The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More

Let’s start with what “The Secrets of Happy Families” does well: Bruce Feiler looks at parenthood through a new lens as just another organizational and relational task that shares similarities with others – like running a company, coaching athletics, or maintaining a partnership – and then imports proven techniques from those arenas to make familyhood a more successful affair.

His approach produces a handful of intriguing concepts:

  • “In many ways, agile is part of the larger trend in society toward decentralizing power. . . . A similar evolution has been happening in families for decades, as power has shifted from the exclusive domain of fathers to include mothers and, increasingly, children.”
  • “[W]hat agile accomplishes is to accept that disorder and order live alongside each other. By acknowledging things will go wrong, then introducing a system to address those wrongs, you increase the odds that the system – in this case the family – can work right.” When you “worry less about eliminating the negatives and focus more on maximizing the positives,” you end up happier.
  • “[C]hildren who have the most balance and self-confidence in their lives do so because of . . . a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
  • “[A] list of the qualities successful families share . . . Communication. Encouragement of individuals. Commitment to the family. Religious/spiritual well-being. Social connectedness. Adaptability. Appreciativeness. Clear roles. Time together.”
  • “The challenge, Nass said, is that the human brain is not designed to process constructive criticism. ‘The criticism part always trumps the constructive part,’ he said. As soon as we hear something critical, our brain is designed to do something. We either fight back or flee. ‘But that’s exactly the wrong thing to do with your mother-in-law,’ he said.”
  • “[A]ctivities that give us durable happiness are the ones we have a hand in creating.”
  • “Happiness is not something we find; it’s something we make. All the researchers who’ve examined well-run organizations, championship teams, or successful groups of any kind have come to pretty much the same conclusion. Greatness is not a matter of circumstance; greatness is a matter of choice. And the best way to make that choice is to take microsteps. . . a commitment to making incremental changes and accumulating ‘small wins.’”

He also recaps big insights from other fields like the following:

  • “‘[P]rincipled negotiation’ . . . is based on a five-step process: Isolate your emotions. Go to the balcony. Step to their side. Don’t reject, reframe. Build them a golden bridge.”
  • In order to have difficult conversations: “1. First, be curious about the other side’s story. . . . 2. Tell your own story second. . . . 3. Create a third story together. . . . 4. Remember, this is not the last story you’ll tell together.”
  • Successfully lend one another support by understanding that we each have “different styles of expressing and receiving affection [known as] ‘the five love languages’ . . . 1. Words of affirmation. . . . 2. Gifts. . . . 3. Acts of service. . . . 4. Quality time. . . . 5. Physical touch.”

Still on the positive side, most readers will come away with quite a few techniques to try at home:

  • “[H]aving weekly family meetings increased communication, improved productivity, lowered stress, and made everyone much happier to ‘be part of the family team.’” Try starting with three questions: “1. What things went well in our family this week? 2. What things could we improve in our family? 3. What things will you commit to working on this week?”
  • “The [family] chart was divided into three columns: STUFF TO DO, THINGS IN PROGRESS, THINGS DONE.”
  • “[Create a s]elf-directed morning checklist [for the kids].”
  • Feel free to “move[] ‘family dinner’ to ‘family breakfast’ . . . . ‘Instead of feeling guilty because you don’t have the six o’clock thing, . . . it’s about coming together as a family whenever you have the time.’’’
  • “Aim for ten minutes of quality talk per meal. . . . Let your kids speak at least half the time. . . . Teach your kids one new word every meal.”
  • Since “the most important points in any argument can be found in the opening minutes,” you should make heated conversations short.
  • Be mindful of posture and posturing. “[Eye rolling isn’t] the only thing that conveys disrespect: Shifting in your seat, sighing, and stiffening your neck do, too. By contrast, the best ways to ease a tense conversation are to lean forward, smile a lot, and nod your head. . . . [P]ower poses include putting your feet up, looming over a table, lacing your fingertips behind your neck, or holding something rigid, like a clipboard. . . . Everybody in a meaningful conversation should sit at the same level, with the same posture.”
  • “We require our girls to divide their money into four pots: 1. Spend. . . . 2. Save. . . . 3. Give away. . . . 4. Share.”
  • “Granny Rules . . . 1. Your house, your rules; our house, our rules. . . . 2. You’re allowed to say what you want, as long as you’re not offended if we don’t take your advice. . . . 3. Grandparent our children; don’t parent them.”
  • Use scavenger hunts and games (e.g., “Throw out a statement, ‘I’m thinking of a time when we went to a place . . . All you can ask is yes or no questions. Go!’”) to pass the time while traveling.

Despite pulling together all these helpful and interesting tidbits, “The Secrets of Happy Families” fell short for me. The tone throughout (but particularly in the introduction) seemed a little glib, like a frat boy discussing the whole dad thing with a sort of slacker-pride. There also wasn’t much in the way of parenting theory. Lots of the tips are ones that successfully produce desired behavior from kids but in ways that are controversial. (For example, Feiler writes, “[P]eople are more driven to avoid losses than to achieve gains,” and tells his daughters, “‘Here is five dollars. If you add three vegetables this month, you get to keep it. If you don’t, you have to give it back.’” He presents this strategy as a happy family “secret” mentioning nothing about different schools of thought on exerting control over kids’ decision-making in this way.) For that reason – as well as the enormity of the undertaking – the book feels like a random grab bag of “stuff Bruce Feiler thinks works great” rather than an objective examination of the path to familial happiness.

In sum, “The Secrets of Happy Families” contains plenty of information that might help your family members feel more happy; but in many ways it’s like talking to a happily married friend rather than a couples counselor: she’ll have some great ideas, but neither the breadth of knowledge nor the focus needed to give you all the answers.

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