Surprising secrets of happy families

Modern Family ... It turns out having a happy family isn’t as complicated as all those self-help books make it out to be.
Modern Family ... It turns out having a happy family isn’t as complicated as all those self-help books make it out to be. 

Move over Dr Spock, the latest parenting advice comes from elite peace negotiators, the creators of Modern Family and leading business experts. Mel Hearse takes us through some of the more surprising secrets revealed in Bruce Feilers latest best seller – the Secret of Happy Families.

Self confessed ‘explain-aholic’ and ‘experientialist’ Bruce Feiler says his latest book came about after he decided to break his personal stalemate with parenting bibles, after becoming frustrated and confused by conflicting expert advice on how to raise a happy family in the 200+ books he had read authored by therapists and counsellors. He says found the advice swung from one extreme; "be strict like the Chinese", to the other; "be lax like the French", leaving him with no clear idea on which way to go. He decided to bypass the parenting experts altogether and instead look to those with expertise in the issues that so often create havoc in his home, including discipline, argument wrangling, teaching problem solving skills, and helping his kids build a strong sense of self. He gathered advice from the fields of technology, business, sports and the military, and found, rather than the often stale advice he got from parenting bibles, innovative ideas, that been proven to work within their own families.

Surprise one: The mornings are not your responsibility.

<i>The Secret of Happy Families</i> by Bruce Feiler
The Secret of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler 

If you’ve ever done the morning banshee interpretive dance combo (I once had a call from a friend an hour after school drop off asking if I was okay. When I asked why, she said one of my kids had autodialed her while I was mid screeching match. It was an embarrassing wake up call), then this is one you’ll love. After my mishap, I read with interest that mornings in the Feilers house were very similar to my own. When an organisational expert recommended they hand the reigns over to the kids via a check off board that listed all they needed to complete to be ready to roll in the morning, Feiler was as sceptical as I. But the expert made a fair point – how many of us use a list when in the office to remind us of all we need to do, and how amazing is that feeling as you tick off each item? Well, kids see it the same way, and as a bonus, they are learning valuable self management skills and gaining confidence at their ability to complete tasks. The arm twister that convinced him to give it a go? The family that he took the idea from had gone from screaming hissy fits all round, to mum coming down stairs, fixing herself a cup of coffee and quietly observing, ready to step in when she needed to, which rarely happened after only a month.

Surprise Two: Having dinner together every night is not as important as you think.

One of the ‘experts’ in the book is former marine, turned US celebrity chef John Besh, who upon discovering a McDonalds wrapper in his kitchen bin, confronted his wife about serving such rubbish to his children. She pointed out that if he fed his family as well as he fed his customers, they’d be a healthier and happier bunch. This got his mind ticking over. The research clearly indicates that children that sit down to dinner together are happier and healthier. BUT, research also indicates less of us do it in an increasingly time poor society. Besh sat down to think about why he wasn’t serving more family meals, and realised between school and after school activities and his work, the family simply wasn’t together often at dinner time. His answer? If the benefit was in having that regular sit down, face to face time to talk, then maybe it was about choosing a time that suited their family’s timetable better. He worked out they were all home together at breakfast time, and again later in the evening when they came home from sports events and work. So their “family dinner” became a sit down breakfast, and they’d all reconvene in the evening for a dessert.

Surprise Three: You don’t have to have it out immediately

Feiler discovered after observing one very happy family with a father that works in IT and agile systems, that family meetings can take a lot of pressure off those in-the-moment times, and provide an overall stability with the family unit. Feiler says that by having a once a week family meeting, when issues arose, it was no longer a make or break moment – it was acknowledged that all issues would be raised with the whole family at this time. The meeting would open with a comment from each person about “What worked well in our family this week”, “what needed work this week” and ended with “what are two solutions for each problem that will work for us all.” The meetings must be an open playing field, where everyone has an equal standing and can raise suggestions, and it’s a safe zone where kids can bring up issues they may be having with how things are run without fearing they’ll be told off for raising it – it doesn’t mean they will get their own way as such, but they feel they will at least be heard and acknowledged. “Ultimately, we want to raise children that can think and problem solve for themselves, this gives them a safe place to do it, and it actively shows them the mechanics of problem solving – for example, why an idea might seem great, but how you break it down and discuss it to decide if it will work in practice, teasing out the potential issues and creating solutions before it is put into motion.” 

Surprise four: Let the kids pick their own punishment


Another surprising outcome from the discussions with the IT expert was the recommendation that his kids pick their own rewards and punishments. Feiler says our instinct as parents is to order our kids around, but as we all know it doesn't really work that well. The more you're enlisting your kids in their upbringing the more you are giving them the skills to succeed later in life. He also says he was surprised to see he had to encourage his kids not to punish themselves as harshly as they wanted to!

Surprise five: Knowing their family history is key to good confidence.

One of the more interesting points in the book for me came from a psychology professor who says children that know more about their family history have better self confidence and a stronger sense of proportion when issues arise. Rather than knowing their family was “all good”- only sharing the great moments in family history, or “all bad”, those that know good and bad things about their personal family history build a sense of realism – good and bad things happen in our lives and we deal with the bad and enjoy and celebrate the good, and they also build a sense of being part of something that is bigger than just themselves. Feiler found that a simple game called 'Do You Know?’ can help kids build this family knowledge - Ask your kids; Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know how your parents met? Do you know of someone in your family who had a tragedy that they overcame? “The more children know about their past the more they are able to deal with problems in the future."

So if you are looking for a fresh batch of ideas when it comes to parenting, Feiler’s book provides an interesting perspective, with heaps of easy and fun things to do (there is a very helpful section on handling family holidays that is a must read!)