The Secrets of Happy Families: Bruce Feiler’s Tips for Parenting

Forget family dinner, embrace conflict, and other new ideas from author Brue Feiler about how to have a happier family.

It’s time to free parents from the grip of the family-improvement industry.

A few years ago, just as my children emerged from the slog of diaper caddies and sippy cups, my wife and I grew incredibly frustrated. Our home was chaotic. Our voices were hoarse from yelling. Our endless cycle of threats and bribes were increasingly being ignored. Worse, we didn’t know where to turn. Our parents’ experience was so outdated as to be quaint; our friends were just as clueless as we were.

So I did what we’re all told to do in such moments; I turned to the experts. Here’s what I got: 30-year-old advice, delivered with warmed-over homilies, retold endlessly. Eat family dinner. Set clear parental authority. Listen to what your children say, repeat back what they say, acknowledge their feelings.

Really? That the best you got?

What was most galling about this dearth of new ideas is that while parents were trapped in the straightjacket that the only ideas they’re allowed to implement must come from shrinks, self-help gurus, and other “family experts,” in every other arena of contemporary life, there were tons of new ideas about how to make teams and groups run more smoothly. Surely some people in those worlds had adopted techniques to improve their families.

Boy have they. From elite peace negotiators to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, from online game designers to championship sports coaches, a new generation of parents is finally breaking free from the tyranny of parenting books and forging a bold, new playbook for successful families. I spent the last few years meeting those families, reviewing the research behind their techniques, and compiling their best practices.

Here’s a sample of their secrets—fresh, creative, proven to work.

1. Don’t worry about family dinner. Sure family dinner has benefits, but for countless families—mine included—it doesn’t always work with our schedules. Dig deeper into the research and the story is more encouraging. Extensive studies have shown there’s only 10 minutes of real conversation at family meals. The rest is taken up with “Don’t talk with your mouth full” and “Please pass the ketchup.” You can take those 10 minutes and place them any time of day and have the same benefits. As chef John Besh shared with me in New Orleans, when their family couldn’t eat dinner together, they switched to family breakfast, added a bedtime snack, and made Sunday meals central. Time-shifting is not just for work or TV shows anymore. You can time-shift family dinner, too.

2. Tell your story. In many ways, what you talk about during shared mealtime (or any time) is more important than what you eat. One of the more valuable skills a parent can give a child doesn’t cost a dime. It’s the ability to tell a simple story about their lives.

Around age 5, children develop the tools to describe past events, but these skills must be practiced. Ask your child to recall a memorable experience, then follow up with “elaborative questions.” Who? What? When? Where? Why? Asian-American researchers compared American and Asian parents. The American mothers asked more elaborative questions and provided more positive feedback, while the Asian moms focused more on discipline. When the researchers checked back a few years later, the American children recalled more about their past, while the Asian students remembered more about their daily routines. The more kids remembered about their own history, the more confidence they had to approach challenges in their lives. Especially before a big test, sporting event, or other high-stress moment, encourage your children to tell stories about their past successes or how they overcame failure. It will boost their performance.

3. Fight smarter. All families have conflict. The ones who handle it smarter are more likely to succeed. Conflict resolution didn’t exist as a field when Dr. Spock reigned, but a generation of scholars has introduced new techniques to resolve showdowns, from nuclear arms pacts to general strikes. These techniques also work with squabbling siblings. Bill Ury, the co-author of Getting to Yes and co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, told me that since families are no longer top-down, new rules have to be brokered all the time. “Ours is the first generation where continuous negotiation is the norm,” he said.

We adopted a watered-down version of the Harvard blueprint with our daughters. First, separate siblings for a few minutes to let everyone calm down. (In negotiation speak, this is “step to the balcony.”) Encourage everyone to come up with at least two solutions. (This breaks the “my way is the only way” problem.) Then vote on the winner. As one instructor at the Harvard Negotiation Project, who’s also a dad, told me, these ideas may be better suited to families. “In the workplace, you can avoid conflict,” he said, “but at home, you can’t.”

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4. Give war a chance. Research shows parents should spend less time worrying about what goes wrong and more time building up what goes right. In a word: make time to play. Yet at my family’s extended gatherings, different families often retreated to their own corners and groused about the other families. For help I turned to the folks who are most experienced at bringing different people together: The military. Navy researchers have extensively studied how to build “unit cohesion.” They gave me a few tips for everyday families. Form teams, made with members of different generations, and have a color war; give out lots of awards, badges, and trophies; spend time telling your family’s history, with trivia contests or field trips to places important to grandparents or other ancestors.

The bottom line: we have our jobs, we work on those; we have our hobbies, we work on those; we have our bodies, we work on those. Our families are the biggest key to our overall happiness. If we spend just a little time working on them, we’ll make our overall lives happier.

Adapted from The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More by Bruce Feiler.