Author Bruce Feiler lists the three major family shifts of the past generation: shifting definitions, working women, and a more intent focus on solutions over debate. He then explains how exploring these shifts led him to write his latest book, The Secrets of Happy Families.
There have been three big changes in the family in the last generation. First the definition of the family has changed. So we now have adopted families, blended families, nuclear families living in separate houses and divorced families living in the same house. Also we have women have flooded into the workplace. Two-thirds of women now work outside of the home. And the last thing which we don’t talk about as much is that men have come flooding into the parenting space. Dads are much more involved in families. And I think this new generation of parents, because they are much more active and much busier – technology, work, et cetera, they’re much more interested in solutions. So that the old debates, be strict like the Chinese or be lax like the French, are no longer satisfying for them. They want results, they want to know what works and they want to be able to do it in their families.
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 We would turn to our parents but their experience was so outdated as to be almost quaint.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 And then we went looking for results and the traditional solutions just seemed very tired and out of date.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 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.”
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. And yet there’s all these new ideas out there. So if that’s where the action is – if the action is in business or in sports or in someplace else, let’s bring those ideas in.
If your family doesn’t have this problem, fine. Don’t take these solutions. I’m surely not wagging my finger and telling people what to do. I’m saying that we were desperate for new ideas. I went founding them and I found a lot of them in unlikely places.
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. I don’t know about you but I hate those lists. I forget number two. I disagree with number four and I feel like I’m doomed. 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.