By Hank Pellissier
Three years ago, author Bruce Feiler experienced a mild life crisis, which upended long-held assumptions about family life. He’d suffered through an especially wretched summer vacation with his wife and twin 5-year-old girls. He had two healthy, adorable daughters and a loving partner. Why didn’t this all add up to domestic bliss? Like most any parent, he wanted his family to function with easy, intuitive love and happiness. But he discovered that the daily disharmonies of modern family life — the innervating relentlessness of chaotic mornings and stressful evenings — made a happy hearth seem an impossible dream.
In response, Feiler did what any good journalist does: research. He embarked on three years of extensive fieldwork that included reading about 200 books and questioning scores of experts. His efforts paid off. The Secrets of Happy Families is reeling in glowing reviews, grateful letters, and best of all, his family life is humming with efficiency and, for the most part (they still have their moments, he admits), sweetness.
Feiler's approach is out of the box. The Secrets of Happy Families makes a u-turn from the decades-long trend of applying psychoanalysis to family life. He eschews family therapists, viewing their ideas as "tired and out-of-date." Instead, his inquiry guides him to experts in unrelated fields, garnering tips on team-building from Green Berets, allowance advice from Warren Buffett's banker, and games for road trips from Zynga. The result? A guidebook packed with counterintuitive ideas that can sound downright revolutionary. Forget the family dinner. Have the kids pick their punishments. And by all means hold the weekly family meetings, as long as the parents aren’t sitting in “power positions”.
Feiler's guarantee is a bold one: "If you take just one idea from each chapter … your family will be transformed in less than a week.” We caught up with Feiler for a quick chat (a sometimes blurry but still inspiring Skyped video interview) right before his now 8-year-old twins’ birthday party.
Maybe the biggest thing I learned while working on The Secrets of Happy Families is that the model of running a family — that I was doing — wasn't working. Like all other parents, we felt out of control and on the defensive with our children as they were entering elementary school. The biggest change that we've done is to start this weekly family meeting, where every week we sit down for 20 minutes and discuss how we're operating as a family. And we ask three questions: what worked well this week, what didn't work well, and what we are going to work on in the week ahead ...
So my response to your question is, OK, if that's not working well, bring it to the family meeting, discuss it as a group, and say, “Look, we have a house, we've got to clean it — everybody who lives here — we're not going to do the work for you. We need everybody to do their share. We're not going to pay you to clean the house. We know that doesn't work, paying for chores, because kids will just do the chore for the money and not because they're part of the team. And so we have to work on it together ...
Our kids didn't like the fact that we called them "chores." … So we said, “Fine, call it whatever you want to call it … and they chose to call it "awesome stuff." So now we say, "OK, have you done your awesome stuff?" So now we have "awesome stuff" and every week they have to pick an hour's worth of awesome stuff … we have it divided into 30 minute jobs and 15 minute jobs. A 30 minute job is making the shopping list or cleaning out the pantry and a 15 minute job is fluffing the pillows around the house. But again, that system might not work in your family. The point of being an agile, adaptive family is you want to try things. You want to succeed and fail quickly ... Whatever problem — bring it to the family, solicit imput from 360 degrees, all members of the family — until you get a system that works for you.
… Nothing is top-down in the world anymore: not government, not business, even the military is not run top-down anymore. If we're running our families top-down — as a Dad, I can elbow my kids into doing something once or twice, but it's just not going to work long-term. So we want to bring our children into the conversation and these family meetings — following the latest cutting edge brain research — are actually letting our children recommend their own rewards and punishments. We want … their buy-in. Whenever children can get involved in setting up the system, it makes them intrinsically more motivated, and as parents, that's the golden ticket.
We want our kids … not to be calling us when they're 24 years old, wondering how can they do the laundry because they've never been taught. We want them to be motivated as young as possible. When you're training them this way, you're doing them and yourself, as a parent, a big favor.
First of all, don't talk to my wife, and don't talk to me. We are naggers here. The challenge with the parent who nags and hovers and reminds and pushes and nudges their child is that the parent is keeping too much authority. And again, I'm guilty of this, so speaking from a lot of experience. But whenever I allow myself to give up more authority and empower my children more, that's moving me in the right direction. Because it's about power when you're nagging all the time …
I'm constantly saying to them, "You set the schedule. Here's a Saturday, OK? We got a big day. You want to read, you want to kick a soccer ball in the backyard, you want to go for a bike ride. I also need you to take a bath and practice your musical instrument and write a thank you note for that birthday party you went to … So first of all you set the schedule. Secondly, you tell me the consequences if you don't do it. I could pick the consequence, but I want you to pick it. If it is six o'clock and it turns out that you haven't taken your bath or written your thank you note or done your homework, you tell me — the parent — what I'm going to do with you ... If you don't like punishment, then go with rewards. Give me the punishment if you don't do this by six o'clock, and you give me the reward if you have it done by six o'clock."
And you'd be surprised. You may think they're going to pick lame punishments and outrageous awards, but the truth is, that's actually not what's going to happen … So whenever possible, instead of nagging, “I want this done, I want this done, I want this done," get them to agree they need to do it. And then let them set the structure around how they’re going to do it.
I heard from a lot of readers of Happy Families that are trying these meetings and they're not working. And let me first of all say that it took us a long time to get them to function. That's point number one. Point number two: you’ve got to keep them short and limit what you're trying to accomplish. A tip if you've got small kids: put the allowance at the end; that means the kid will likely stick around.
But I think if you've got older children who may be grumpy … there's going to be a moment in the course of a week where your child comes to you and wants something. They're going to want to go to Susie’s house to watch a movie. They're going to want to go out and stay past their curfew. They're going to want to stay up past their bedtime …
And they're going to — if they're smart — want come to you at the most stressful moment in your week. They're going to come to you when you're cooking dinner and the doctor is on the phone and you have to get grandma to an appointment. They're going to come to you right before bedtime and they're going to know that you'll want them to go to bed so much that you'll agree to something you don't want. And that moment, when the child wants something from you, that's the moment to propose the family meeting.
That's the moment to say, "I'm not going to do this now. I'm not going to have this conversation or this fight or … referee the fight you're having with one of your siblings … I will do it at the family meeting. I'm proposing that we do it on Sunday night. If you don't like it on Sunday night, you tell me when you want it."
The point is: you've got to get them to the point where they want something from you; that’s the moment it will work. If you are forcing it on them, maybe they're going to be resistant to it … If you're selling it as a way to impose parental order, what kid is going to want to come? If you sell it as a way for the kid to get what the kid wants, the kid is more likely to want to attend.
… We're working on this, in fact, this week. The research clearly shows that siblings fight, family members fight because they take one another for granted… I have twin daughters, and they can be incredibly loving and I feel so honored to be their dad. But … they can be vicious because they know exactly how to press the buttons. The research on siblings does show that if you want to cut down on that disrespect and tension between them, if you give them collaborative tasks — something to do together as a team, say 10 minutes before there's a high-stress event, say a meal or a long car ride ... it will remind them that they benefit from one another and it has been shown to reduce tension.
… The research clearly shows that parents should spend less time worrying about what they do wrong and more time focusing on what they do right. If you make these positive memories, they will outweigh the negative ones. So I think that when we get into a negative cycle around here — with yelling and screaming and disrespect — my wife is the one constantly reminding me to take my own lesson … Let's do something together where we have a positive experience and then let's go back and tackle that problem that we're all disagreeing about.
We have this mythology that in the old days … families just happened. And that the idea of working on your family is somehow an admission of defeat. That is an absurd notion that we need to get over. We have our jobs and we work on those. We have our hobbies, we work on those. We have our bodies, we work on those. Everybody in a relationship knows you have to work on a relationship. This idea that you don't have to work on your family is a real hurdle that people have to get over.
And I'll go one step further. We have a tremendous amount of knowledge out there that has already changed how we parent. Nobody would consider putting a 2-year-old in the backseat without being in a car seat. No one would consider putting a child on a bike without a bike helmet. We know that smoking in front of your children can be dangerous. We know that drinking while pregnant can be dangerous. We have taken advantage of knowledge in almost every other aspect of how we live our lives, and yet we are somehow reluctant to take advantage of that knowledge with our families.
And so if I've learned one thing, it is that we're not alone. Almost any problem that you are facing, you are not the first person to be facing that problem. And there is tremendous know-how about how to make dinnertime more successful, how to make discipline smarter, about how to make family chaos reduced, how to make work-life balance, about how to integrate Mom in the workplace, about how to integrate Dad in the parenting space … We know how to fight smarter … What I am trying to do in The Secrets of Happy Families is say, "I'm desperate, I'm lost, I want new ideas. I know the answers are out there, but I don't have time to look in a hundred places."
Well, I spent the last three years looking in the hundred places and tried to put them in one place so people had the answers. That's what The Secret of Happy Families is meant to be. You're not going to like all the ideas, but I would be stunned if you couldn't find three ideas in it that make your family happier.
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