David and Phyllis York Treat Problem Teenagers with a Stiff Dose of 'Toughlove'

UPDATED 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

Four-letter words and parents' gangs are weapons

For a long time I denied that my kids really didn't give a damn about me and the family," says David York. "They were selfish little snot-nosed kids." With that realization, which came five years ago when his daughters were aged 20, 18 and 16, York and his wife, Phyllis, imposed a stern new code of behavior in their home. And it worked. The following year the Yorks founded Toughlove, an organization to help other parents beleaguered by incorrigible offspring. "The essence of our philosophy is that parents must take a stand with their children," says David, 52. "Teenagers must learn to accept the consequences of their actions, and parents must stop trying to protect them."

The Yorks were never exactly Ozzie and Harriet, but they considered themselves to be understanding, communicative parents who coddled their children according to the permissive gospel of Dr. Spock. As professional counselors in Pennsylvania's Delaware Valley, the Yorks were well aware of the rising number of American families shredded by discord. But, preoccupied with untangling other parents' troubles, David and Phyllis failed to recognize the warning signals in their own home as, gradually, each of their daughters drifted into drugs.

"We were a close family. Then all of a sudden the bottom dropped out," reports David. "I thought, what happened to those sweet little girls? I kept trying to be reasonable, even when it wasn't working." Their daughters shunned household chores, ignored curfews and made pigpens of their bedrooms. Within a year and a half they were caught shoplifting, driving drunk and popping Quaaludes and other downers. "One of the girls was always stoned, sleeping all morning, not doing well in school," David recalls. "We knew all three were unhappy." Adds Phyllis, 44, "David and I made a constant effort to say, 'How can we help?' We went to their schools to see their teachers and took the kids' side against the schools'. We were two liberal parents being nice to their kids."

Then, just before Christmas 1976, one of the girls was arrested for holding up a cocaine dealer. It was her second such offense, and when she called home expecting to be bailed out, her parents refused. "We couldn't take it anymore," David explains. "We said, 'You got yourself into this; you get yourself out.' We hung up and then just sat there and cried." The daughter was locked up for six weeks. The Yorks did not visit, but sent some close friends to check on her. After she was released (she was acquitted), her parents refused to see her until she straightened herself out. She spent four months in a halfway house.

A noticeably subdued, cooperative daughter and Toughlove were the results of these hard-nosed tactics. Launched in 1977, Toughlove now has 250 chapters across the U.S. and Canada. One satisfied Toughlover recently explained, "Kids have always had gangs. Now it's time for parents to have gangs too." The Yorks have trained more than 1,500 Toughlove parents and published the $6 Toughlove manual (Community Service Foundation, Sellersville, Pa.), which helps distressed parents set up a support group. In a weekly session 10 to 50 couples may gather to share their woes, listen to a guest lecturer, then chart game plans for combating specific problems. "Every parent has the right to a night's sleep without worrying where his teenager is or if he will come home drunk or stoned," says David. Phyllis puts it another way: "A selfish 15-year-old is not my equal." The Yorks suggest that aggrieved parents cite their pet peeves, then draw up a list of demands. If their child violates these demands repeatedly, he should be punished. If a teenager shoplifts, refuse to pay his fine. If a teenager consistently breaks curfew, lock him out of the house with a note on the door suggesting he bunk with another Toughlove couple.

The Yorks teach parents not to be predictable. "If you usually yell, keep quiet," says Phyllis. "Then children will not be able to manipulate you." If teenagers use foul language, match them with expletives, the Yorks advise. Using four-letter words, they claim, takes away one of a child's weapons. Not all children require such brutal handling, of course. "If TLC gives you a neat kid, stay with it," says David. "But when it isn't working, it's time to try different approaches."

The Yorks themselves were far from model children. David was born on Long Island. The family was abandoned by his prison guard father when the boy was 5, and David was shipped to a foster home for eight years. After a hitch in the Navy, he enrolled at New York University, where he excelled as a wrestler and majored in physical education. For the Bronx-born Phyllis, the only child of a trucking company manager and a onetime Borscht Belt blues singer, "It was not a particularly happy upbringing either. I was always a little artsy in this Orthodox Jewish home," she recalls, "a classic '50s not-too-good teenager. I was into sex, cigarettes and drag racing."

She met David at a Delta Phi fraternity dance when she was 17. "I decided he was cynical, wise and classy," Phyllis says, "so I introduced myself." "I was immediately attracted to her," David admits, "but she was so young, I felt I was robbing the cradle."

Her parents disapproved because David was not Jewish, but the couple married anyway in February 1956. Their daughters, Ilene, Heidi and Jodi, were born in quick succession. "I thought how wonderful it was," says Phyllis. "I didn't count on the jealousies and fighting among them."

David earned a master's in biology and taught high school in New York while Phyllis mothered. "Sometimes I was very unhappy," she admits, "because I couldn't breathe. There was no space for me."

The Yorks moved to Vermont, where David taught a "Love and Sex" course at avant-garde Goddard College and Phyllis earned a degree in psychology. "In 1964-65 drugs really hit the campus," says David. "Kids were deteriorating in front of my eyes." He dabbled in counseling. "Here I was, this jock, crew-cut teacher in this hippie-dippy place," he says, "and I was getting turned on to learning a lot about me."

After his enlightenment the Yorks wandered west to San Diego, where they continued to counsel, then to St. Croix before settling in southeastern Pennsylvania. They joined a rehabilitation program counseling drug and alcohol abusers at Eagleville (Pa.) Hospital, and then in 1975 founded York and Associates to train counselors and therapists specializing in family problems.

Increasingly, their unorthodox methods have found support. A parent from Bucks County, Pa. wrote to Ann Landers to suggest she endorse Toughlove, and she has. Some 45,000 requests for information have flooded into the Toughlove office, and a number of Pennsylvania psychiatrists and other professionals are favoring it as a last resort. Critics contend the system gives parents an easy out, a way to escape their responsibilities. However, the Yorks' daughter Heidi insists that her parents have the right answer. Now married, with a 4-year-old son, she says, "My first reaction to Toughlove was confusion and anger. But it made me stand on my own two feet. I just don't see how our parents put up with us for so long." Jodi is a restaurant hostess and Ilene a teacher.

With the trauma of child raising behind them, the Yorks spend most of their days on the road promoting Toughlove, training counselors and appearing at Toughlove meetings from coast to coast. They support themselves with consultation fees and manual sales. They have also optioned the TV movie rights to their story and signed a book deal with Doubleday.

Toughlove has toughened the Yorks, but it has also introduced them to compassion for other parents. "We used to think these kinds of problems only happened to other people," observes Phyllis. "Now we have learned to be humble."

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