When you first see the Osbourne family on their hit show on MTV, they seem like the embodiment of domestic dysfunction.
Dad — hard-rock star Ozzy Osbourne — was for years notorious for drug and alcohol abuse, and for antics like biting the head off a bat during one of his shows. Now he stumbles around the house, complaining and mumbling almost incoherently that his family are "all f---ing mad."
Mom, Ozzy's wife and manager Sharon, has an equally foul mouth. When her kids are screaming at each other, her usual parenting response is to halfheartedly tell them to stop, barely hiding her own amusement.
The two kids, 17-year-old Kelly and 16-year-old Jack, regularly go out to nightclubs until 2 a.m. (their parents let them). Kelly has bright pink hair. Her brother wears a camouflage helmet around the house, and sported a mohawk for a while.
But through all the shouting and name-calling and drama, the four Osbournes (an older sister, Aimee, 18, lives on her own and does not participate in the show) seem to keep a sense of humor and fun — and an obvious affection for each other.
So which is it? Do the Osbournes represent dysfunction and disaster, or are they a healthy — if unusual — family?
In the third report of his six-part "Family Fix" series, 20/20's John Stossel asked two psychologists to watch tapes from the show and evaluate the family. He then shared the experts' observations with Sharon, Kelly and Jack.
Raised Voices, Bad Language
One of the psychologists, Manhattan therapist Sheenah Hankin, said the family's tendency to turn any conflict into a shouting match might make the children "yellers and screamers" as adults — something that could hurt their relationships and careers.
When told that, Sharon Osbourne had a typically memorable phrase for the psychologists: "They can suck my freshly lipo-ed a--, because no, we're not perfect and all of this. If they want to grow up to be yellers and screamers, so what?"
The psychologists did not see any problem with the family's near-constant swearing, except to say that it could hurt the kids if they used it outside the house.
In fact, the psychologists found plenty of good things to say about the Osbournes. "They're doing a lot of things right," said Kristene Doyle, director of the Child and Family Services Clinic at the Albert Ellis Institute in New York.
Psychologists Praise Family's Openness ...
Both psychologists were impressed by the family's openness. In one episode, Kelly told her dad she had gotten a tattoo and begged him not to tell her mother. But Ozzy immediately called Sharon at the beauty parlor and handed the phone to Kelly to confess. "There's no way Kelly or Jack can pit one against the other," said Doyle. "There are no secrets in this family."
Doyle noted that the family talks openly about things like sex and drugs. "Better to get it from parents, from families, than from other kids that may be misinformed," she said.
"The kids feel totally safe with the parents," said Hankin. "Doing whatever they want to do, saying whatever they want to say, and expressing whatever they want to feel. I mean, who of us had that luxury?"
The therapists said the parents are deeply involved with their children. Doyle cited an episode in which Ozzy told Jack to apologize to the nanny for staying out until 4 a.m. without calling. "It's a man that can apologize. It's the wimps who can't," Ozzy told his son.
"He really does a good job with his kids," said Doyle. "In his own subtle way, he's shaping his children."
The therapists also noted moments of tenderness, like when Jack curled up with his dad on the couch after helping him figure out how to work the remote control, and when Ozzy noticed that Kelly was nervous before a television interview and reached out to comfort her.
"Even though they tell each other to shut up, curse at each other, there is that deep fundamental love and caring and acceptance of one another," said Doyle.
... But Say Parents Could Be Firmer
The psychologists did have one criticism of the family, though: that Ozzy and Sharon give the children too much freedom and too little discipline.
Sharon said she knows that her children drink and "mess around with stuff that they shouldn't mess around with." Even though those things are illegal, she said it is normal for teenagers to experiment, and she trusts their judgment. "I know that there's certain boundaries that I know that they won't cross," she told 20/20.
The kids say they are responsible, too. "It's not as if we're, like, crack-sniffing, living on the streets, we've run away from home ... I think we're pretty level-headed," said Kelly, adding that her parents always know where she is, who she is with, and how to contact her.
Hankin didn't buy it: "You cannot credit teenagers with adult judgment. They don't have it."
The therapists also said that Ozzy and Sharon should sometimes punish the children to teach them that their actions have consequences. Sharon told 20/20 she believes it is more effective to tell children they have disappointed their parents than to ground them.
But Hankin said words are not effective: "Cross words to teenagers are hot air."
She and Doyle suggested that when their kids defy them, Ozzy and Sharon should try taking away their privileges, forbidding Kelly to go clubbing or taking Jack's music away, for instance — or cutting off car and credit-card privileges. "Deprive a teenager of money and where are they going to go?" said Hankin.
But it is not clear whether the Osbournes will heed the advice: They seem content with their family life as it is now. "For us, this is how we are," Sharon said. "This is the way we live. Like it or not."