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by Phillip C. McGraw
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Feb 1st 2005

Family First

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 premature.

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 for it.

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 thoughtful.

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 rights reserved. 


Christian 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.