Book Review: The Secrets of Happy Families

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4 for '14 - a Year in Review

It’s January, and I can’t be the only person looking for inspiration.  Winter is magical in the Christmas season, with lights and sugar and warming cocktails and family gatherings and presents!  And then you hit January 6th (the 12th day of Christmas, a/k/a – you can’t even pretend it’s not time to buckle down any more) and it’s all cold and short days and dieting and self-improvement and a long long way from anything fun like vacations or real holidays.  If I find something that gives me a little zing – a kick in the pants to get moving, a boatload of good ideas – well, then, that’s a good thing for January.  And that’s what I found in this book:  The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler.

How to get your home life in order

It’s no secret that I’m a big proponent of the idea that raising kids can be fun, but I’m also the first to admit that our family life is far from perfect.  Imperfection and unpredictability go hand in hand with children, but I’d still like things to be a little … smoother.  My kids to be less bratty, my mornings to be less scattered, everyone to have a better sense of perspective –  I just want to get my shit together (my overarching resolution for 2015).  And Bruce Feiler is WITH ME on that.

This book isn’t another potentially useful but deadly boring collection of advice from childrearing experts on the best way to raise children.  Bruce wanted his family life to run more smoothly, and looked to experts in several different fields to give him ideas.  Family efficiency?  Check with corporate management experts.  How to fight smarter?  The Harvard Negotiation Project has your back.  Fun on a family vacation?  Try the games developers at Zynga.  Want to know how to bring disparate parts of your family together for a successful reunion?  The U.S. military can help.

And maybe it’s just me, but the topics that Feiler covers are just the ones I struggle with myself. (Except family reunions, but it was still interesting.)  Agile family management, communicating your family values to your kids,  dinner table conversation, talking to your kids about money, talking to your kids about sex,  incorporating grandparents in your family lives, happiness in your marriage, conflict resolution, fun family vacations and family reunions.  This is good stuff!  This reminded me a lot of The Happiness Project, only instead of personal happiness, family happiness is the goal.

This book contains a lot of ideas, and of course, not every idea is going to work for every person (Feiler even says so much).  I have no plans to hang our family motto on the wall any time soon (I’m a WASP – so not my style), but the book did get me thinking about what our family motto would be and how we should be communicating that to the kids.  I’m also not planning on any boot camp army simulations for anyone in my family.  (The 2 year old and I are both too whiny).  But there are other ideas and projects which we’ve already put into play.   I’ve started holding weekly family meetings every Sunday night (without the 2 year old – Checklist Mommy wisely reminded me that about 4 is the cutoff age for productivity).  We talk about the good things and bad things about our family dynamics that week, set goals for the week ahead, and run down what the week ahead is going to look like – when Dad is working late, what after school commitments the Nuni has, etc.  It helps us feel like we are on the same page, and know what’s ahead.  (Dessert is also served, so the Nuni is a big fan).  We’ve also started being more regular about giving the Nuni a weekly allowance, which has helped enormously with the general greed and ungratefulness that drives me nuts (next is opening a bank account).    I won’t rewrite the book here, but there are a few takeaways that I think are a running theme throughout the books:

  1.  Talk a lot.  Communication is key to family happiness – storytelling, conflict resolution, conversation. Keep talking.
  2. Your kids can play a bigger role in the family.  Allow your kids the opportunity to have a voice in family affairs.  Give them input in how your house is decorated, how your mornings should go, what appropriate discipline should be (note:  input is not the same thing as getting to decide everything).  It will give them ownership over their own behavior.
  3. Your kids can also be more responsible than you may think – more allowances, more chores, more agency for getting themselves where they need to be.
  4. Resilience is a key trait for happiness – model it for your children and strive for it yourself. You cannot protect your family from experiencing bad things – everyone gets hurt, everyone gets unlucky.  But you can teach your family that it is capable of rising above, correcting the course, riding it out.

I won’t lie and say that after reading this book, and implementing some of its strategies, our family life is perfect – perfection and children are mutually exclusive after all.  But I now feel like I have a few more tools in my arsenal, our family life is at least a bit more intentional, and my shit is, if not together, more capable of being pulled together.


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