Bruce Feiler's house was in chaos. He and his wife, Linda, have twin daughters, and every morning was a madcap rush to get everybody dressed, fed, and out the door in time. Such hectic mornings aren't unusual; the scene probably sounds familiar to many busy families. But Feiler kept wondering if things could be better — easier, smoother, happier. In addition to the daily stresses, Bruce and Linda were grappling with more fundamental questions: How could they impart values and responsibility to their girls, and still have fun as a family? How could they nurture and support and educate their daughters and also have time for each other?
Feiler found self-help and guide books to be outdated and off the mark. His parents' experience seemed almost quaint in the 21st century, and his friends were struggling with the same questions his family was. So Feiler set out on a mission: He would systematically try to gather advice for how to build a stronger, happier and healthier family, and he'd do it by drawing from unexpected disciplines — from software engineering teams and business branding experts, from sports coaches and military leaders, and even from the team behind Modern Family.
After years of collecting and testing such tips, Feiler gathered them in The Secrets Of Happy Families. With more than 200 individual strategies named in the book, most families would never dream of trying all of them, but Feiler believes that every family could benefit from at least a few of the insights.
Feiler joins NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about family meetings, how to take the mission statement out of the boardroom, and why everyone should rethink dinnertime.
On holding weekly family meetings
"My wife was skeptical at first, but she also, as she says, was so desperate for ideas she was willing to try. And then what happened was, our girls — we started when they were 5, they're almost 8 now, so we've been doing it for 3 years weekly — they really embraced it ... The key to what we do here is we let them pick their own rewards and punishments. Research shows that children who set their own goals, make their own schedules, evaluate their own work, actually build up their pre-frontal cortex and become more capable of making their own decisions and kind of taking more control over their own lives.
"We made a lot of mistakes at the beginning. We would say, 'so what's going on well in your life?' Or, 'what problems do you have?' And they would say, 'you know, I have this problem with a friend at school,' and that seemed irrelevant, or, 'you know what, I'm enjoying this book,' and that also seemed irrelevant. And I called some of the families who do this, and they said, 'no, you should be talking about the family, how the family is functioning,' and that's really when it hit — the family is so central to our lives, and the truth is very few of us actually work on that. And one of the things that we've learned is one of the keys to happiness is relationships. In some ways happiness is other people. Our family is our key relationship, and sort of it gave us this sense that oh, we're actually doing things to improve the chaos around our house."
On writing a family mission statement
"We did the family equivalent of a corporate retreat: We had a pajama party ... We had this conversation, like, 'what's really important to us?' So our family mission statement is: 'May our first word be adventure and our last word, love.' And then we came up with 10 core sentences: 'We live lives of passion. We dream undreamable dreams. We are travelers, not tourists. We help others to fly. We love to learn. We don't like dilemmas, we like solutions. We push through, we believe. We know it's OK to make mistakes. We bring people together. We are joy, rapture, yay.'
"We got it framed and it's now in our living room. And a few weeks after we did this, we got a call one day from the school that one of our daughters had gotten into a spat in the classroom. We had never gotten one of these calls and we didn't know what to do. Here we were, clueless parents, we should be responsible, what do we do? So we called our daughter in and we were kind of grasping and my wife said, 'Look up, there's the family mission statement, anything there seem to apply?' And my daughter kind of read down the list and she got to near the end and she said, 'We bring people together?' And suddenly, boom ... we had a way into the conversation. This is a value, this has been violated, now we had a way to talk about it."
On rethinking — or even eliminating — family dinner
"It is like the big bogeyman in families today ... Everybody has heard that family dinner is great for kids. But unfortunately, it doesn't work in many of our lives. Well, guess what? Dig deeper into the research and it's very interesting. It turns out there's only 10 minutes of productive conversation in any family dinner. The rest is taken up with take your elbows off the table and pass the ketchup. And what researchers have found is you can take that 10 minutes and put it in any time of the day and get the benefit. So, if you can't have family dinner, have family breakfast! Even one meal a week, on a weekend, has the same benefit.
"And it turns out in many ways that what you talk about at these times of togetherness is even more important than what you eat. Researchers at Emory gave children a 'do you know' test. Do you know where your grandparents were born? Do you know where your parents went to high school? Do you know any member of your family who had an illness or something terrible that happened to them that they overcame? Children who scored highest on the 'do you know' test had higher self-esteem and a greater sense of control over their lives. The 'do you know' test was the single biggest predictor of emotional health. If you tell your own story to your children — that includes your positive moments and your negative moments, and how you overcame them — you give your children the skills and the confidence they need to feel like they can overcome some hardship that they've felt."
Five Family Tips
Adapted from The Secrets of Happy Families, by Bruce Feiler
1. Let your kids pick their punishments. Our instinct as parents is to order our kids around. It's easier, and we're usually right! But it rarely works. The number one lesson we've learned is to let our kids pick their own rewards and punishments. We hold weekly family meetings where we all vote on two things to work on (this week it's overreacting) and ask our kids what will motivate them. (Under five minutes of overreacting, they get a sleepover; over 15 minutes, it's one pushup for every minute.) Research backs this up: Kids who set their own goals, make their own schedules, and evaluate their own work, build up their prefrontal cortex and take greater control over their lives. Give your kids practice developing the independence you want them to have later in life.
2. Don't worry about family dinner. Sure, we've all heard that family dinner is great for kids, but for many of us, it doesn't work with our schedule. Dig deeper, though, and the news is brighter for parents. Turns out there's only ten minutes of productive time in any meal; the rest is taken up with "Take your elbows off the table" and "pass the ketchup." You can take those ten minutes, place them at any time of the day, and have the same benefit. Can't have family dinner? Try family breakfast, meet for a bedtime snack, even one meal on weekends can help. Time-shifting isn't just for work or your favorite TV show; it also works with families.
3. Tell your story. The most important thing you can do may be the easiest of all. Tell your children the story of their family. Children who know more about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives – both their ups and their downs – have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their own challenges. Researchers have found that knowing more about family history is the single biggest predictor of a child's emotional well-being.
4. Ditch the sex talk. This may have been the hardest lesson for me to learn. As the father of girls, I was tongue-tied when it came to talking about sex, even body parts. Then I read that a majority of boys and girls know that boys have penises and girls have "down there." Guilty as charged! Even the American Society of Pediatrics say we should talk to kids as early as 18 months about proper names for their body parts and other age-appropriate issues. And as kids get older, it's much easier to talk about sexuality when kids are under ten, because as they get older, they tune us out. As one group of girls told me, "It's not 'The Talk.' It's a series of talks. It's a conversation." Dead on advice.
5. Change where you sit. There's tremendous know-how out there about how we rearrange our spaces to make our families function better, but most of it has remained hidden from parents. An environmental psychologist gave me some helpful advice. If you sit at hard surfaces, you'll be more rigid. If you sit on cushioned surfaces, you'll be more accommodating. "When you're disciplining your children, sit in upright chairs on cushioned surfaces," she said. "The conversation will go better." My wife and I even changed where we have difficult conversations, moving from my office, where I was sitting in the "power position" with her six inches lower, to a window seat in our bedroom, where we can be side by side at the same level.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that for most families weekday mornings can be a fairly stressful time. Here's a peak into my morning routine:
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)
MARTIN: So, this is our morning. It's about 7:20 in the morning. The baby's in a pretty good mood but he has a bad cold and I need to find something to wipe his nose with.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
MARTIN: OK. That didn't go very well.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
MARTIN: And while it's hard for me as a mother of a seven-month-old to imagine things only get more complicated when the kids get older. Our producer Peter Breslow has twin 13-year-old daughters, and here's a typical morning in their house.
UNIDENTIFIED BRESLOW DAUGHTER: I can't find my other shoe and I need to make my lunch. It's 7:37.
MARTIN: Managing the chaos of family life is just one of the topics that author Bruce Feiler tackles in his new book. It's called "The Secrets of Happy Families." Feiler himself is the father of twins, and when he went looking for parenting guidance, he says there weren't a lot of options.
BRUCE FEILER: Parents are in this straitjacket almost that the only ideas we can implement in our homes have to come from what I call from the family improvement industry - right - shrinks and self-help gurus and family experts. And to be honest, I found their ideas stale. Like, I kept hearing the same things over and over again.
MARTIN: So, to get some new ideas, Feiler looked in some unexpected places.
FEILER: I was having dinner. It was New Year's Eve, and I was with a group of friends. And I was sitting next to an executive at Silicon Valley. And I said tell me what's going on in your world that might be able to help my family. And she told me about this program that she was running at her company. And that program is called Agile. And it's an idea that things should not become top-down. They should be done in small groups and you should get constant feedback and change all the time and adapt. You know, our instinct as parents is to boss our kids around because it's easier and because we're usually right. But as any parent knows, if you tell the same kid to do the same thing over and over again, it doesn't work. And what, you know, what this system does is build in change, so you can react to what's going on in real time.
MARTIN: So, the cornerstone of this idea, this idea of agile family movement - and there is such a thing now - the cornerstone is this idea of the family meeting. How did this go down when you told your family that you were going to start having these?
FEILER: My wife was skeptical at first. But she also, as she says, was so desperate for ideas, she was willing to try. And then what happened was our girls - we started when they are five - they're almost eight now, so we had been doing for three years weekly - they really embraced it. And what was interesting about it was, first of all, the most amazing things started coming out of their mouths, right. So, what worked well this week? Getting over our fears of riding a bike or making our beds. What didn't go well? You know, our math sheets or greeting visitors at the door. You know, like a lot of parents, Rachel, we thought our children were like Bermuda triangles. You know, like ideas would go in but they would never come out. This meeting gave us kind of access to their innermost thoughts. You know, think about it, Rachel. We have our jobs. We work on those. We have our hobbies. We work on those. We have our bodies. We work on those. The family is so central to our lives. And the truth is very few of us actually work on that.
MARTIN: Another idea that you gleaned from someone who works in corporate America is the idea of drafting a family mission statement, which is really interesting. You would think, you know, that feels kind of corporate. How does this work for a family?
FEILER: I would say this is one of the top two or three things that I most enjoyed and that our family most benefited from. And it comes out of, again, of a core problem. Every parent I know struggles with this idea of how do I teach my kids values, right? How do I say even in the 24/7 world some things are timeless? And then I realized, you know, have I really told my children? I mean, I could sit down and ask my kids, you know, what's really important to your parents? But have I really made the trouble to tell them? So, we did the family equivalent of a corporate retreat; we had a pajama party, and we had this chart and we had this conversation, like, what's really important to us? What sayings that mom and dad use all the time do you most remember? And what is it that we most want to stand for? And it can't be what you want to stand for; it has to be actually, you know, honesty. Yeah, I get honesty is important but, come on, is that really a core value for us? You know, you can't just wag your finger. And we ended up with this list. And, you know, there's a lot of research that shows that if you identify what is your best possible self, you know, if you identify what it is that you aspire to, you're going to do a better job of trying to achieve that. So, our family mission statement is may our first word be adventure and our last word love.
MARTIN: There are lots of provocative ideas in the book, one that many listeners out there may find liberating. You say rethink the family dinner and maybe give it up entirely. How come?
FEILER: I-yi-yi-yi-yi. It is like the big bogeyman in families today. Like, everybody has heard that family dinner is great for kids. But unfortunately it doesn't work in many of our lives. Well, guess what? Dig deeper into the research and it's very interesting. It turns out there's only 10 minutes of productive conversation in any family dinner - 10 minutes. The rest is taken up with: take your elbows off the table and pass the ketchup. I mean, maybe my favorite idea in the whole book came out of this process of looking into family dinner. Researchers at Emory gave children a do you know test. Do you know where your grandparents were born? Do you know where your parents went to high school? Do you know any member of your family who had an illness or something terrible that happened to them that they overcame? Children who scored highest on the do you know test had higher self-esteem and a greater sense of control over their lives. If you tell your own story to your children - that includes your positive moments and the negative moments and how you overcame them - you give your children the skill and the confidence they need to feel like they can overcome some hardship that they face.
MARTIN: And it's OK to have those conversations, perhaps, in 10-minute increments - at night, in the morning or whenever you can sneak them in?
FEILER: You could do it in the morning. You could do it at carpool. You can do it snuggling in bed at night. You don't need a grand plan. You need to take small steps. You need to accumulate small wins. In the end, to me, this is the greatest lesson of all.
MARTIN: Bruce Feiler. His new book is called "The Secrets of Happy Families." He talked to us from our New York bureau. Bruce, thanks so much.
FEILER: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, what are your tips for a happy family? What have you tried that worked or didn't work? Let us know on our Facebook page, NPR Weekend. Or you can tweet me: @RachelNPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.