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From the opening paragraphs of Phil
McGraw's new audiobook Family First, he seems to identify with a conservative
agenda. He says that the most important institution in life is the family, and
he sides with families against the modern media with their destructive messages
and influences. He occasionally refers to his religious beliefs, talks about
families being blessed, and assumes that the prototype of the family is a
mother, father, and children. He makes little reference to children who are
raised by their grandmothers, aunts, or other extended family, let alone
non-traditional families of gays and lesbians. When he says to parents that on
their using this book, their kids "just got lucky" will strike many
readers as unbearably smug. Some readers may quickly conclude that McGraw is
really just talking to middle America with its Bible-belt values, and other
readers need not even bother with his program. Yet such a conclusion would be
At least in modest ways Family
First has a liberating and revolutionary aim. McGraw is arguing that for
the many troubled children in America, the cause of the problem is largely the
family. He criticizes disconnected families and urges people to work to become
closer and to improve communication between them. If necessary, they should
reorganize their priorities, focusing less on money, careers, or giving the
children skills in sports or the arts, and more on being emotionally connected
with each other. McGraw argues that parents need to be good role models to
their children and that families need to be well-structured environments. It
is a traditional view of what families should be, but he makes a strong case
While McGraw often ridicules fancy
psychological theories and terminology, it is clear that his approach is
strongly influenced by family systems theory and cognitive behavioral methods.
There is hardly a mention of using medication to solve behavioral problems of
children, and McGraw's emphasis is on getting parents to scrutinize their own
feelings and the family dynamics so they can be better parents. He does devote
a whole chapter to divorced and blended families, recognizing that a half of
marriages end in divorce, and that parents in such families still need to
cooperate and negotiate to raise their children well. His advice seems
sensible and even relatively sophisticated. Family First is one of the
more impressive works by McGraw because it largely avoids the
oversimplifications of his other books, and manages to convey complex ideas in
very straightforward language.
It is one thing to give good advice
and another to get people to take it. When I consider my own family history,
the many dysfunctional families I see on television, or the families
encountered by teachers, it is clear that many people are not ready to take any
advice. However, parents who do feel ready to work on problems in their
families may well be more open to changing themselves and their behavior, so Family
First could be an excellent resource in some cases. To follow through on
its recommendations would take a good deal of determination, but it could
provide significant help. It might even make people more considerate and
Maybe the central issue one might
question in this book is its claim that family must come first, above all other
priorities. At least some radical views see families as arenas of suspicion,
breeding grounds for abuse and exploitation, and even Plato envisaged the
abolition of the family in the ideal state. However, McGraw is not defending
an isolated and insular family model -- far from it. His vision is of a loving
family that plays a strong role in the community and that engages with the
outside world. It is an inclusive vision built on care. McGraw stresses the
need for change rather than conservatism, and does not require old-fashioned
gender roles. So it is a view that logically commits itself to the viability of
non-traditional families, and as such, could subvert the socially conservative
views of the American heartland that the book seems aimed at.
Links to other Dr. Phil reviews.
© 2005 Christian Perring. All
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island.
He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main
research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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