Bruce Feiler’s house was in chaos. He and his wife, Linda, have twin daughters, and every morning was a madcap rush to get everybody dressed, fed, and out the door in time. Such hectic mornings aren’t unusual; the scene probably sounds familiar to many busy families. But Feiler kept wondering if things could be better — easier, smoother, happier. In addition to the daily stresses, Bruce and Linda were grappling with more fundamental questions: How could they impart values and responsibility to their girls, and still have fun as a family? How could they nurture and support and educate their daughters and also have time for each other?
Feiler found self-help and guide books to be outdated and off the mark. His parents’ experience seemed almost quaint in the 21st century, and his friends were struggling with the same questions his family was. So Feiler set out on a mission: He would systematically try to gather advice for how to build a stronger, happier and healthier family, and he’d do it by drawing from unexpected disciplines — from software engineering teams and business branding experts, from sports coaches and military leaders, and even from the team behind Modern Family.
After years of collecting and testing such tips, Feiler gathered them in The Secrets Of Happy Families. With more than 200 individual strategies named in the book, most families would never dream of trying all of them, but Feiler believes that every family could benefit from at least a few of the insights.
Feiler joins NPR’s Rachel Martin to talk about family meetings, how to take the mission statement out of the boardroom, and why everyone should rethink dinnertime.
On holding weekly family meetings
“My wife was skeptical at first, but she also, as she says, was so desperate for ideas she was willing to try. And then what happened was, our girls — we started when they were 5, they’re almost 8 now, so we’ve been doing it for 3 years weekly — they really embraced it … The key to what we do here is we let them pick their own rewards and punishments. Research shows that children who set their own goals, make their own schedules, evaluate their own work, actually build up their pre-frontal cortex and become more capable of making their own decisions and kind of taking more control over their own lives.
“We made a lot of mistakes at the beginning. We would say, ‘so what’s going on well in your life?’ Or, ‘what problems do you have?’ And they would say, ‘you know, I have this problem with a friend at school,’ and that seemed irrelevant, or, ‘you know what, I’m enjoying this book,’ and that also seemed irrelevant. And I called some of the families who do this, and they said, ‘no, you should be talking about the family, how the family is functioning,’ and that’s really when it hit — the family is so central to our lives, and the truth is very few of us actually work on that. And one of the things that we’ve learned is one of the keys to happiness is relationships. In some ways happiness is other people. Our family is our key relationship, and sort of it gave us this sense that oh, we’re actually doing things to improve the chaos around our house.”
On writing a family mission statement
“We did the family equivalent of a corporate retreat: We had a pajama party … We had this conversation, like, ‘what’s really important to us?’ So our family mission statement is: ‘May our first word be adventure and our last word, love.’ And then we came up with 10 core sentences: ‘We live lives of passion. We dream undreamable dreams. We are travelers, not tourists. We help others to fly. We love to learn. We don’t like dilemmas, we like solutions. We push through, we believe. We know it’s OK to make mistakes. We bring people together. We are joy, rapture, yay.’
“We got it framed and it’s now in our living room. And a few weeks after we did this, we got a call one day from the school that one of our daughters had gotten into a spat in the classroom. We had never gotten one of these calls and we didn’t know what to do. Here we were, clueless parents, we should be responsible, what do we do? So we called our daughter in and we were kind of grasping and my wife said, ‘Look up, there’s the family mission statement, anything there seem to apply?’ And my daughter kind of read down the list and she got to near the end and she said, ‘We bring people together?’ And suddenly, boom … we had a way into the conversation. This is a value, this has been violated, now we had a way to talk about it.”
On rethinking — or even eliminating — family dinner
“It is like the big bogeyman in families today … Everybody has heard that family dinner is great for kids. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work in many of our lives. Well, guess what? Dig deeper into the research and it’s very interesting. It turns out there’s only 10 minutes of productive conversation in any family dinner. The rest is taken up with take your elbows off the table and pass the ketchup. And what researchers have found is you can take that 10 minutes and put it in any time of the day and get the benefit. So, if you can’t have family dinner, have family breakfast! Even one meal a week, on a weekend, has the same benefit.
“And it turns out in many ways that what you talk about at these times of togetherness is even more important than what you eat. Researchers at Emory gave children a ‘do you know’ test. Do you know where your grandparents were born? Do you know where your parents went to high school? Do you know any member of your family who had an illness or something terrible that happened to them that they overcame? Children who scored highest on the ‘do you know’ test had higher self-esteem and a greater sense of control over their lives. The ‘do you know’ test was the single biggest predictor of emotional health. If you tell your own story to your children — that includes your positive moments and your negative moments, and how you overcame them — you give your children the skills and the confidence they need to feel like they can overcome some hardship that they’ve felt.”
Five Family Tips
Adapted from The Secrets of Happy Families, by Bruce Feiler
1.Let your kids pick their punishments. Our instinct as parents is to order our kids around. It’s easier, and we’re usually right! But it rarely works. The number one lesson we’ve learned is to let our kids pick their own rewards and punishments. We hold weekly family meetings where we all vote on two things to work on (this week it’s overreacting) and ask our kids what will motivate them. (Under five minutes of overreacting, they get a sleepover; over 15 minutes, it’s one pushup for every minute.) Research backs this up: Kids who set their own goals, make their own schedules, and evaluate their own work, build up their prefrontal cortex and take greater control over their lives. Give your kids practice developing the independence you want them to have later in life.
2. Don’t worry about family dinner. Sure, we’ve all heard that family dinner is great for kids, but for many of us, it doesn’t work with our schedule. Dig deeper, though, and the news is brighter for parents. Turns out there’s only ten minutes of productive time in any meal; the rest is taken up with “Take your elbows off the table” and “pass the ketchup.” You can take those ten minutes, place them at any time of the day, and have the same benefit. Can’t have family dinner? Try family breakfast, meet for a bedtime snack, even one meal on weekends can help. Time-shifting isn’t just for work or your favorite TV show; it also works with families.
3. Tell your story. The most important thing you can do may be the easiest of all. Tell your children the story of their family. Children who know more about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives – both their ups and their downs – have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their own challenges. Researchers have found that knowing more about family history is the single biggest predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.
4. Ditch the sex talk. This may have been the hardest lesson for me to learn. As the father of girls, I was tongue-tied when it came to talking about sex, even body parts. Then I read that a majority of boys and girls know that boys have penises and girls have “down there.” Guilty as charged! Even the American Society of Pediatrics say we should talk to kids as early as 18 months about proper names for their body parts and other age-appropriate issues. And as kids get older, it’s much easier to talk about sexuality when kids are under ten, because as they get older, they tune us out. As one group of girls told me, “It’s not ‘The Talk.’ It’s a series of talks. It’s a conversation.” Dead on advice.
5.Change where you sit.There’s tremendous know-how out there about how we rearrange our spaces to make our families function better, but most of it has remained hidden from parents. An environmental psychologist gave me some helpful advice. If you sit at hard surfaces, you’ll be more rigid. If you sit on cushioned surfaces, you’ll be more accommodating. “When you’re disciplining your children, sit in upright chairs on cushioned surfaces,” she said. “The conversation will go better.” My wife and I even changed where we have difficult conversations, moving from my office, where I was sitting in the “power position” with her six inches lower, to a window seat in our bedroom, where we can be side by side at the same level.