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 over 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, of all her children, the move back to America would be hardest 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. She’d suspected it might be rough, 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 total 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 in the morning 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 relatively new company known for helping children in crisis that could set up a highly structured, highly regimented environment in a home.
The company was called Cognition Builders, and Harris explained that they would send people to a family for a period of weeks to observe everyone’s behavior and to figure out how parents could get better control over their kids. The people they sent were called “family architects.” They’d move in with a family for months at a time, immersing themselves in their routines and rituals. The family architects were the foot soldiers in the Cognition Builders team, but the most critical part of the company’s strategy involved the installation of a series of Nest Cams with microphones all around the house, which enabled round-the-clock observation and interaction in real time. At the end of each day, the architects would send the parents extensive emails and texts summarizing what they’d seen, which they’d use to develop a system of rules for the family to implement at home. Over time, the role of the family architects would evolve from observing to enforcing the rules. Through this kind of intensive scrutiny and constant behavioral intervention, they claimed to be able to change a family’s, and a child’s functioning from the ground up.
The idea, I learned by speaking with employees and clients of the company over several months, is that if you want to truly change the way a person parents, you need to be there as they’re parenting, not occasionally but immersively and consistently. “We are a fly on the wall of a family’s home,” the company’s clinical director, Sarah Lopano, explained. “We take a very behavioral approach to everything we do.”
The science behind Cognition Builders “approach” isn’t exactly straightforward. Lopano insists that the core of their program is educational, not therapeutic, and that they tailor their approach to the needs of a particular family and borrow from many different types of intervention. The family architects are young; many have advanced degrees in fields like education, behavior analysis, clinical psychology, or social work, but aren’t necessarily licensed therapists. The “service” they provide comes down to watching you parent, suggesting changes, and making sure you do what they say.
Cognition Builders was incorporated in 2006 by Ilana Kukoff and since it was incorporated, Kukoff says the company has grown by 125 percent every year. Finding out more about Cognition Builders is challenging, however. Its website, which was password-protected at the time I began researching the story, shows a happy, blindingly caucasian, well-to-do family enjoying each other’s company, and states simply, “We Are Here for You Through All of Life’s Developmental Stages.” Beyond that, Kukoff said the company does not advertise or publicize its services, it does no PR, and it relies entirely on word-of-mouth and referrals from a network of highly sought-after educational consultants, such as Myrna Harris, the one who referred Elizabeth and Jason.
Families who hire Cognition Builders might view the cost as a line-item equivalent to the upkeep of a vacation home in Aspen or renting out Madison Square Garden for a birthday party. One family I spoke to used the service for four months, and paid roughly $125/hour for a family architect to work with them between 40 and 50 hours a week, adding up to roughly $80,000. In the five weeks that Elizabeth worked with the company’s two family architects, she estimates that she spent around $70,000, and said, jokingly, that she went from worrying what her kid was putting on her credit card to what Cognition Builders did. This ended up being one of her main complaints about CB — what she described to me as a significant amount of upselling. “They charge you by the hour, and they charge you different rates … I mean, for that much money I could have hired five nannies. I told our consultant: this is a billionaire game, not a millionaire game. You have to be in a certain echelon to do this.”
Elizabeth could understand why the company would have assumed she and Jason were in that echelon. Her father had been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Jason had worked for years at the highest level of international finance. They lived on a sprawling property in a wealthy suburb. And during the meeting with the educational consultant who put them in touch with CB, Elizabeth recalled how Jason had said they were ready to do (and spend) whatever it took to help Shep. “What does Bono do when it’s his kid in trouble?” he’d asked. This was a mistake, Elizabeth later decided, after she began receiving Cognition Builders bills. “My husband is an amazing provider. But he’s not a rock star.”
Other families I spoke to also reported costs well into the six figures. And Kukoff, while unwilling to comment directly on the cost of her services, continued to stress the pricelessness of what they were offering — help for families in a desperate situation. Was there any cause more worthy of one’s resources than the well-being of one’s children? Kukoff said Cognition Builders offers parents the chance to invest in their future. “A family,” she said, “is an annuity.”
She also pointed out that most of her clients are already working with a social worker, a psychiatrist, an educational consultant, or some combination of specialists when they sign up with CB. They are coming to the company as a last resort. Once they do, Lopano and Kukoff meet with this team and devise an educational plan, taking into account a family’s size, budget, and needs, to determine how many family architects will be assigned.
Elizabeth said that at times, working with Cognition Builders felt like being part of an experiment with Pavlov’s dogs. She recounted how one of her friends came over and witnessed CB’s methods firsthand. One of Elizabeth’s children had broken a rule, muttered something disrespectful to his mother in the kitchen. It was the kind of behavior Elizabeth might have let slide before, but the family architect, who was standing nearby, intervened swiftly, issuing a “strike.” Her friend was horrified. “She was pulling me into the pantry saying, ‘This is too intense. It’s too much. They’re too strict.’” At moments, Elizabeth agreed with her, but after a while, she began to see how the strictness and consistency were working, and she started following the family architects’ lead.
It wasn’t as though Elizabeth had been raising her kids without rules, but, she admitted, “I thought my rules were stronger than they were. [Cognition Builders] showed me how I’d turned my children into negotiators. Their philosophy is, if you let a rule slide once, the rule becomes meaningless.”
Cognition Builders sends its family architects to work in many different types of families facing many types of problems. But whether they are working with a failing high-school student, an adolescent’s screen addiction, or the more standard-issue challenges of sibling rivalry, the keystone of the strategy are the Nest Cams. The cameras record the families’ lives — conversations, arguments, every interaction. If something is amiss, Cognition Builders can provide instant direction on how to remedy the situation, either verbally through a microphone in the camera or by sending a text to the parent.
Jessica Yuppa, Cognition Builders’ director of curricula and assistant clinical director, said the Nest Cams give CB an “unfiltered look” at what goes on inside the home. “Families think they know about themselves, but they don’t. Cameras give us a beat-for-beat of interactions. If a parent is struggling to communicate with a child, for example, we can watch a conversation and say, ‘Okay, why do you think he looked away when you said this?’” Yuppa said it doesn’t take long for families to adapt to the scrutiny. “My experience is the self-consciousness goes away very quickly,” she said. “People live their lives and forget we’re there.”
According to Sarah Ahlm, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago, the approach Cognition Builders’ uses most closely resembles Applied Behavior Analysis, an evidence-based therapy used most often to help kids with autism learn more socially appropriate behaviors. Ahlm was skeptical when I recounted to her the way Cognition Builders worked with a family like Jason and Elizabeth’s. She said that while ABA has been proven effective with a very specific population, namely kids with autism, she’d never heard of a company using it on the general population. “Kids on the autism spectrum need an incredible amount of structure and routine,” she said. “But for a kid who’s not on the spectrum, that could get old pretty quickly.” She went on to say that even if CB isn’t calling their approach ABA, it seems pretty clear that they’ve adopted an ABA-like model, and that the line gets blurry between therapy and education. And, without oversights in place to keep the company accountable, like state requirements for clinical supervision, she wondered whether the method they’re practicing is getting evidence-based results. “How are the [ABA] principles being applied?” she wonders. “Is this truly helping families in the long term?”
The morning the family architects arrived, Elizabeth remembers feeling both nervous and excited. She had her doubts about Cognition Builders, but wanted to approach the experience with an open mind. Shep had just returned from a therapeutic wilderness camp, and she explained to his younger siblings that the family architects were coming to help him settle back into their home, and also to teach them all how to get along better as a family.
There would be two family architects in the house, both young women in their 20s. Kukoff had suggested having the architects present around the clock, but Elizabeth felt this was excessive, so they compromised, deciding to have only a Nest Cam presence during the morning hours with the family architects in the house in the afternoons and evenings.
For weeks, she had tried to imagine what it was going to be like. She was still trying to get her head around it when the doorbell rang. Shep followed her into the front entryway. The women at the door were young, pleasant, professional, and energetic. Elizabeth greeted them, but Shep looked down at the floor, then retreated to the back of the house.
“Interactions with adults have always been hard for him,” Elizabeth told me later. She’d gotten in the habit of warning him to go upstairs when a friend of hers was coming over. It was such a long-established habit that she didn’t even think about it anymore, not until one of the architects called her out that very first day.
“Hold on,” the architect said. “An adult you’ve invited into your home comes inside, and without any greeting or acknowledgment, your teenager runs away. This is not acceptable behavior.”
A new rule was thus established. When an adult comes into the room and says hello to one of the children, the child stops what he or she is doing, looks the adult in the eye, shakes his or her hand, returns the greeting, and asks the adult how he or she is doing. This became the new expectation. If any member of the household failed to meet this expectation, he would receive a strike. This was just one of a set of house rules that were printed out, laminated, and posted in every room — rules like, You don’t walk away when an adult is talking to you, or If you need your mother’s attention, you get it by saying, “Excuse me, Mom,” not by screaming a request across the house.
Nest Cams were installed in all the home’s common areas and Elizabeth’s husband was uncomfortable. “He kept looking for a place to hide,” she said. “They also pushed me to have them in all the kids’ bedrooms, but we would not do that.”
When the family architects were present, they went everywhere the family went, following them around from room to room, accompanying them if they went outside. They even came along when Elizabeth went school-supply shopping at Staples; as she was stocking up on three-ring binders and printer paper, two family architects followed behind her, taking notes.
At the end of each day, Elizabeth and Jason would receive a detailed, many-paged report on everything the family architects had observed. For example, part of one report read:
*When Mom came home Shep asked her for a moment to discuss his upcoming Washington trip
*Mom respectfully told him that they weren’t going to discuss this, which was the correct response
*Shep became very upset by this, stomping upstairs
*The family architect asked him to get ready for bed and he replied that he needed a few minutes of reading
*The FA allowed this, as he was self-soothing by reading and told Shep that in five minutes he needed to get ready
*When the five mins were up, the FA reminded him and he said no. The nanny instructed that it needed to happen right away and though Shep expressed verbally that he was upset by this he still complied
The reports went on and on in this way, breaking down their every shared moment into the smallest units of behavior, assessing the appropriateness or inappropriateness of each of the children’s behaviors and every parental or caretaker response.
It was more intensive and immersive than anything Elizabeth could have imagined, but in addition to being overwhelmed by it all, she was also impressed. This dual impression of admiration and disbelief would persist for much of the time she worked with Cognition Builders.
The kids had mixed reactions. Shep told his Mom the family architects made him nervous but his 12-year-old brother was probably the least accepting of the project.
One afternoon, not long after the family architects arrived, he grabbed a footstool and put his face right up to one of the Nest Cams.
“Hey, buttholes!” he said. “Why don’t you leave us alone?”
At first, nothing happened. Then there was a crackle of static, followed by a voice on the other end. “That’s a strike,” it said.
The mere existence of a company like Cognition Builders, a company that seemed to merge life-coaching with Supernanny with a slightly powered-up Amazon Echo, came as a revelation to me. At the time I learned of it, I’d been writing a book for almost two years about parenting and fear, about the state of intensive and ever-escalating anxiety experienced by a certain kind of American parent. I’d internalized the fact that the average American parent was devoting more time, money, resources, and attention to parenthood than at any point in American history, approaching a state of what I’d come to think of as peak parenthood.
I’d talked to mothers who’d given up their own careers and made a career out of getting their children into the “right” charter school. I’d been to parties where adult socializing screeched to a halt for a good 20 minutes to negotiate a disagreement between two 6-year-olds over a disputed toy. I’d spoken to parents who’d sold homes and cars to pay for violin lessons and high-end SAT tutoring, and to parents who spent much of their time tracking their teenage children’s whereabouts through a GPS app on their phone. I’d come to believe there was simply no way to escalate or intensify our communal quest for parental control without the development of exo-uterine technology and retrofitting mothers as marsupials. But Cognition Builders proved me wrong.
Its existence seemed to highlight how for families like Jason and Elizabeth’s, and for other families, too — families across the country in the affluent middle and upper-middle classes — parenthood is not what it used to be. Specifically, it is more than it used to be. More money, more time, more organization, more engagement, more supervision. Just … more. Of everything.
In Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, social scientist Robert D. Putnam describes how, beginning in the 1980s, “the dominant ideas and social norms about good parenting have shifted from Spock’s ‘permissive parenting’ to a new model of ‘intensive parenting.’ ” “Between 1983 and 2007,” he notes, “spending per child by families in the top tenth of the income distribution increased by 75 percent in real dollars.” Many of these dollars are devoted to the increasing costs of child care and education, but a significant portion is spent on enrichment and a wide array of educational and therapeutic interventions for children who struggle to meet parental expectations. Indeed, the cost of raising children in America, teaching them, and keeping them stimulated and safe has been privatized by design and default, as families take on burdens once shouldered by extended families, neighborhoods, and public schools. The leap from a Kaplan SAT course to Cognition Builders might not be as big as it seems.
There’s nothing new about parents of means devoting both time and resources to securing their children a happy and prosperous adulthood. We do it when we enroll a 2-year-old in foreign-language classes, get a private coach to help them make the soccer team, or hire a tutor or take them to a social worker or occupational therapist when they fall behind in school. A friend recently went to visit a friend in a New York suburb and was shocked to learn that the mother had hired a life coach — for her toddler.
It’s easy enough to mock such indulgences. But then I think of the time and money I’ve devoted to educating, nurturing, and protecting my own children over the course of a decade. I think about how indulgent those expenditures would seem to a single mother in Flint or a family of Syrian refugees. The difference between my kids’ swim lessons and a Westchester toddler life-coach is not one of substance but of degree. In this sense, fretting over and doubting our ability to guide our own children through the swiftly changing landscape of modern life has become both a class privilege and a parenting rite of passage. Parents, especially those who believe the act of raising a child is a process that can be studied and optimized, will rarely shy away from seeking outside help, and Cognition Builders is the highest-end of outside help. It is the private jet or bottle service of parenting guidance — the kind that can’t be found on any blog or in any book.
As Lopano sees it, it’s one thing to read a book about how to become a more effective parent. It’s another thing to actually do it. Cognition Builders clients were highly educated, intelligent people. Their parenting shortcomings were not ones of theory or preparation but of practice. Many parents, she told me, “have a false sense of what it means to be a good parent. They want their kids to be happy and so they think that how happy their kids are at any given moment is a barometer for how good a parent they are.”
Lopano compares Cognition Builders’ presence in a home to “a kind of truth serum,” a continuous reality check for parents who think they’re setting and enforcing boundaries in a way they’re not, or even for kids who don’t have the self-awareness to understand how disruptive their behavior can be. “Families think they know about themselves, but what they think they know is often wrong. With technology, family architects can get an uncensored look at what’s really taking place in a home, an unfiltered view of family life … an objective view of behavior.”
For now, Cognition Builders is only able to bring these services to families who are able and willing to pay thousands of dollars per week, but their hope is to change that. On this point, Kukoff, the founder, is adamant. “I want us to be able to help everybody,” she said.
The clients I spoke to don’t doubt this optimism. Of the four families I interviewed, all reported growth and progress in their children and family life since working with the company. One mother whose son has high-functioning autism contacted Cognition Builders after his third hospitalization for a suicide attempt. After eight months of the program, he’s seen tremendous growth, and he was able to get into school, travel into the city, and hold down a job. Another client whose son, despite being a curious and intelligent boy and a talented musician, struggled with depression and ADHD, and had never been able to turn in schoolwork. He was able to finally graduate and apply to six different universities, one of which gave him a scholarship. And as for Shep, Elizabeth wrote to me almost a year after we first spoke to say he’d continued to make incredible progress.
Elizabeth went on, however, to say that, in the end, she didn’t credit much of this progress to Cognition Builders. She felt that she hired them to help Shep, specifically, but “they became so engrossed in gaining control over our other children, who were all fine, that Shep was an afterthought.” She felt that the young women who were sent were compassionate and well-trained in the philosophy of the company, but it was a rigid philosophy, not individualized in any way. “They wanted a large family to be in perfect control and alignment,” she said and compared the experience to “addressing problems out of a notebook.” In Elizabeth’s view, it was Shep’s behavior that needed changing. Cognition Builders, she said, didn’t seem to think it was possible to change the kid without changing the home.
The dilemma seemed to raise an important question at the center of Cognition Builders’ model: Is it possible for parents to change their children without changing themselves, their home, their values, and their community? I asked Elizabeth what seemed to me an obvious question: If the problem was with screens, why not just empty the house of technology for a few weeks or months and make the kids go to the library if they needed to use a computer? Like so many families, they lived in a home with more screens than humans — plasma televisions, computers, iPads, Xboxes, iPhones. Jason, who worked from home, was frequently looking at his phone or was in front of a computer. Time was organized around allotted hours of digital engagement. At their son’s moment of crisis, why not start there, changing the environment rather than the kid?
She and Jason exchanged a look. “That’s just not possible,” Elizabeth said. There was Jason’s work and her own. The kids did all their schoolwork by computer. Playdates and parties were coordinated by email. Texts were what connected them to the outside world. Like most of us, they lived their lives online. Shep was doing what most kids were doing, just too much, too far.
Before I left Elizabeth and Jason’s house, I asked if I could speak with Shep.
He came across as a sweet, sensitive kid, small for his age, a little shy and awkward, but sensitive and bright and good-natured.
“What did you think about the people who came here?” I asked him. “The family architects?”
“I liked some of them,” he said. “They mostly just made me write down what I had to do all the time. They helped me be able to do better in school and behave better.”
I asked him if it was hard coming back to America, and how things were different.
“There, I could always take a walk to my friends’ houses. Here we have to drive. The only really social time is at school or on my phone or video games or Xbox. That’s where I talk to my friends the most. Back there, I could see them every day, but here I can’t.”
I asked him what he thought the best thing about being a kid was, and the worst.
“I think the best thing is being able to talk to my friends and my family. And the worst thing is definitely having a lot of homework. I’m taking a lot of honors classes. And then I have therapy once a week, drums once a week, tutoring twice a week, and an executive-functioning tutor once a week.”
As he spoke, I recalled what Elizabeth had said about how badly Shep had resisted coming back to America. How he told her he’d rather stay in Europe on his own, that he’d run away and live in the tunnels, getting his friends to sneak him food — a young boy’s fantasy of freedom and danger, the fantasy of being unobserved.
Kim Brooks’s book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear will be published by Flatiron Books in 2018.
*Correction: a previous version of this article referred to the “family nanny” in the Cognition Builders memo. It was the family architect.
*This article has been updated since its original publication.
*A version of this article appears in the September 4, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.