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The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More Paperback – December 31, 2013
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A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy and The Know-It-All, interviews Bruce Feiler about The Secrets of Happy Families.
A.J.: Congratulations on this book -- it's amazing. I predict that my family's happiness level will rise approximately 63 percent after I incorporate these tips. You say you read tons of parenting books and most were eye-glazingly dull. Why?
Bruce: First, 63 percent. That’s better than our family! As for parenting books, the biggest problem is they’re out of fresh ideas. Meanwhile, in every other world – from Silicon Valley, to corporate America, to elite peace negotiators, to the U.S. military – there are cutting-edge ways to bring groups closer together. I asked what those folks were doing with their families, then tested their ideas out with mine.
A.J.:I absolutely love the idea of weekly family meetings. I’m going to start holding them this week. Any tips for keeping kids from zoning out?
Bruce: Holding weekly family meetings is the single best improvement we made to our family. My wife adores them. Tips: play a short game at the start; have your kids pick their punishments; stop after 20 minutes. Oh, and give allowance at the end; that keeps ‘em interested!
A.J.: You talked to a number of experts about how to fight smarter, including simple changes you could make around the home. Which of these improved your life?
Bruce: My wife and I changed where we have conversations at night after we discovered we fought more because my spot put me a power position. As a family, we implemented one of my three favorite tips from the entire book: when we discipline our kids, we sit in upright, cushioned chairs. (My other favorites are “The Law of Two Women” and the “What Do You Know?”)
A.J.: As you point out, the Tiger Mom approach has some downsides. Is there an animal you more identify with?
Bruce: Pillow pet.
A.J.: In the section on Warren Buffett’s guide to allowance, you talk about the importance of having kids work. But the lemonade stand market seems overcrowded. Any alternative?
Bruce: First, I was quite surprised by the advice that it’s better for kids to earn – and lose – their own money. Buffett’s banker told me, “It’s much better to make a mistake with a $6 allowance than a $60,000 salary or a $6 million inheritance.” And I’m a believer in lemonade stands, but remember that the lemonade’s a loss leader -- the money’s in the cookies.
A.J.: Are you worried you can never lose your temper at your kids in public, or people will say “Hey, aren’t you the Happy Family guy?”
Bruce: Oops, was that you behind me at the supermarket the other day? Seriously, I wrote about happy families not because we had one, but because we wanted one. Unlike most “experts,” I didn’t have an ideology to promote. I had a question: What do happy families do right and how can the rest of us make our families happier? We’ve definitely improved, but kids change, so we keep having to turn back to the book.
A.J.: You start off with Tolstoy’s famous maxim “All happy families are alike.” Do you agree?
Bruce: I didn’t at first, but now I do. Happy families have certain larger things in common: They adapt all the time. They talk. A lot. They go out and play. And they work at it. We try to improve at our jobs, our hobbies, even at being ourselves, yet somehow we forget to work on the one thing that most defines our well-being -- our family. That’s my biggest takeaway. Want to have a happier family? Try.
“Infused with humor and authenticity. ... Feiler’s unique perspective and voice... sets it apart from other work in both the parenting and happiness genres.” (Yahoo)
“This is the best book I’ve read about how to transform families. … Run, don’t walk, to get a copy” (NBC Latino)
“Makes even the most skeptical parent sit up and take note” (BONNIE ROCHMAN for Time.com)
“Refreshing. ... Feiler has an engaging stlye.” (Washington Post)
“I loved this book because it really is a new playbook for the modern-day family, something to counteract the chaos of the digital age.” (Lyss Stern, creator of Divalysscious Moms and author of If You Give a Mom a Martini)
“Not your run-of-the-mill parenting manual. … A practical, entertaining playbook that upends some of the most accepted wisdom in family-rearing today.” (Outside magazine)
“A self-help book with teeth, loaded with examples. ... The Secrets of Happy Families is comprehensive and clear, a how-to guide for dads who may not have realized they needed one. (Daddylibrium)
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The book’s premise seemed to me, once I read the introduction, to be a silly one. The author proposed to look at insights from different careers and fields of study to see how they could improve family life. For instance, how would a professional trained in conflict resolution deal with family arguments? How would a green beret build a sense of “team” in the family? This sounded pretty ridiculous (the team one still didn’t work for me) until I read the first chapter and began to see the specific ideas these people had. I found particularly intriguing the sections on “family branding,” family weekly meetings, and the need for having close relationships with extended family. Many sections of the book have original ideas, and Feiler has done his best to support them with relevant research. I think that almost all families would find some useful and helpful ideas here.
My only criticism of the book is that it definitely seemed to trail off at the end. This section largely had to do with entertainment. Some of the advice was just week or obvious (the creators of Farmville suggest playing “20 Questions” on car trips). Even Feiler seemed to think that the idea about making family trips more like an extreme competition (think: Amazing Race) was a little absurd.
On the whole, though, this was a quick read with some useful ideas. I would recommend it and expect to revisit it myself in the future.