Psychologist Phyllis Magrab Taxes Politicians with yet Another Crime: They Make Lousy Parents

UPDATED 11/03/1980 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/03/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

Washington, D.C. child psychologist Phyllis Magrab has a warning for winners in next week's elections, in the form of case studies from her practice:

—"There was a senator's daughter who said, 'I was a china doll that my parents set out for show.' "

—"The daughter of a congressman was never sure if she was really bright. Did she get into the elitist school she was attending because of Poppa or on her own merits?"

—"A boy had a really painful relationship with his father. Even so, the father came to a Little League game just to get a publicity picture. How could the kid sort out what's real?"

As director of Georgetown University's Child Development Center, where she teaches 100 medical students, Magrab, 40, has treated the offspring of senators, congressmen, Cabinet officers, diplomats, White House aides and nationally known journalists. "These children frequently are not very different from street children," she observes. "In both poverty and politics, it is the environment that pushes at the child. Stresses come from without. It is not the kid who has some internal distortion."

The problems that afflict the children of celebrities anywhere, Magrab believes, are exaggerated to the highest degree in the nation's capital. "Washington," she says, "is a high-stress town and there are lots of distractions for families. Kids are in competition with the State Department dinner party, and parents choose the party. Most people can define the private part of their lives and the public. The children of famous people can't," she continues. "When one of these kids gets in the news, it is never on his own." Such youngsters also may find less attention at home. "People who go into elective politics," Magrab explains, "have a willingness to sacrifice privacy. Their energies are diverted from developing a depth of intimacy that is essential to successful family life."

Since changing the parents is unrealistic—"They covertly think power, money or fame is more important than family"—Magrab endeavors to help them better use the time allotted to the family. "Much of the responsibility falls to the unfamous parent," she notes. "Usually that person works hard to keep the family normal. In other instances, children seek support in a teacher, maid or next-door neighbor."

Dealing with such parents can be as tricky for the child psychologist as for the child. One father, who was a high government official, kept demanding that his child's therapy sessions be postponed, ostensibly to suit his own schedule. "He was used to being in control of all situations," says Magrab. "I try to set ground rules. When a senator flies in from campaigning for his family appointments, that kind of commitment can help a child."

Magrab, who has been divorced for 10 years from a scientist, has personal as well as professional experience with children, having raised her own brood—Brendan, 15, Ryan, 14, and Kylee, 12. "My house is really dependent on the kids," she says. "There is rotating responsibility for everything. I believe in material incentives, praise and reinforcement. My children don't think I could run a house by myself." The children are not oblivious to her methods. Says Ryan, who specializes in cleaning house: "She's like a regular mother—she knows how to manipulate us."

Magrab graduated at 19 with a degree in English from New York's City College, but it was not until she was 29 that she received her Ph.D. in psychology from the U of Maryland. She was inspired to seek an advanced degree by her experiences as a teacher in a suburban Washington high school. When she was assigned a class of 10 roughnecks whom no one else would teach, she told them: "If you come to class and there is no smoking, drinking or violence in class, you'll pass. We'll figure out together what we're going to study." Eventually, she adds, "they were writing poetry. They had learned to value themselves. That is the ultimate gift to give a child."

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