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A Different Approach to a Happier Family

There seems to be a lot of articles on how to find true happiness these days. Just about everywhere I look I see “how to be happy” headlines, often followed...

There seems to be a lot of articles on how to find true happiness these days. Just about everywhere I look I see “how to be happy” headlines, often followed by an exclamation point.

Each one basically says the same thing as the others- just addressed to a different audience. I don’t know about you, but frankly I haven’t gained any new insights from these types of articles in a very long time.

That’s why when I saw “The (Unconventional) Secrets of Happy Families” in an online article by Time magazine writer, Bonnie Rochman, I was skeptical to say the least.

But guess what? It actually did offer some unconventional and interesting ideas for a “happier” family life.

In her article, Rochman interviews Bruce Feiler, a family columnist for The New York Times and the best-selling author of “The Secrets of Happy Families.” Feiler is also the father of 7 year-old twin girls. In looking for a way to balance parenting, working at a demanding job, caring for his aging parents and being a good husband with the elusive goal of having a happy family. Feiler turned to some of this country’s most creative minds, outside the typical sources of family psychologists and child development experts, for new perspectives and insights.

He communicated with Warren Buffet’s advisors about the connection between allowances and chores. He spoke to Green Berets on building a tight-knit family unit and to members of the Harvard Negotiation Project to help learn the best approach to resolving family conflicts. By the end of his three-year research he had a list of approaches that he says help create a happier family life.

During the interview, Rochman asks Feiler what prompted him to want to write this book. His answer was straightforward and simple- he was a frustrated parent looking for a happier family life. “I was incredibly frustrated as a parent. Our life was chaotic but I was especially frustrated that so much of this space is dominated by what I call the family improvement industry. Parents are in this straitjacket where the only ideas we are allowed to implement, must come approved by shrinks or self-help gurus or other family experts. But in every other area of life — business, sports, the workplace, the military — there are all these new ideas about how to make groups work. A family is a group.”

Looking for answers, Feiler delves into common family situations and asks for tips from a variety of experts outside the family arena. “I have gone to all these experts in very diverse fields. I need to fight smarter? I need to talk to experts in peace. I want to come up with new games for long car rides? Let me talk to the people at Zynga. As a frustrated parent, my job was to get myself into the room with people who have new ideas. In this book there are hundreds of new ideas that I believe have not been part of this conversation.”

When Rochman asks what new ideas are some of his favorites, Feiler gives a new spin on one of the most promoted and scientifically studied endorsements for a happier and healthier family life- having dinner together as a family.

“Let’s take family dinner: if we’ve heard anything, we’ve heard you should have family dinner with your kids. But for most of us, that doesn’t work with our modern lives. Dig deeper into the research and there’s much better news for parents. There are only 10 minutes of productive time in any meal. The rest is, Pass the ketchup and take your elbows off the table. You can take that 10 minutes and put it anywhere in the day and get the same benefit. Can’t have family dinner? Have family breakfast. Meet for a bedtime snack. You can time-shift family dinner and still have a bonding experience.”

Other topics mentioned are:   

- Let your child pick his or her own punishment and rewards. Kids who set their own goals, make their own schedules, and evaluate their own work take greater control over their lives. Have weekly family meetings and find out what motivates your child.

- Share your family history. Children who know more about their parents, grandparents and relatives have more confidence to confront their own challenges.

- Change where you sit. Physical comfort plays a role in negotiations and important discussions. If you sit on hard surfaces, you’ll be more rigid. When disciplining your child sit on cushioned surfaces – you will be more flexible and the conversation will go better. Sitting across from someone invites more conflict than sitting next to them.

Rochman’s article is an introduction to Feiler and some of the ideas he presents in “The Secrets of Happy Families.” I enjoyed it. Obviously, Feiler goes into much more depth on his research and findings in his book.

Should we ever expect a “one size (or expert) fits all” when it comes to parenting and happiness? I don’t think so. Families are unique with individual personalities and needs. There has been a great deal written about the family and how to help make it function better. We live in a complicated world that demands every bit of strength and brainpower we can muster while at the same time, giving our hearts and time to the ones we love. So it’s not surprising that studies abound with revelations about the psychological make-up of infants, toddlers, pre-teens, teenagers, young adults, middle age and seniors. We’re all looking for answers.

When people are searching for new ways to solve old problems, a variety of approaches are helpful. Through trial and error you’ll discover what works best for your family, and even then, new ideas will be needed to keep moving forward. Life is change.

Is there really a secret to a happy family? I don’t know. Happy is one of those words that means different things to different people. Can you find innovative ways that help your family function better so that there is mutual respect, some sense of order and shared joy and love? Absolutely.

Sources: Bonnie Rochman, http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/20/qa-the-unconventional-secrets-of-happy-families/#ixzz2Lvs8Pfaw

Bruce Feiler, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-feiler/secrets-to-a-happy-family_b_2712111.html

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