Family Happiness Hacks From Experts In Everything But Families

bruce feiler
ADVERTISEMENT

Crib Notes summarize all the parenting books you’d read if you weren’t too busy parenting. For great advice in chunks so small a toddler wouldn’t even choke on them, go here.

If you’re looking to older generations for wisdom, or child psychologists for practical advice on what to do with your kid, you might not be looking deep enough. After all, your parents are now grandparents and they’ve really lost their child rearing fastball (“Just give them a glass of wine? He’s 5!”). And an old school baby guru like Dr. Ferber is now considered more of a Dr. Lecter (brilliant mind, unconventional methods, hungry for human skin).

Read More

When New York Times columnist and best-selling author Bruce Feiler was confronted with unsatisfying answers about how to improve his family’s well-being from the above, he spoke to people who were nothing close to parenting experts. As the father of 2 girls, he wrote the book he always wanted to read and titled it: The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play and Much More. (The Secret was already taken.)

Feiler found amazing insights into how to make family life more enjoyable for all — and none of them came from places you might expect. The big takeaway is all of these people said being present for your family is Job Number One. And if all goes right, then maybe you can be the expert your kids will come to for advice.

From The Software Developer

Startups have to be lean and smart in order to succeed. The lean part is easy: Just fail to make a profit (Hey! You did that for most of your 20s!). The smart part is hard, and that’s where the “agile development” system comes in — it’s a software development philosophy from the 90s that swept through Silicon Valley, which is where software engineer David Starr got the idea to use it in his own home. The central idea of agile development is that it requires constant review and adjustment that facilitates good ideas from anyone, not just bad ideas from the boss.

The Secret to Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

What You Can Do With This
Create an “information radiator”: It’s essentially a fancy checklist that includes everything from chores to acts of kindness. Use Post-It notes to navigate tasks that are “to-do”, “in-progress”, and “finished.”

  • Get the kids involved in creating the list. It ensures that they’ll feel ownership over things that benefit the whole family; also, some of their ideas might even be good.
  • Have regular weekly family meetings. Ask what went well during the week, what didn’t, and what you can work on. Keep the kids involved in the discussion — even if they insist that everyone try harder at fart noises (because you haven’t really trying, have you?).
  • Flexibility is key. Making things run smoothly requires an openness to accepting good ideas (i.e. fart noises) that help you pivot into the right groove.

From The Foreign Policy Negotiator

In order to learn how to “fight better” with his wife, Feiler attended a seminar by Bill Ury, founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project. This is the man who used to negotiate nuclear issues between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and has studied how everything from body language to timing affects the outcome. And while Ury’s methods are meant to diffuse situations where the nuclear option is literally nuclear, they’re also pretty useful for solving your household disagreements over the family budget.

What You Can Do With This

  • Give yourself timeouts: Ury says to note when your emotions reach a boiling point and remove yourself both literally and metaphorically. He says to envision the argument happening on stage and moving to the balcony to assess the situation.
  • Fight faster: The most important things said in an argument are usually said in the first 3 minutes. From there, it’s just a bunch of rephrasing, but louder.
  • Pay attention to your body language. The eye roll is the most dismissive reaction you can have, but seat shifting, neck stiffening, and sighing will piss your spouse off, too. Lean forward, smile, and nod your head.
  • Say “We” not “You”; It’s a proven predictor of healthy relationships.
  • Expand the pie before dividing it. Sit side-by-side and write a list of possible solutions to whatever you’re arguing about. Ask open-ended questions. Then eliminate all the bad ideas (maybe pitch a few bad ones yourself, so you can look magnanimous).

From The Marketer

Feiler wondered how he could instill a deep sense of values in his family. Through a veteran entrepreneur expert named David Kidder, he discovered the notion of a “belief board.” Like Kanye, you need to know your family’s brand if you’re going to be the greatest of all time.

The board contains a representative symbol — a tagline of sorts (“Do unto others” for instance) — and foundational words like “faith” and “purpose.” Prominently displayed, it makes clear to everyone what it means to be part of the family. It’s also less stodgy than a coat of arms and less aggressive than the dreaded “belief paddle.”

What You Can Do With This

  • Make sure the whole family has input into building the brand.
  • Build an exhaustive list of phrases that define how your family lives their best life — and cut it down. Make it short. Make it memorable. Just do it.
  • Build your board (add symbols if you like) and hang it somewhere it can’t be missed. Like in front of the TV.

From The Restauranteur

Family dinner is crucial on all sorts of developmental and success levels. It’s also a scheduling nightmare. Feiler wondered if the food was important, or if it was just the act of hanging with the family in a ritualized way. He spoke with famed New Orleans chef John Besh, who started feeding his family ahead of feeding customers, and came to the conclusion that family “dinner” can happen anywhere.

The Secret to Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

What You Can Do With This

  • Gather when your schedule allows. Can’t get together for dinner? Eat snacks together before practices and have a sit-down dessert later that evening.
  • Be prepared. Now that have everyone gathered, make sure you have things to cook. Create a meal plan and cook big dishes that make for easy, freezable leftovers.
  • Have conversations. Dinner shouldn’t just be rhythmic chewing noises. Get everyone to talk about the day’s challenges, Share funny stories. Try a 4-part harmony of “Afternoon Delight.” Anything to start communicating better.

From the Sex-Talk Mom

In his research Feiler encountered a suburban Connecticut mom named Kate Eggleston, who had made a name for herself in her neighborhood by speaking frankly about sex with her children (in an appropriate way). From proper body part names, to oral sex, to how to put on a condom, this mom became the suburban Dr. Ruth and created sex-knowledgeable kids who were less likely to screw… up.

What You Can Do With This

  • Penis. Vagina. Say these words without resorting to the anatomically incorrect pee-pee and hoo-ha. Your kid can’t be proud of their sexuality if they’re using silly words to mask it.
  • Talk about everything from condoms to consent before school pals fill their heads with misinformation.
  • Answer questions simply, directly, and without too much graphic detail.
  • Seeing healthy intimate relationships (i.e. kissing and hugging your spouse) will help normalize sexuality and reduce shame. Although it may increase vomit noises from your children in the short term.

The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

Get Fatherly In Your Inbox