Antics aside, Dr. Phil's got good advice

September 21, 2004|By SUSAN REIMER

HAPPY FAMILIES are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

That's Leo Tolstoy writing in the opening lines of Anna Karenina. But it might as well be Dr. Phil McGraw speaking in the opening minutes of his first prime-time special this week.

In Family First, airing tomorrow from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on CBS (Channel 13), the tough-love TV therapist made famous by Oprah Winfrey, takes on family problems that are both funny and disturbing.

From the hilarious potty-training troubles of celebrity parents to an out-of-control New Jersey family of four, Dr. Phil delivers his bottom line on parenting: It isn't easy. There is no instruction book. Nevertheless, we owe it to our children to put family ahead of everything else.

There is much in these two hours that looks like the sensationalism we are now used to in reality TV.

Hidden cameras record a stressed-out mother shrieking at - and pounding on - her withdrawn and passive mate.

We watch a mother's shocked and disbelieving reaction as she witnesses her son beat up the other children in a playgroup.

The camera gives us a tight shot of the faces of parents when Dr. Phil informs them that their son has seven of 14 characteristics of a serial killer.

And I am not sure a red-carpet sound bite from Nicole Kidman or Halle Berry on parenting elevates this discussion.

But if you can get past the over-the-top and celebrity stuff, Dr. Phil's signature exclamations are good for any regular parent to keep in mind when dealing with children.

"What are you thinking?"

"What made you think it would be easy?"

"You are not doing your kids any favors."

"That is not an option."

"Plug in and get involved."

"I am talking about commando parenting."

"Our children learn what they live."

Ultimately, the show is an infomercial for Dr. Phil's newest book, Family First: Your Step-by-Step Plan for Creating a Phenomenal Family (Free Press, 2004, $26), in which he describes the five factors for a successful family.

They are creating a nurturing and accepting family system; promoting rhythm in family life; establishing meaningful rituals and traditions; active communication; and managing a crisis.

In the book, Dr. Phil also reports that more than a third of the 17,000 parents who responded to a survey he devised say that if they had it to do all over again, they would not start a family.

"What they're telling us is they don't feel adequate to do it. They don't feel equal to the challenges," he says.

Whatever you think of Dr. Phil's instant analysis and his sound-bite solutions, it is hard to argue with his conclusion that many parents have lost their way.

We seem to have forgotten that we are supposed to be in charge, not popular. And that raising kids is not something we can do on the fly.

"You need energy and a plan," Dr. Phil tells parents during the special.

He also tells his television audience that we are not raising children, we are raising future adults. Home can be the soft place for a child to fall, he says, but ultimately it is the place where that child must learn what is necessary to succeed in the world.

And he is not talking about financial success. As he tells the father who works 60 hours a week to keep his family comfortable and who has no time for a 7-year-old son whose own mother fears him:

"Move to a smaller house, drive older cars. You have to do what you have to do to invest in your family."

Such a prescription would begin to heal what ails any family.

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