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Bad Kids Inc.


The men behind the rebirth of Toughlove: Dr. Ron Zodkevitch, left, and Igal Feibush.  

The point is not the wisdom or originality of these parenting ideas, it’s the network—the communal experience, the nebulous currency of “support.”

“Misery loves company” is how Feibush describes the appeal. “But not in a bad way, you know?”

The meetings, of course, are also the “revolutionary concept” of Toughlove as a business proposition. Parents will first pay a $99.99 annual membership fee—which also gives them access to Toughlove’s Website. (“iVillage meets WebMD,” promises Feibush, with chat rooms, 24/7 virtual support groups, and a rotating series of “expert” columnists.) Then there are the fees for the weekly meetings themselves. And, of course, at those meetings there will be a variety of products to purchase, from audiotapes to workbooks to drug-testing kits. The total cost per family is not high—just a few hundred dollars a year, far more reasonable than weekly therapy sessions or boot-camp tuition. Like Citi Habitats, which aimed to corner the market on middle-class apartment hunters, Toughlove’s success will rely on getting a lot of people to spend a little.

Why wait for kids to get in trouble in the first place? Toughlove would no longer be confined to the limited market of intervention. It would create the “unquantifiably huge market” of crisis prevention.

Come March, a pilot program introducing Toughlove to parents will be tested in the Broward County, Florida, school districts, a cross-pollination that Feibush hopes to mimic across the nation—using public schools, in effect, to feed the company with concerned parents. Ideally, those who give the program a shot will stay with it for years, climbing the “ladder of change,” an ascent that begins with “accepting denial” and ends with “interdependence” on the group, which has become a “second family” and which members now have a responsibility to “help support.” According to Toughlove’s business plan, which Feibush calls his “executive dashboard,” the company is hoping to gross about $235 million annually within the next three years. It might sound like an overly ambitious sum for a start-up, and yet to meet these goals Feibush needs a following of just 250,000 dedicated members—those willing to spend between $300 and $1,000 a year—a mere 1 percent of the population of parents of teens. And that is only the beginning. Once the Toughlove brand is reestablished, Feibush hopes to franchise it: Toughlove for Tots, Toughlove for Relationships, Toughlove for Business, Toughlove for anyone who likes the expression “tough love.”

“Our business model is Weight Watchers,” says Feibush. “There’s a Weight Watchers in every community, right? It’s a $5.5 billion company. What they sell is education and support. It’s one of the biggest secrets on Wall Street. We are going to be the Weight Watchers of parenting.”

The Weight Watchers of parenting is being launched into the world at a peculiar time: Kids, by all accounts, are behaving better than they have in years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, drug and alcohol use among teens has been consistently declining over the past five years. And sex? Abortion rates are down, use of contraceptives up, leaving oral sex the only ground in which those with alarmist leanings can get any traction. It’s an inverse relationship: Parents perceive an increase in destructive behavior even as such behavior is in decline. “There’s a sense,” says Dr. Richard Gallagher, a psychologist at New York University who specializes in parenting, “that adolescents are involved in more sexual activity and more drug use than they actually are.”

So if it’s not objective reality, parents’ willingness to believe in what Dr. Ron calls “today’s threatening culture” must be driven by something else. Sociologist Elliott Currie, author of The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence, which documents the rise of a “neo-Darwinian” approach to raising kids, says it’s all about status panic. “Especially in certain more middle- and upper-middle-class sectors, it’s become very important for a kid to be close to perfect,” he says. “We want trophy kids the way we used to want trophy wives and trophy cars. So if anything goes wrong, it sets off this panic, and we see a hypervigilance about deviance.” With parents afraid that any infraction is a harbinger of worse problems to come, he says, “shooting up heroin and talking back to Grandpa become collapsed into one thing.” And, Currie points out, establishing this mind-set as the norm is in the economic interest of those whose businesses thrive on the idea of teens being out of control.

True to form, Dr. Ron and Feibush contend that the brightening statistical picture of kids’ behavior shouldn’t offer much reassurance to parents. “Eighth-graders are still getting high,” says Dr. Ron. “Thank God it has gone down, but if it’s your kid it doesn’t matter if it’s 20 percent—it’s 100 percent in your family.” And if it’s not your family today, the theory goes, it likely will be tomorrow. This, really, is what it comes down to: More than education, more than support, more than behavioral issues, Toughlove traffics in anxiety. It’s the classic formula of self-help: fear and loathing beautifully packaged, reasonably priced. Look at Weight Watchers. The program thrives not simply because it has helped fat people become thin, but because we all feel fat no matter how thin we are.

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