Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book Review: The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

I have read literally dozens of books about raising children, and almost all of them have provided me with at least one or two ideas to help our family function more smoothly.  The Secrets of Happy Families, on the other hand, was a veritable treasure trove of great ideas. Grouped under three major headings ("Adapt All the Time", "Talk. A Lot", and "Go Out & Play"), and backed up by the latest research and science, these are simple, actionable steps anyone can take to improve any family.

Just as some people are blessed with greater musical talents or have an easier time grasping complex mathematical concepts than others, some people are born with a gift for parenting, for nurturing and raising children well.

I am not one of them. It does not come naturally to me.

Parenting is hard work any way you slice it.  And I think it's made harder by the odd expectation that if you're a generally good person who means well, loves his or her children, and doesn't intentionally abuse them, you'll automatically know how best to handle every parenting situation, your children will be well-behaved and obedient, roses will bloom beneath your feet, and life will be a bliss complete. (Oh, how I hate that song!)

Parenting is a skill, a vitally important one if you have children, and one that should be approached with at least as much care and planning as any other. When I decided I was going to learn how to can, I didn't just wing it.  All sorts of bad things can happen if you try: spoiled food, exploding glass jars, botulism, death.  So I asked people who already knew what they were doing to help me.  My mom, my mother-in-law, several friends from church, all were happy to share their expertise.  I gathered information from reputable sources: books, websites, videos. When the sources disagreed, I looked for more information, selected the method I thought was most likely to succeed based on my research and the experience of those who had tried before, and then I tried it myself.  There have been a few mishaps, but on the whole my canning experiences have been positive and successful.

I have a similar approach to parenting.  I ask other people about their experiences and share mine.  I read.  A lot.  Then I try to put some of what I've learned into practice. We've tried out several of the suggestions in The Secrets of Happy Families and they've been enlightening.  Let's just talk about one: weekly family meetings.

In any other area of my life, I've always recognized the need to regularly check in on how I was doing, having a conversation with the others involved on our goals, our plans, and our progress, but it had never really occurred to me to do this with the most important organization in my life: my family.  So now we meet once a week - usually on Sunday afternoons - and have a discussion about three questions:
1. What worked well in our family this week?
2. What went wrong in our family this week?
3. What will we work on this coming week?
We haven't been perfect - we've missed a week or three along the way - but it's remarkable to hear from our children what they consider to be our strengths and weaknesses as a family.  On their own, they've proposed that we work on not interrupting each other, on kids helping out with chores more, on listening better. And because they're involved in the process they're far more invested than they would be if my husband and I issued an edict from on high.  Mr. Feiler says it simply: "Solutions exist...empower the children."

With this focus on feedback comes the explicit recognition that things change and that's okay! "Even the best designed system will need to be reengineered midstream," Mr. Feiler assures us, but we can always keep working to improve our family.

I'm intrigued by Feiler's ideas regarding teaching kids about money, how to disagree and argue productively, and revamping date night. While I might not implement all of them, they've gotten me thinking about what we're currently doing, why we're doing it that way, and how we can do better. But what resonated most with me is his emphasis on "microsteps."  He says, "There's no grand defining action'; no single gesture; no magic lever you can pull or button you can press.  There's just a commitment to making incremental changes and accumulating 'small wins'...You don't need a wholesale makeover.  You just need to get started."  That's manageable.  I can do that!

While we sometimes place unrealistic expectations on ourselves, or feel pressure and judgment from others related to our parenting choices, Mr. Feiler's attitude is both comforting and empowering: "The easiest route to unhappiness is to do nothing...What's the secret to being a happy family? Try."

The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More
by Bruce Feiler
ISBN: 9780061778735
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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