How To Raise A Happy, Successful Family According To Science

The core factors behind family happiness and success that have endured for generations, including rituals, stories, family dinners, and open communication.

Originally Published: 
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The following was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life.

Over the last few generations, the idea of family has evolved in the American popular imagination. The old cliché of 2.5 kids and a dog has given way to broader, more inclusive constructs of family structures, roles, and dynamics. Yet, while families have transformed and adapted with the times, science shows that what makes families happy has remained the same.

According to Harvard psychology professor Dr. Anne Fishel, Director of Family and Couples Therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, the keys to family happiness today are “much the same as 50 or 100 years ago.”. Decades of research has proven that these approaches just work.

Here are Fishel’s top five tips for creating a happy family life and her suggestions on how to make them work for your modern family — whatever it may look like.

Establish Positive Child-Adult Relationships

What The Research Says

Happy families are led by adults who set strong examples. Citing the famous Harvard Grant Study, which sought to determine the formula for a happy life, Fishel notes that kids grow up happy when they have a positive relationship with at least one adult.

Generally, that means a parent. But it could also mean a grandparent, teacher, or favorite uncle. “Consistency, love, and listening on the part of adults make children feel they matter and believe the world is safe enough to venture out, try new things, and make new relationships,” she says.

What You Can Do With This

High expectations, consistent feedback, and high responsiveness to your kid’s needs together form what Fishel calls “a winning combination of firmness and kindness.” Here’s how to pull it off:

  • Show Consistency. Be a rock-solid presence in your kid’s life both inside and outside the home. Guest read at daycare, coach soccer on weekends, or tutor them after school.
  • Build Trust. Let them lead in “hold my hand” situations. Have them guide your next walk around the neighborhood — even if they veer off course.
  • Ensure They Feel Loved and Safe. There can never be too many affectionate nicknames, family inside jokes, or too much encouragement.
  • Discipline Productively. Toddler tantrums aren’t fun, but they are great teaching moments. Let kids express their emotions. If they react inappropriately, firmly tell them that their behavior is unacceptable and point them toward a more appropriate alternative.
  • Build Strong Values. Model values you want to instill in your kids, but allow them to make those choices for themselves as they grow up.

Create Family Rituals

What The Research Says

Rituals are events that occur in a particular place at a predictable time. According to Fishel, family rituals “offer a sense of predictability, stability, and time away from the hubbub of everyday concerns for families to focus on one another.”

Scheduling allows families to carve out time together, which strengthens connections and builds memories. Fishel notes that “kids who feel connected to their parents report feeling less stressed and have a seat belt on the potholed road of childhood and adolescence.”

What You Can Do With This

Family rituals that work should not be too rigid or stressful, so establish ones that are easily incorporated into daily life. Read stories to younger kids (or a chapter from a novel to older ones), set up a family game night every Friday, call grandparents every Sunday, or return to a favorite restaurant for every birthday celebration. One of the most beneficial rituals cited by the experts is family dinner.

Have A Family Meal Routine

What The Research Says

Sharing family meals has a positive impact on everything from family health to household budget to children’s cognitive development. Eating together creates strong bonds and great memories while also creating a forum for family members to communicate with each other. These benefits led Fishel to help launch The Family Dinner Project. “Food is to families as LEGOs are to school kids,” she says. “It’s the medium of play for families.”

What You Can Do With This

Historically, the most reliable place and time for American families to come together has been around the dinner table. However, modern realities make this challenging for many. Fishel says that’s okay. Though five nights a week is ideal, “there is no magic number, nor is dinner inherently preferable to other meals,” she explains. “If your family finds breakfast or weekend lunches easier meals for a gathering, then these could also ‘count.’”

Use mealtime to stay up-to-date on each other’s lives by encouraging kids to talk and making them feel heard. Not sure how to start that conversation? Fishel’s got you covered.

And, though technology can be a great communication tool, this is the time to turn off screens, unplug, and “put face-to-face time at the forefront so kids know they’re not competing with anyone else who’s not there.”

Share Family Stories

What The Research Says

According to Fishel and research by psychologist Marshall Duke at Emory University, kids who know family stories grow up feeling more resilient and have more self-esteem. By learning the story of their family, kids develop a feeling of shared identity. This helps them understand that they’re part of something bigger than themselves and that life can unfold in unpredictable ways. When you include them in the story, you honor their future path.

What You Can Do With This

The objective isn’t to school your kids in a game of family “20 Questions.” It’s for them to learn about their family history and experiences from you, including talking about your past struggles.

“Children gain hope about how they may grow up when they hear their parents weren’t always this competent,” says Fishel. Just be sure to emphasize the moral of the story, rather than yourself as a role model in it. The point of you telling them you weren’t an “A-plus” student isn’t to give them latitude to bring in a C average; it’s to let them know it’s ok to stumble as long as you keep going.

Foster Open Communication

What The Research Says

Open communication is so beneficial to families that Fishel made it a cornerstone of The Family Dinner Project. Talking to young kids helps them develop language skills that are important for discussing their feelings, celebrating accomplishments, and bolstering their sense of self.

As kids grow older, communication is central to developing conflict resolution skills and building empathy. “When parents show empathy for a child’s feelings, the child develops the capacity to feel empathy towards others,” says Fishel. By communicating openly, families demonstrate mutual respect for each other. This way, when they need to express frustrations or have challenging conversations with each other, they all feel secure and supported.

What You Can Do With This

For younger kids:

Give them ways to talk about how they feel. Have them tell you a story from their day or their imagination. Read or tell stories about characters who have specific feelings, and ask how the stories make them feel. Was the Big Bad Wolf frustrated? Ashamed? Hangry?

Listen and make them feel heard. If they say something like, “I hate my sister,” rather than contradicting them with, “You don’t really mean that,” help them to better understand and express themselves with responses like, “What makes you feel that way?” or, “What would you like to say to her?”

For older kids:

To build trust and respect, ensure you are talking with them, not at them, and say what you mean. Make sure they know it’s okay to disagree but also understand the importance of acknowledging other people’s feelings. Don’t be afraid to tackle challenging topics, and frame them up in ways they can relate to.

For example, you can use their most recent allowance negotiation attempt to segue into a discussion about healthy financial habits. Or, you can talk about how your new job affects the family’s finances — including their allowance.

Bringing your kids into these conversations reminds them that the lines of communication are always open. This builds empathy and makes them more likely to come to you when they need help solving a problem in which adult guidance would be beneficial.

The Impact Of Technology On Family

While much has been written about how consumer technology affects kids and families, it may be a while before a longitudinal study draws overarching conclusions on the subject.

It is Fishel’s belief that, as the first generation of digital natives to parent digital natives, Millennials will have a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to navigating technology than their parents. “The generation before pulled punches; their kids’ knowledge made them feel incompetent. This generation could offer more guidance.”

That is both a prediction and a directive. Keep up with the latest information so you are confident in your guidance and smart in your approach. Help your family embrace technology when it helps and avoid it when it hurts or distracts.

Where You Go From Here

Local parks and playgrounds are now populated by single parents, same-sex couples, stay-at-home parents, and a new generation of fathers who spend triple the amount of time with their kids than dads did in 1965. Yet, regardless of each family’s makeup, research shows happiness can be pursued successfully in predictable ways by parents who care. There are no perfect families or parenting methods, but success starts when adults put family first. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re already doing that.

This article was produced in partnership with our friends from New York Life, who are committed to keeping your family happy and secure over time. To help ensure your money goes the distance through life’s transitions, visit New York Life.

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