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Bad Kids Inc.

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The market, in short, was primed for a relaunched, revived, reinvigorated version of Toughlove. But Feibush’s vision was not to build a better boot camp. Now more than ever, he needed to divorce the Toughlove philosophy from the boot-camp aesthetic—not because it was damaging, but because that niche was already being filled. What he would offer was an alternative to pulling kids out of their homes when they got into trouble. He would sell Toughlove as bringing no-nonsense parenting back into the home, with parents training themselves through a network of support groups. Furthermore, why wait for kids to get in trouble in the first place? This was the key to tapping the vein of parental anxiety. Feibush would shift the focus of the organization, ever so subtly, from troubled teens to troubled times. Toughlove would no longer be confined to the limited market of intervention; no, it would essentially create the “unquantifiably huge market” of crisis prevention.

Here is how the program is described on Toughlove’s trial Website:

The wonderful thing about the TOUGHLOVE® Program is that it is not only for families with children who are seriously acting out with drugs, sex, self-injury, crime or running away. The TOUGHLOVE® Program should be used by all families. While children who talk back and refuse to clean up their rooms are some of the behaviors that are “typical” of developing teens and do not sound the alarms, they should not be ignored. The mouthing off of today and a parent’s loss of authority can be the drug addiction of tomorrow. The time to educate yourself, gain support and take action is before reaching the height of crisis.

As for any lingering associations with boot camps and abuse, Feibush is confident that his media strategy will clear up any misconceptions. “You’ll see,” he says. “There will be that point where it turns the corner, goes over the mountain—where this is what Toughlove is. Matt Lauer, hypothetically speaking, is not going to introduce Dr. Zodkevitch and say, ‘Well, this is Dr. Ron and he has this book and he’s a triple-board-certified psychiatrist based in Beverly Hills.’ Chances are, before the break, Matt Lauer is going to say, ‘If any of you are parents of teenagers, then you probably need some tough love. And if you thought you knew what it was, stick around, because after the break, you’ll really find out.’ That’s what’s going to happen.”

Before Feibush could launch his media offensive, though, he had to get control of the Toughlove name. The problem was winning over the Toughlove old guard, who saw in Feibush someone looking to exploit parental insecurities for a buck—a “used-car salesman type,” as one put it. After months of back-and-forth, the board rejected his plans for turning the organization into a for-profit venture, unaware that Feibush is someone who believes that “while you always try to attract bees with honey, there are some people you can’t work with.” He and Dr. Ron went directly to the Yorks and made their case for the corporatization and rebranding of Toughlove. Given that the Yorks were drifting into their seventies and couldn’t afford to retire, the notion of making some money had understandable appeal. After a chatty dinner, Feibush and Dr. Ron won control of the Toughlove trademark. “They came to my house,” says Phyllis, “and Dr. Zod introduced Igal as the man who would create an empire.”

The launch of the revamped Toughlove is slated for the end of February. That’s when McGraw-Hill publishes Dr. Ron’s book, The Toughlove Prescription: How to Create and Enforce Boundaries for Your Teen. (“Are we going to sell as many books as The South Beach Diet?” asks Feibush with rhetorical bluster. “I don’t doubt that we will come close to, or surpass, their book sales.”) The book is designed to do two things: (a) get Dr. Ron on television and (b) draw parents into the meetings, which are mentioned as the “revolutionary concept” of the program. The meetings in turn will evolve into a self-perpetuating network of the sort of support groups that consoled the fictional Charters family, with Dr. Ron serving as the omniscient paterfamilias presiding over what he calls the “Toughlove extended family.” “Anyone can read a book,” explains the doctor. “But actually following through requires the kind of support you get in a group.”

What Toughlove seeks to eliminate is, to use the group’s vocabulary, the parental tendency to “rescue” their children. Instead, parents should force their kids to “face the consequences” of their actions. This is what Toughlove has always been about; but rather than dealing only with issues like overdoses and arrests and suicides, the new meetings might devote time to such weighty topics as messy rooms (the Toughlove prescription: See how the little rascal likes living in a pigsty) and raging hormones. (Dr. Ron suggests saying, “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.”)


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