"The change came around 1968," Father Val Peter, the fourth director in the 75-year history of Boys Town, says. "Father Flanagan had been a pioneer in child-raising technology. He had a program that stressed alternative education, self-government and vocational training. For all those years, it had been fine. A model. By 1968 all kinds of things had happened. The Watts riots. Detroit and Newark burned. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, assassinated. Malcolm X was dead. Bobby Kennedy was dead. The Democratic Convention took place in Chicago. All these things had happened, and suddenly we started to get different kids. They were on drugs, alcohol; they were considering suicide. All the rules were out. Father Flanagan's methods didn't work anymore. We were trying to cure these kids with Little House on the Prairie. It just didn't work."
The people who worked at Boys Town were confounded. Why should children now be so different? The familiar two plus two now added up to 2½. Maybe not even that. People had worked at Boys Town for 10, 20, 30 years, almost always with great success. Now their work didn't count? A natural resistance to change was overwhelmed by this rush of troubled kids. The precepts of Father Flanagan had to be broken down, reworked, sometimes even discarded. In 1975 the University of Kansas and the National Institute of Mental Health began a study of behavior-shaping techniques at Boys Town. The researchers asked important questions: How do you reach these new kids? What do they need? The needs were entirely different.
"There had been a change in the way people treated their children," Father Peter says. "In the '20s, '30s, '40s and even the '50s, children had been raised with very low tolerance, with much negative reinforcement. Kids who came to us needed the love that they didn't get at home. In the '60s, '70s, '80s and into now, it turned around. Parents were letting kids get away with absolutely anything. Kids now needed discipline."
Head somehow had to work a bargain with heart. That was the finding of the research. Heart without head is pure sentimentality. Head without heart is manipulation. These new kids needed structure as much as the kids of other generations needed a good hug. Not that these kids didn't need a good hug too.
The barracks approach was dropped. The original dormitories were converted into 23 residences similar to condominiums. The new model became family living. The new hope was that a functional present could overcome a dysfunctional past. The kids were spread around the campus in the condominiums and in 53 "cottages," middle-class homes with room for approximately 10 kids apiece. Each condominium or cottage had a married couple, plus whatever whatever biological children they had in residence. The couples were specially trained full-time parents. That was their job. The overall population of Boys Town was trimmed from 1,000 boys in 1968 to somewhere between 500 and 600 kids today. (Girls were admitted beginning in 1979, and this year there are 294 boys and 262 girls at Boys Town.) A daily reward system was established. Privileges such as using the telephone and watching television were tied to performance. The emphasis was on the positive, three positive remarks for every correction. Lawrence and Ida Burton were early additions to the program, pioneers in this behavioral wilderness.
"This place became the feedback capital of the world," Father Peter says. "We'd talk about everything. What we looked for in our family teachers were four things: One, a rock-solid marriage, because if that's not there, then what's the point; two, patience galore; three, natural parenting skills; and four, the people had to be trainable. They had to be willing to let go of some of their thoughts and use ours. That was Lawrence and Ida. They had all of those qualities."
Even the approach to sports had to be changed. Until the mid-'60s, Boys Town had been an athletic powerhouse with its large, all-male enrollment. Its football teams had gone undefeated seven times between 1936 and 1964, had been named Nebraska State co-champions in 1945 and champions in 1966, and had journeyed around the country to play games against other celebrated high schools. Now there were far fewer boys and there was far less ability. And the new troubled kids often hadn't had much time for games before they came to Boys Town. Sports often had to be introduced at beginners' level, and there had to be a range of sports, from wrestling to basketball to Outward Bound-style training. The emphasis was less on winning championships than on establishing individual confidence.
To give an idea of the problems Boys Town faced, Father Peter takes case histories and changes names and hometowns and maybe even genders. For kids, Boys Town usually is a last chance. Sometimes they have been sent by the courts in lieu of going to prison. Sometimes they have been sent by child-welfare agencies. Sometimes they simply appear at the front gate, brought by their parents or drawn by the name, no place else to go. These drop-ins are called pilgrims. The door is open.
"We had a pilgrim just last week," Father Peter says. "His mother drove him here straight from Chicago. His brother had just been murdered in some kind of gang problem. His mother didn't know what to do, so she came here. I came down to the office, and the kid was sitting here. He said he wasn't staying, wanted to go home.... But, I don't know, there was a look in his eye. We can't keep anyone here. There are no fences. This isn't a prison, and we don't want it to be one.
"I took a shot. I told the kid that before we did anything, I had to ask him a couple of questions to see if he was the type of kid we could admit. I asked him if he knew the name of the place. He said, 'Boys Town.' I asked him if he wanted to stay here. He said no. I said, 'O.K., you're in. Sign here. Go to such and such a place. You'll eat dinner now, and we'll set up a school schedule tomorrow.' The kid said O.K. and signed and started moving around. I don't know, it was just a shot. I could see something—that he really wanted to stay but didn't know how to say it. Most kids really want some discipline in their lives. They just don't know where to find it anymore."