In The Secrets of Happy Families, New York Times bestselling author Bruce Feiler has drawn up a blueprint for modern families — a new approach to family dynamics, inspired by cutting-edge techniques gathered from experts in the disciplines of science, business, sports, and the military.
The result is a funny and thought-provoking playbook for contemporary families, with more than 200 useful strategies, including: the right way to have family dinner, what your mother never told you about sex (but should have), and why you should always have two women present in difficult conversations…
Timely, compassionate, and filled with practical tips and wise advice, Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More should be required reading for all parents.
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About the Author
Bruce Feiler is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including Abraham, Where God Was Born, America's Prophet, The Council of Dads, and The Secrets of Happy Families. He is a columnist for the New York Times, a popular lecturer, and a frequent commentator on radio and television. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and twin daughters.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:October 25, 1964
Place of Birth:Savannah, Georgia
Education:B.A., Yale University, 1987; M.Phil. in international relations, Cambridge University, 1991
Read an Excerpt
The Secrets of Happy Families
By Bruce Feiler
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2013 Bruce Feiler
All rights reserved.
THE AGILE FAMILY MANIFESTO
A Twenty-First-Century Plan to Reduce Chaos and Increase Happiness
The tension builds up all through the week. This kid refuses to make her bed. That one won't put down the iPhone. "Wasn't it your time to take out the trash?" "Hey, I told you, stop taking my gum!" "Mommmmmmm!"
By Sunday evening, the family is ready for relief. At just after 7:00 p.m., the sun was setting on the town of Hidden Springs, Idaho, population 2,280, just north of Boise. Two horses were running along a serpentine ridge. Some kids were finishing a pickup baseball game in Dry Creek Valley. But inside a neo-traditional, three-story, caramel-colored house, the six members of the Starr family were sitting down to the most important business of their week: their weekly family meeting.
The Starrs are a typical American family with their share of typical American family issues. David, a balding, roly-poly man with a mustache and goatee, is a software engineer. He's part of the new breed of deeply involved dads who's constantly tinkering with how his family runs. He also has Asperger's syndrome, making it difficult for him to read other people's emotions. He and his wife, Eleanor, are an impressive couple, because she is a woman of almost pure emotion, a flame-haired earth mother eager to spread love and fresh-baked corn bread to the neighbors. A few years after their wedding, David took an emotional assessment test and scored 8 out of 100; Eleanor scored 98. "How do we get along?" they wondered. On top of this combustibility, they quickly added four children in five years— Mason (now fifteen), Cutter (thirteen), Isabelle (eleven), and Bowman (ten). One had Asperger's syndrome, another had ADHD; one was laid-back, another had low self-esteem; one was a star math student who tutored on this side of town; another was a great lacrosse player who had practice on that side of town.
"We were living in complete chaos," Eleanor said.
Like many parents, the Starrs were trapped in that endless tension between the sunny, smooth-running household they aspired to have and the exhausting, earsplitting one they actually lived in. That gap is invariably widest in the hour after the kids get up in the morning, and the hour before they go to bed — the twin war zones of modern family life.
"When you're living in a house where six people are trying to brush their teeth at the same time and everyone is fighting, nobody is happy," Eleanor said. "I was trying the whole 'love them and everything will work out' philosophy, but it wasn't working. 'For the love God,' I finally said, 'I can't take this anymore.' "
What convinced her to make a change was the day David asked each of their kids to describe their mom. Their answer: "She yells a lot."
What the Starrs did next, though, was surprising. Instead of turning to their parents or friends, or trying to find advice in books or on television, they looked to David's workplace. They turned to a cutting-edge program called "agile development" that was rapidly spreading from automobile manufacturers in Japan to software designers in Silicon Valley. Agile development is a system of group dynamics in which workers are organized into small teams, each team huddles briefly every morning, and the team convenes for a longer gathering at week's end to critique how it's functioning. In the workplace, these gatherings are called "review and retrospective"; in the home, the Starrs called them "family meetings."
As David wrote in an influential 2009 white paper "Agile Practices for Families," having weekly family meetings increased communication, improved productivity, lowered stress, and made everyone much happier to "be part of the family team."
When Linda and I adopted the agile blueprint with our daughters, weekly family meetings quickly became the single most impactful idea we introduced into our lives since the birth of our children. They became the centerpiece around which we organized our family. And they transformed our relationships with our kids — and each other —i n ways we never could have imagined.
And the meetings did all this while lasting under twenty minutes.
"THE BEST THANKSGIVING WE EVER HAD"
The institution of the family has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades. From the decline of marriage to the rise of divorce, from the surge of women into the workplace to the novelty of men being more involved in raising children, nearly every aspect of domestic life has been transformed.
Yet through all this, the family has prevailed and has even grown in importance. A 2010 Pew study found that three-quarters of adults said their family was the most important element of their lives; the same number said they were "very satisfied" with their family life, and eight in ten said the family they have today is as close or closer than the one they grew up in.
That's the good news. Now, here's the bad news: Almost everyone feels completely overwhelmed by the pace and pressures of daily life, and that exhaustion is exacting an enormous toll on family well-being. Survey after survey shows that parents and children both list stress as their number one concern. This includes stress inside as well as outside the home. And if parents feel harried, it trickles down to their children. Studies have shown that parental stress weakens children's brains, depletes their immune systems, and increases their risk of obesity, mental illness, diabetes, allergies, even tooth decay. And kids know it, too. In a survey of a thousand families, Ellen Galinsky, the head of the Families and Work Institute and the author of Mind in the Making, asked children, "If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?" Most parents predicted their kids would say spending more time with them. They were wrong. The kids' number one wish was that their parents were less tired and less stressed.
How do we solve that problem, at least inside the home? Part of the challenge has to do with families constantly undergoing change. My favorite line about parenting is from my friend Justin, who has four children. "Everything is a phase," he says, "even the good parts." Just when kids start sleeping, they stop napping; just when they start walking, they begin throwing tantrums; just when they get used to soccer, they add piano lessons; just when they start putting themselves to bed, they begin having homework and needing their parents' help again; just when they get the hang of taking tests, along comes texting, dating, and online hazing. No wonder the great Harvard family theorist Salvador Minuchin said the most important characteristic of families is being "rapidly adaptable." So has anyone out there figured out how to reduce stress and improve adaptability? Yes — in fact, an entire field has been devoted to this issue.
In the early 1980s, Jeff Sutherland, a former fighter pilot in Vietnam, was chief technologist at a large financial firm in New England when he began noticing how dysfunctional software development was. Companies followed the "waterfall model," in which executives issued ambitious orders from above and expected them to flow downward to the programmers below. Eighty-three percent of projects came in late, over budget, or failed entirely. "I'm looking at this and thinking, 'This is worse than flying over North Vietnam.'" Jeff told me one afternoon at his home in Boston.
"There only half the people got shot down!"
Jeff was determined to design a new system, in which ideas would not only flow down from the top but also percolate up from the bottom. Around 1990, he read thirty years of articles in Harvard Business Review before stumbling across one from 1986 called "The New New Product Development Game." The authors, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, said the pace of business was quickening and argued that successful organizations were built around speed and flexibility. The paper highlighted Toyota and Canon and likened their tight-knit teams to rugby scrums. "We hit that paper and said, 'That's it!'" Sutherland said. Jeff is credited with applying the word scrum to business. Later scrum fell under the umbrella term "agile development." Today, agile (the word is used as a collective) is standard practice in a hundred countries, and two-thirds of all software is developed using its philosophy. Odds are you used something today, from your cell phone to your search engine, that was built using agile practices. In time, leading firms like GE and Facebook began using them in their executive suites, too.
In many ways, agile is part of the larger trend in society toward decentralizing power. The business guru Tom Peters said "agile organizations win" because they're not bound by fixed rules. They have the freedom to create new rules. A similar evolution has been happening in families for decades, as power has shifted from the exclusive domain of fathers to include mothers and, increasingly, children. Inevitably, fans of agile began to ask whether families could benefit from its practices.
"I began to see a lot of people using agile at home, especially with their children," Jeff told me. Jeff's own children were grown at the time, but he and his wife, Arlene, started using agile to help manage their weekends. They took me into their kitchen and showed me a giant flowchart hanging on the wall. The chart was divided into three columns: stuff to do, things in progress, things done. In the left-hand column, stuff to do, they placed a series of Post-it notes — "animals," "grocery shopping," "Skype with Veronica." When either person begins working on an item, they move it from the first column to the second column; when they finish, they move the note to the third column.
Agile terminology describes this type of flowchart as an "information radiator." Having large, highly visible displays lets everyone on the team track everyone else's progress. "If you have something public like this in your home," Jeff said, "I guarantee you'll get twice as much done. Guarantee."
Their favorite example was their first agile Thanksgiving. "We got everybody together and made a list of what needed to be done," Arlene said. "Food needed to be bought, dishes needed to be prepared, the table needed to be set. Then we created a small team for each item."
"We had this hospitality team led by a nine-year-old," Jeff said. "Whenever the doorbell rang, he would grab people and run to the door. 'Hi! We're so happy you're here. Let us take your coats!' No one has ever felt so welcomed to our house. Everyone agreed it was the best Thanksgiving we ever had."
But of course it didn't go off without a glitch. The team assigned to set the table couldn't agree on how to arrange the place cards. One of the daughters-in-law prefers to sit alongside her spouse, while the Sutherlands prefer to split up the couples. The committee couldn't reach consensus, so they punted, producing a bottle-neck at the table.
"This is where agile is particularly effective," Jeff said. "The next day, at our review meeting, we discussed what happened. First we named the problem. The team doesn't agree on seating. Then we proposed solutions for the next gathering. We can seat couples together, split them up, or mix and match. Then we built agreement, which was to switch off at alternate family functions."
So what lessons did they take away?
"Jeff and I each had difficult upbringings," Arlene said. "Our primary goal as parents was not to set up the same barriers for our children that our parents set up for us."
"That's where agile comes in," Jeff added. "People think it's natural to live in a world in where everyone is dysfunctional. It's not. It's normal for people to be satisfied. All you have to do is remove the barriers that are making you unhappy and you'll be a lot happier. That's what this system does."
In effect, what agile accomplishes is to accept that disorder and order live alongside each other. By acknowledging things will go wrong, then introducing a system to address those wrongs, you increase the odds that the system — in this case the family — can work right.
WHAT ARE YOU FORGETTING?
A similar goal motivated Eleanor and David Starr to make their Idaho home a happier place.
The first problem they attacked was the bedlam in the mornings. David, who had used an information radiator at work, suggested they use one at home. The family sat down and created a morning checklist. The document listed what every kid needed to accomplish before school. They tacked the note on the kitchen wall. Their first list looked like this:
SELF-DIRECTED MORNING CHECKLIST
1. Take vitamins or medicine
2. Eat breakfast
3. Shower or wash face and neck
4. Take care of your hair
5. Do morning chores
6. Brush your teeth (two minutes)
7. Backpack, shoes, and socks
What are you having for lunch?
What are you taking to school today?
What are you forgetting?
For the first few weeks, nothing really happened. The kids wandered around in something of a daze, asking what they were supposed to be doing and generally complaining. "And every time they would start milling about," Eleanor told me, "I simply said, 'Check the list.' After a while, I became like a broken record. 'You need to check the list.'" Gradually the kids began gravitating to it without having to be told. "I would say it took about two weeks," Eleanor said. "We had to make a few modifications. The little one couldn't read, so we made some symbols for him. But eventually, it clicked." Boy did it. When I showed up in the Starrs' kitchen at 6:00 a.m. that Monday, five years after this system had been implemented, I was amazed by what I saw. Eleanor came downstairs, made herself a cup of coffee, and sat down in a reclining chair. She remained there for the next ninety minutes as first her two oldest children came downstairs, checked the list, made themselves breakfast, checked the list again, made themselves lunch, checked the list, emptied and reloaded the dishwasher, rechecked the list, fed the pets, checked the list one final time, then gathered their belongings and made their way to the bus stop.
Excerpted from The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler. Copyright © 2013 by Bruce Feiler. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Why We Need New Thinking for Families 1
Part 1 Adapt All the Time
1 The Agile Family Manifesto: A Twenty-First-Century Plan to Reduce Chaos and Increase Happiness 13
2 The Right Way to Have Family Dinner: Why What You Talk About Is More Important Than What You Eat (or When You Eat It) 33
3 Branding Your Family: The Power of a Family Mission Statement 51
Part 2 Talk a Lot
4 Fight Smart: The Harvard Handbook for Resolving Conflict 75
5 The Buck Starts Here: The Warren Buffet Guide to Setting an Allowance 91
6 Talk About the Marshmallows: How to Have Difficult Conversations 110
7 Lessons from the Sex Mom: What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex (but Should Have) 128
8 What's Love Got to Do with It: The Simple Test That Saved Millions of Families 146
9 The Care and Feeding of Grandparents: How to Avoid Throwing Granny from the Train 161
10 The Right Stuff: How Rearranging Your Furniture Can Improve Your Family 175
Part 3 Go Out and Play
11 The Family Vacation Checklist: How to Make: Travel More Fun 196
12 Shut Up and Cheer!: What Successful Coaches Know About Successful Families 211
13 Give War a Chance: The Green Beret Guide to the Perfect Family Reunion 230
Conclusion: All Happy Families 250
The Happy Families Toolkit 263
Select Bibliography 295
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bruce Feiler in his new book “The Secrets Of Happy Families” published by William Morrow helps us Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More. From the back cover: The book that revolutionized our view of what makes families happy… Determined to find the smartest solutions and the most cutting-edge research about families, bestselling author and New York Times family columnist Bruce Feiler gathered team-building exercises and problem-solving techniques from the most creative minds—from Silicon Valley to the Green Berets—and tested these ideas with his wife and kids. The result is a lively, original look at how we can create stronger parent/child relationships, manage the chaos of our lives, teach our kids values and grit, and have more fun together. The Secrets of Happy Families includes more than two hundred unique practices that will help your family draw closer and make everyone in your home happier. It has already changed the lives of millions of families, and it can do the same for yours. What is the secret sauce that holds families together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, functioning, happy? Bruce Feiler took a three-year journey to find the smartest solutions and the most cutting-edge research about families. In three sections: Part One Adapt All The Time, Part Two Talk A Lot, Part Three Go Out And Play. Feiler’s life-changing discoveries include a radical plan to reshape your family in twenty minutes a week, Warren Buffett’s guide for setting an allowance, and the Harvard handbook for resolving conflict. The Secrets of Happy Families is a timely, counterintuitive book that answers the questions countless parents are asking: How do we manage the chaos of our lives? How do we teach our kids values? How do we make our family happier? Written in a charming, accessible style, The Secrets of Happy Families is smart, funny, and fresh, and will forever change how your family lives every day. If you have a family, want a family or know someone who has a family then this is the book for you or them! Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Litfuse Publicity Group. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
What makes a family work? It's a question I think about frequently. While each family is different, I love to find principles that I can apply to our unique dynamic. The Secrets of Happy Families is a fresh approach -- taking business principles and transforming them for families in a dynamic way that has me eager to try adapting some techniques here. One that I loved is the idea of having a family meeting once a week as a way to evaluate how the family is working. Also using dynamic flowcharts to let everyone see what needs to be done and the status of projects as well as the ability to see what's been accomplished. There are chapters on communication, financial training, making travel more fun, valuing grandparents and extended family and much more. The chapters are packed with examples and the end has toolkits and samples. This is a great resource for someone who wants to try some new techniques to ensure their family is actively engaged in improving. I don't know about you, but we can always do better. With some of these ideas, I think we will get there!
I recently had the chance to read a complimentary review copy of The Secrets of Happy Families, by Bruce Feiler. I wasn't sure what to expect as I began the book, but I must say that Bruce put my fears to rest when in the introduction he stated "A collection like this is liberating, I believe, because it is obvious no one can attend to them all." It took the pressure off...it wasn't a one size fits all set of advice. It was meant to be something where you could pick and choose what worked for you. As I continued to read, I was surprised to see that one of the experts that he consulted with as he searched for the secrets to happy families, was Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. This is a book that I have read and found very insightful. Certainly, Good to Great was written about companies, but a large part of is about creating a great company culture and I totally could see how he would have good perspective on creating a good culture at home as well. It gave me a boost as I read to see that several of his suggestions are things that we already have in place in our household. With everything that pulls you in a hundred directions, it was reassuring to know that we are doing some things right (not that not doing things is wrong - again not one size fits all). My book is all dog-eared with corners flipped down at sections that I want to be able to quickly reference and consider how to implement. Some of the things that he talked about are not things that I expected...things like talking to your kids about sexuality, some of the thoughts being different than I had going in, but after consideration, points that I think are very valid. He also talked about teaching your kids money management; how to keep the family engaged on family vacations, which seem like great ideas when you consider that everyone has varied interests; and organized sports. I really liked the format and approach of the book. I liked that not only did the author research the topics, but he implemented many of the ideas in his own family to test things out. He shared anecdotal evidence from his experience, as well as from those that he met with to seek guidance and research the topics. If you are looking for an easy to read, low pressure book on happy families, I would check out The Secrets of Happy Families. The book even includes a toolkit to help you implement the ideas that you like.
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