When Bruce Feiler, intrepid journalist and father of twins, set out to discover what makes happy families tick, he deliberately avoided parenting “experts,” psychologists and the whole self-help industry.
Instead, he turned to the top experts in negotiations, team building and creative play.
The result: His latest book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play and Much More” (William Morrow, $25.99) is full of practical lessons that may actually help regular families feel a little more joy and a little less chaos.
He has tested the ideas on his own family, recruiting his wife and now-8-year-old twin daughters to participate in weekly family meetings, changing the games they play during car rides and the way they start their mornings.
One premise of the book is that parents need to abandon the top-down approach of yesteryear, which really doesn’t work in modern society, and engage their children to feel like part of a team.
“If we can cut down parental yelling in half, that’s a pretty good goal,” he said in a recent interview.
I asked him to pinpoint which of the 200 or so ideas they tested proved to work best for his own family.
“We’ve changed where we sit when we have difficult conversations,” he said.
He learned from an environment psychologist that sitting on a hard surface makes you more rigid, while sitting on a cushion makes you more accommodating. Rather than sitting across from one another, which is a confrontational setting, it’s better to sit side-by-side. And everyone should have a seat of level height, giving them a feeling of equality in the conversation. So, during a recent chat about school report cards, he and his wife sat next to their daughters on a cushioned window seat, literally setting the stage for a smoother conversation.
They’ve also incorporated short (about 20 minutes) weekly family meetings into their routine. During the meeting, they talk about what worked well for the family for the preceding week, what didn’t work so well and what each person can do to help address the malfunction the following week.
“The benefits are so undeniable,” Feiler said. He will say to his children: “We’re a system here. One thing goes wrong, the whole system goes down. Guess what, something isn’t working. We’re going to discuss how we’re going to work on this.”
And, they will often come up with solutions to do better. It’s vital to really hear the child’s input and be able to incorporate those ideas, so the child is invested in its success.
Lastly, he mentioned how he had gotten tired of always playing 20 Questions during long car rides. After consulting with the best game developers, he found fresh ways for the family to play together. One such game involves quizzing one another about family history, recent and long past, which builds a sense of camaraderie and gives children a larger narrative within which to place their own family.
He also cited the benefits of making a family mission statement, which captures a family’s core beliefs about what they are all about, a strategy I am particularly looking forward to trying in my own home.
The book is stocked with helpful and insightful nuggets, some of which will be suited to a given family’s dynamics, others less so. But beyond the hands-on best bets for family harmony, there’s a reassuring message within the pages of this book: Simply focusing more energy toward our families makes us better.
Feiler says the research clearly shows that parents should spend less time worrying what they do wrong and more time focusing on what they do right.
All families have conflict, he says.
“Successful families control the conflict and make enough positive memories that they outweigh the negative ones,” he said. “I found this incredibly comforting,” he added.
A chorus of parents would agree.