When I'm having a rough day with my kid and feeling like a lousy mom, there's an old Tolstoy quote that always makes me feel better: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." See? At least we're not boring!
But a dad named Bruce Feiler says he's found a way to have a happy family without being boring. In fact, the father of identical twin daughters told The Stir he was so sick of reading parenting books and finding the same old "30-year-old advice, delivered with warmed-over homilies, retold endlessly" that he decided to dive into the lives of real families. He wanted to find out what made them happy, and how to steal their secrets for his family.
The Secrets of Happy Families is now on bookshelves. It's filled with the results of Feiler's talks with the folks at Zynga to learn about new games for car rides and Warren Buffett's banker to learn how to teach his kids about money. He even went to a Belgian sex therapist "to learn how to have desire in long-term relationships."
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That last one got you intrigued, didn't it? There are 200 ideas in the book because he knows not every single one would work for every family, but Feiler shared some of his secrets with The Stir to help make your family a little happier:
Let your kids pick their punishments. Our instinct as parents is to order our kids around. It’s easier, and we’re usually right! But it rarely works. Cutting-edge brain research shows that children who set their own goals, make their own schedules, and evaluate their own work build up their prefrontal cortex and take greater control over their lives.
The number one lesson we’ve taken from this is to let our kids help pick their own rewards and punishments. The point is: If we want our children to have the skills to make good decisions, we have to give them practice when they’re young.
Rethink family dinner. Sure, we’ve all heard that family dinner is great for kids, but for many of us, it doesn’t work with our schedule. Dig deeper, though, and the news is brighter for parents. Turns out there’s only 10 minutes of conversation in any meal; the rest is taken up with “take your elbows off the table” and “pass the ketchup.”
You can take those 10 minutes, place them at any time of the day, and have the same benefit. Can’t have family dinner? Try family breakfast, meet for a bedtime snack, even one meal on weekends can help.
Tell your story. The most important thing you can do may be the easiest of all. Tell your children the story of their own family history. Researchers in Georgia have found that children who know more about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives -- both their ups and their downs -- have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their own challenges. Knowing more about family history is the single biggest predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.
Change where you sit. There’s tremendous know-how out there about how we rearrange our spaces to make our families function better, but most of it has remained hidden from parents. An environmental psychologist gave me some helpful advice. If you sit at hard surfaces, you’ll be more rigid. If you sit on cushioned surfaces, you’ll be more accommodating. “When you’re disciplining your children, sit in upright chairs on cushioned surfaces,” she said. “The conversation will go better.”
My wife and I even changed where we have difficult conversations, moving from my office, where I was sitting in the “power position” with her six inches lower, to a window seat in our bedroom, where we can be side by side at the same level.
Do you have a happy family? What's your secret?
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