Family life is hectic. Most of us play it by ear and hope it works out well.
Or maybe you haven’t started a family yet but when you do you want to do it right.
Aren’t there some legit answers out there about what creates the happiest families? Yes, there are.
To get the facts I called Bruce Feiler, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Secrets of Happy Families.
When writing his book, Bruce knew there were answers already out there — but not necessarily where we’d expect.
He found solutions to common family problems in business theory, Harvard negotiation techniques, and even by talking to Green Berets.
Below you’ll learn:
Here’s what makes strong, happy families:
I asked Bruce what he would recommend if he could only give one piece of advice.
He said: “Set aside time to talk about what it means to be a part of your family.”
Ask: “What are your family values?” In business-speak: Develop a mission statement for your family.
Initiate a conversation about what it means to be a part of your family. Sit down with them and say “Okay, these are our ten central values.”
“This is the family we want to be. We want to be a family that doesn’t fight all the time.” or “We want to be a family that goes camping or sailing” or whatever it might be.
When my family did it, it was literally a transforming experience. We ended up printing it and it hangs now in our dining room.
Does “defining values” seem too big and intimidating? It’s really nothing more than setting goals.
Did we do every one of those things every day, every week, every month? No, that’s not that point. But the point is, when it goes wrong, you have that goal out there. “We want to be a family that has fun together. Have we made time to play recently? No, we don’t. So let’s make time to play. Let’s go bowling or hiking or roller skating.”
You have goals at work. You have personal goals. Why wouldn’t you have goals as a family?
(For more on the science of happy families, click here.)
So you and your family discussed your values and came up with a mission statement. What other thing did Bruce say was vital?
Like the mission statement, it’s another story. But it’s not about the future — it’s about the past.
Research shows whether a kid knows their family history was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.
…researchers at Emory did this study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.
And research confirms that meaning in life is all about the stories we tell ourselves.
But here’s what’s really interesting: recounting your family history is not just telling kids, “Our family is awesome.”
Recounting the tough times, the challenges your family faced and overcame, is key.
Understanding that people have natural ups and downs allows kids to know that they too will have ups and downs. It gives them the confidence to believe that they can push through them. It gives them role models that show your family’s values in practice.
(For more on how to make your kids smarter, click here.)
Mission statements, family history… that’s a lot of talking. When is all this supposed to happen? Whenever you get around to it? No way.
You’re not mom or dad anymore — you’re now co-CEO’s. To find the way to keep a family improving Bruce turned to the world of business.
Your family needs a weekly board meeting with all the shareholders present. Sound cold and clinical? Wrong.
Bruce’s wife says it’s one of the best things they’ve done to make their own family life happier.
It’s not complicated and it only takes 20 minutes, once a week.
We basically ask three questions. What worked well this week, what didn’t work well this week and what will we agree to work on in the week ahead?
And if the kids meet the goal, they get to help pick a reward. And if they don’t, they get to help pick a punishment. They don’t do it without us, but we all do it in consultation.
Bruce did a TED talk explaining in detail how techniques from the business world, like meetings, can improve our families:
(For more on how to raise happy kids, click here.)
So your family has a mission, a shared history and you’re meeting regularly. This is great because everyone is talking, which is crucial.
But what inevitably comes with talking a lot? Arguing. It’s normal and natural and that’s okay.
But you have to have rules so it isn’t a path to hurt feelings and homicide investigations. What’s the proper way to argue?
Bruce wanted to find the best way to resolve disputes — so he didn’t turn to books about families, he turned to a pro.
Bill Ury is co-founder of the Project on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and co-author of the classic, Getting To Yes,
What can one of the best negotiators teach families about resolving those inevitable everyday squabbles of life?
Bruce outlines three key steps:
Number one, “Separate everybody.” In negotiation speak; this is “Go to the balcony.” Take a moment where you look back on the fight as if it were on a stage and you’re on the balcony and say “Okay, what’s really going on here?” This reduces emotions like anger.
Second, we ask our kids to come up with three alternatives. In negotiation speak; this is “Expand the pie before you divide the pie.”
Bruce admits this part can be tricky. But you need to make it clear nobody is leaving the table until there are three options.
The third stage is “Bring people back together.” In negotiation speak; this is “Build the golden bridge of the future.”
Have the kids pick one of the three that they like best. What’s key is that the children created the alternatives and agreed on the best solution.
As Bruce explains in his book, when kids get a say, it works out better for everyone. Don’t be a dictator unless you have to.
(To learn how how you can resolve conflict with lessons from FBI hostage negotiators, click here.)
So mission statements, family meetings and fighting right are great — but what keeps a family together day to day?
Research shows having dinner as a family makes a huge difference in children’s lives.
As Bruce writes in his book, The Secrets of Happy Families:
A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.
I know what many of you are thinking: Our schedules are crazy. It’s too hard to get everyone together. We can’t do it every night.
And that’s 100% okay. “Dinner” isn’t the important part. All that matters is that time together, whenever it is.
And it doesn’t even have to be that much time. How much real conversation happens at family dinner? 10 minutes.
As Bruce likes to say, the rest of the talking is “Take your elbows off the table” and “Please pass the ketchup.”
What’s the best way to make use of those 10 minutes? Here’s Bruce:
So number one, the first big thing to be aware of is that parents do two-thirds of the talking in that ten minutes. And that’s a problem.
So your first goal should be to flip that and let the kids do more of the talking. So that would be issue number one.
Number two, I would say a great thing to do in that ten minutes is to try to teach your kid a new word every day. There’s a tremendous amount of evidence out there that one of the biggest determinants of success in school has to do with the size of vocabulary.
(For more research-based parenting techniques, click here.)
Mission statements, family history, meetings, fighting right, dinners… That’s a lot to do. Heck, it’s a lot to just remember.
What’s Bruce’s recommendation to the family that’s already strapped for time? What overarching theme can we see in all of these tips?
Ask anyone if they want to make their family happier and, of course, they’ll say yes.
Then ask how many hours they’ve actively invested in that goal over the past month. I’m guessing the reply is going to be “Ummmmm…”
Reading about improving your family is only the first step. But the second step isn’t all that much harder: Try.
We know if we want to improve in our career, we have to work at it. And yet, we don’t do that with our family life. We sort of say “It’s the end of the line, they’ll always be there. It’s always going to be stressful. I’ll just deal.” Well, no.
If we work with our families and take small steps to try and make them better, we actually can make our families happier. And in the process, we can make every member of our family happier. So what’s the secret to a happy family? Try.
And the research backs Bruce up.
Studies show improving any relationship is as easy as actively showing interest in the other person or sharing with them.
In fact, pretending time with your romantic partner is a first date makes it more enjoyable for you and for them. Why?
On first dates we make an effort. And that’s the secret here too: don’t just think about it, invest time and energy.
(For three of the most counterintuitive lessons on being a great parent, click here.)
So how do we tie all this together?
Here are Bruce’s 6 tips:
Families come in all different shapes and sizes these days and the world moves a lot faster than it once did. But don’t fret.
Research shows that anyone can have a happy family.
Via 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families:
Researchers have found that a loving family life can be created among any group of people. Long-term studies comparing adopted children to children raised by their biological parents find little difference in the children’s feelings on family life, and no difference in their ability to enjoy good relationships with peers.
– Neiheiser 2001
Share this post with your family. Start a conversation. Hold that first family meeting. And more than anything else: Try.
A PDF of my extended interview with Bruce will be in my next weekly email. In it he’ll explain:
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