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Bad Kids Inc.


The movie was called Toughlove, and it told the story of Jan and Rob Charters, two middle-class parents devastated by the behavior of their teenage son, Gary (played by Jason Patric in his first TV job). Gary is the embodiment of every parent’s ultimate fear: a Suburban Everyteen who has morphed into a drug-using, crime-committing, school-skipping runaway. Distraught, the Charters look for answers in Toughlove, a parenting organization that advocates a vaguely militant approach to getting “out of control” teens back in line. The parents attend Toughlove meetings, listen to the stories of other Toughlove parents, absorb Toughlove wisdom. When Gary is arrested, the Charters refuse to bail him out. Nor do they answer his calls. Nor, when he knocks on the door, do they allow him back into the house. By the end of the film, Gary’s girlfriend, whose mother is also a member of Toughlove, is dead of an overdose, but Gary, fortunately, has seen the light. “I know I want to come back, and I know what the rules are,” he announces at the climax, which just so happens to occur on Christmas morning.

Toughlove, it turned out, was not the concoction of some neocon screenwriter. David and Phyllis York, two family therapists, founded the organization in 1979, after their daughter held up a cocaine dealer and they decided not to bail her out. In its heyday, the nonprofit had 1,500 support groups and a membership of some 40,000 flummoxed parents. The Yorks’ book, Toughlove, blurbed by Ann Landers, sold 1 million copies. And “tough love,” the term they coined and trademarked, became permanently lodged in the pop-cultural lexicon.

“I tend to be a little bit of a sponge,” Dr. Ron often says. “I like to learn. I think anyone can teach me something.” And so, his curiosity stoked by the TV movie, he decided to check out a Toughlove meeting. Inside a high-school gym, he found more than 200 Toughlove parents sharing stories and comparing strategies. Dr. Ron was impressed. He started sending patients to the meetings, “because they could get the kind of support I couldn’t give them once they stepped out the door.” In time, he grew close to the Yorks: “I fell in love with them—they became a second set of parents to me.” Eventually, he joined Toughlove’s board of directors and became one of its largest donors, giving tens of thousands of dollars to help the nonprofit stay afloat.

Worried about your teenage daughter’s raging hormones? Dr. Ron suggests saying to her, “You are not allowed to have sex. As I explained to you, there are risks and consequences with sexual activity. I will not help you out of the consequences of your actions.”

But Toughlove’s problems were not merely financial. The name, while catchy, was always controversial and became increasingly associated with teen boot camps, kicking children out of the house, even physically abusing them. The stigma came about, in large part, because the Yorks were never quite able to master the talk-show circuit. “Phil Donahue introduced us—before we came out—as people who believed in throwing kids out of the house!” recalls a still-frustrated Phyllis. “From then on, everyone started to mistake ‘tough’ for ‘rough.’ ” Furthermore, they didn’t have a publicist to explain that if you want credibility, it’s not wise to appear on Geraldo. And if for some reason you do end up on Geraldo, you want to make absolutely certain that you don’t end up siding, as the Yorks somehow did, with a mother who “set animal traps to catch her son” and another who “chained her daughter to the radiator.”

By 2001, Toughlove was foundering. Membership was declining, chapters folding. Most of the support groups still in session had devolved to Kaffeeklatsches consisting of three to five parents moaning unproductively in church basements. What Dr. Ron needed was an infusion of cash to get Toughlove off life support. A believer in family bonds, he called his father back in Queens for advice. His dad mentioned little Igal Feibush from Dix Hills, on Long Island, whom Dr. Ron used to babysit when they were both boys. Feibush, he learned, had grown up to make millions in real estate, owned an apartment on Central Park West, had his wedding covered by the Times, the works. Though the two hadn’t spoken in decades, Dr. Ron called him up immediately.

“Toughlove?” Feibush said over the phone when Dr. Ron asked if he’d ever heard of the organization. “Is that like some sort of boot camp?”

Parenting trends don’t make much sense. When you break them down, they have a lot in common with those in fashion and politics, coming in generational cycles that merge nostalgia for the past with present-day insecurities. That Toughlove was so intrinsically linked with boot camps did not deter Feibush. He thought the cultural pendulum was beginning to swing back in Toughlove’s retro-disciplinarian direction. He spots evidence of this simmering “movement” everywhere: on television shows like Nanny 911 and Supernanny and Brat Camp, in newspaper articles about how “parent coaches” are a growing industry, in the rise of Dr. Phil as an anti-sentimental relationship guru, and even in the quiet boom and cultural acceptance of boot camps themselves. “Boot camps are now a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Feibush says, admiringly. Such institutions, once fringe compounds populated by the Michael Skakels and Sally Jessy refugees of the world, had reemerged as a cheeky plot line on Desperate Housewives. The way Feibush saw it, the Toughlove worldview was being embraced by the mainstream, only no one knew that it was the Toughlove worldview.

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