Bruce Feiler is one of America’s most popular voices on family, faith, and survival. He writes the “This Life” column about contemporary families for the Sunday New York Times and is the author of five consecutive New York Times bestsellers. For his new book The Secrets of Happy Families, he sought out the most creative minds from Silicon Valley to the country’s top negotiators, from the set of Modern Family to the Green Berets and asked what team-building exercises and problem-solving techniques they use with their families. Feiler then tested these ideas with his own wife and kids.
Bruce Feiler: There is this idea about families that exists no place else. We have our jobs – we work on those. We have our hobbies – we work on those. We have our bodies, our relationships – we work on those. Somehow there’s this idea that families are just supposed to be. It’s supposed to be organic. That kids come with their own instruction manual or something. But every parent I know doesn’t feel that way. We feel like our lives are out of control. And if I could put it in one headline I would say that as a parent I felt like I was always playing defense and never playing offense.
I’m the father of identical twin girls and my wife works and we were incredibly chaotic. We just felt lost and out of control. We would turn to our parents but their experience was so outdated as to be almost quaint. We’d Facebook our friends but they’re just as clueless as we are. And then we went looking for results and the traditional solutions just seemed very tired and out of date. And yet at the same time that these family experts were telling us the same thing over and over again, in every other area of contemporary life from business to sports to the military – there’s all these new ideas about having teams and groups work more effectively.
And so I wanted to go out, find out what those folks were doing in their homes and then test those ideas out with my own wife and kids. And my wife put one red line in the sand. She said, “Okay, I’m willing to try new things. I’m desperate but I don’t want theory. I don’t want some academic telling me what to do. I want to know that real families were actually doing these real things, then I’m willing to try.”
Number one problem in families – our lives are chaotic. You can’t just get your kids to 16 and say, “Go off and make decisions and enter your lives.” You need to give them the practice that they need in order to become independent. So here’s a way, with parental involvement mind you, we’re still setting the rules here – that lets your kids practice. So the key point is here to reduce stress, actually offload some of the responsibility to children. Empower them wherever possible and you’ll help prepare them to be the adults you want them to be.
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. And so we have adapted the system that many families are doing and it’s called a family meeting. And 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.
And here’s the key to the whole thing. We actually allow our kids, with adult supervision, help pick their own rewards and punishments. It sounds crazy. Anybody who’s not done it thinks the kids will be incredibly lax. Anybody who’s done it knows the kids are very, very strict. In fact, our girls are like little Stalins. We constantly have to dial them back. So let’s take this week. We’re working on overreacting – a common problem that parents have. We say to our kids, “Okay, get me a reward.” And one says, “If we get five minutes of overreacting this week. If we get under that we get a sleepover. If we’re over that we have to do one pushup for every minute over five minutes.”
First of all, I would never have picked that reward and punishment. Secondly, it’s actually that thinking that I’m really after here. And then my other daughter says, “Is that one five-minute overreaction or ten 30-second overreactions?” I loved that. I could never have created that sense of involvement. The latest research is showing that kids who plan their own schedules, set their own work actually evaluate their own progress are actually building up their brains. Their cortexes are getting bigger and they are taking more control over their lives.
When I set out working on The Secrets of Happy Families I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t squeeze everything into a list of three or five or seven things that you must do to have a happy family. One of the things I tried to do was to put 200 new ideas in this book because it would be very obvious that nobody could do them all. But if you pick three or five or seven that works for you and it might be different than what works for me or what works for my sister, I think you can have a happier family. And, to me, the biggest takeaway is you don’t need some master plan. You don’t need some big, new scheme that’s gonna be hard to set up and impossible to follow. You need to take small steps and accumulate small wins. What’s the secret to a happy family? Try.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd