New York Magazine

When Big Brother Parents

Armed with Nest Cams and 24/7 surveillance, one company promises to fix even the most dysfunctional child—for a (very steep) price.

SHEP WAS 13 WHEN he started stealing from his parents. It began not long after he and his siblings moved with their parents to a suburb north of New York City from the city abroad where the family had lived for more than a decade. While his siblings settled into their new home, Shep withdrew. He grew anxious and unhappy and began to struggle in school and to obsess over the Madden NFL mobile football game, losing interest in everything else. His mother, Elizabeth, had suspected that the move back to America would be hardest, of all her children, on Shep; he had loved his friends and his life abroad, the independence he’d had there. He also had a history of anxiety and ADHD that made change more difficult, but she couldn’t have predicted how quickly and completely he’d fall apart. Within a few months, Elizabeth felt as though she hardly recognized her son. The family took him to see assorted therapists, worried he was suffering from internet addiction, but none were able to help.

“He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t focus on anything else but the game,” said Jason, Shep’s father. (The family’s names have all been changed.) “He had total exhilaration when he did just that one thing, to the exclusion of everything else in his life. He fell into it like crack, stopped sleeping regularly, was staying up all night, which made the ADHD worse.”

When Jason and Elizabeth began restricting how much Shep could spend on Madden, he stole their credit cards, at one point racking up a $10,000 bill.

One night, after confiscating his computer and iPad, Elizabeth woke up at two with a feeling of dread. She made her way down the hallway to Shep’s room, where she found his bed empty. She discovered her son in his closet, playing on an old, broken Xbox he’d restored himself, the iTunes gift cards he’d stolen from her office littering the floor. It was then that she realized they were in over their heads. An educational consultant they’d hired, Myrna Harris, suggested something that at first seemed extreme—a company known for helping children in crisis that could set up a highly structured, regimented environment in a home.

The company was called Cognition Builders, and Harris explained that it would send people—“family architects”— to a home for a period of weeks to observe everyone’s behavior and to figure out how parents could get better control over their kids. The family architects are young; many have advanced degrees in fields like education,

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