Author Bruce Feiler's new book, The Secrets of Happy Families, draws from copious amounts of research stretching across America. Feiler's starting point was a simple question: What do high-functioning families do that the rest of us could try to adopt? He was met with many overlapping answers related to problem solving, conflict management, and team-building exercises. In today's featured Big Think interview, Feiler discusses one such activity: the weekly family meeting.
A poll of one-thousand children administered by Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute asked, “If you could be granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?” Feiler recounts that most parents thought the answer would be that the kids wanted to spend more time with parents. They were wrong. The #1 answer was "I wish my parents were less stressed and tired."
We live hectic lives. In relation to our general responsibilities and freedoms, they are perhaps more hectic than ever before. We tend to be overscheduled; always juggling one thing with another. But that's not the only reason we're so stressed, says Feiler:
"The number one thing that I found in looking at high functioning families is that they adapt all the time. I thought as a parent I’ll make a few rules, I’ll stick to them, it’ll be easy. Turns out it doesn’t work that way. You need a system to adapt but you can’t adapt all the time. If you’re fighting over the broccoli on Tuesday or trying to get the mittens on to go to school on Thursday morning, you don’t want to have the conflict in that actual moment."
In writing his book, Feiler experimented with his findings by applying them to his own family. Thus, in order to avoid these moments of conflict in the moment, he adapted a solution for ironing out issues:
"We meet 15-20 minutes every Sunday night. And we ask three questions taken from Agile development which is a system that began in the software world that has now taken over management. And the three questions are what worked well in our family this week, what didn’t work well and what will we agree to work on in the week ahead."
Every member of the family gets the opportunity to pick their own behavioral rewards and punishments (with adult supervision, of course). Where most families exist simply as guinea pigs, Feiler's family strives to be both the examiners and the examined. It's an introspective, awareness-based system of running as a family. And it works.
Responsibilities can be offloaded to children so that parental stress can be reduced. This is also a way to empower children as young as 4. You'll have to incentivize the meetings somehow -- especially with obstinate teenagers -- but this proven strategy will work to strengthen the family core as long as the effort is made to honestly assess family issues.