events that I valued as a teenager if I didn’t clean my room, my resentment was mostly because they’d spring this on me at the last minute.  (Hi Mom.)

But I aso think that there are major downsides to this approach, which McGraw glides past. Using such an approach — especialy for relatively minor misbehaviors — can poison a relationship and close down communications.  And, perhaps more importantly, I believe that such an approach can inhibit a child’s development of his or her own sense of judgement, which will be essential when the child is no longer under your control. 

I also found the tone of the book painful.  It’s basic parenting advice, but delivered as a lecture, assuming that you’ve been doing a bad job of parenting until now, and need to be scolded until you change your ways.  But then I thought about the ad campaign some more, and realized that’s exactly the audience that it’s aimed at: people who feel like their families are, at best, not living up to their expectations, at worst, totally out of control.  It’s aimed at people who want someone to give them a simple list of things to do and promise them that it will turn things around.

Even while finding that tone irritating, I appreciate McGraw’s message that good parenting isn’t something that’s innate in some people and not in others.  He believes that everyone can be a good parent, and that it’s a learned skill.  He notes that many people were imperfectly parented themselves, and bear the scars, but believes that it is possible to choose to transcend those wounds.

I’m going to let McGraw have the last word today.  In the epilogue, he writes:

"I ask only that you weigh carefully that which I have suggested here.  If it will not withstand vigorous challenge, then you should reject it.  I believe that Families First will withstand the challenge, and I believe in you and your ability to make a difference by using the concepts and action plans in your own family.  But if you do disagree, then please seek answers elsewhere.  If you totally reject everything I have said to you in this book but it causes you to have a heightened sensitivity and awareness and to find better-fitting answers elsewhere, answers that improve your family life, then I have been successful."

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