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The Secrets Of Happy Families

What happy families do right, from telling the family story to creating healthy relationships  across generations.

Bruce Feiler and his family. (Photo by Kelly Hike)

Bruce Feiler and his family. (Photo by Kelly Hike)

We love to love and talk up family. Nothing better. Nothing dearer. But in the thick of it, in the heart of it, when the kids are young and the parents are working, and the sink is full of dishes, and somebody’s crying, and the car payment’s due, and you’re late for school, it can be pretty wild. Straight up hard.

Bruce Feiler was right there, in that spot – in the messy, madcap, impossible heart of it – and he thought ‘there has to be a better way’. He went asking, comparing, looking for advice. New ways.

This hour, On Point: the secrets of happy families.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secret of Happy Families: Improve your mornings, rethink family dinner, fight smarter, go out and play, and much more.” (@brucefeiler)

Ann Smith, marriage and family therapist, executive director of the Breakthrough Program at Caron Treatment Centers. She also blogs regularly for Psychology Today.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Washington Post “Books about families fall into two categories: those proclaiming that we’re all doing it wrong (delivered with aFrench accent or the roar of a tiger mom)and those detailing just how ­badly the author’s parents messed up.”

The Huffington Post (Bruce Feiler) “Over the next week, tens of millions of people will do something so familiar it’s easy to forget how radical it is: They will commemorate the worst moments of their past. For Jews, the occasion is Passover, in which they relive their four centuries of slavery in Egypt. For Christians, the occasion is Easter, in which they painstakingly mark the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.”

The New York Times “Family stories are exactly what they sound like. They’re stories of our family history — how we got here, who came before us and what mattered along the way. They’re stories of our recent family past, little legends that define us and highlight what’s important. And they’re stories about our family present: this is why we do what we do, this is what’s important to us.”

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  • Expanded_Consciousness

    “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina.

    • J__o__h__n

      I was just about to post this but decided to scroll down and see if anyone beat me to it. 

    • Expanded_Consciousness

      Thanks, Tom.

      All happy families are the same in that they are logical, rational, ethical, moral, loving, respectful, and not exploitative and sadistic.

  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    Would your guest comment on families in countries such as China and Russia, where children were removed from their biological counterparts. Is the current generation able to function in a “normal” family way, given that they have no history ? What psychological forces will play out in the years to come ? While we are on the subject of damaged psyches, I wonder what the effects of the Syrian conflict will have on these children and their families. I guess what I am really leading up to is the question, ‘ are dysfunctional families and their histories a type of world wide contagion, that eventually makes its way through all societies’ ?

  • Bluejay2fly

    The interesting question is what makes individuals happy? I think in current American culture of materialism and consumerism has taken hold as primary ways to make people happy. We eat and we shop. We are fat and own too much stuff. Extending that model to children they have become in many ways extensions of one’s personal possessions merely put upon this earth to entertain and delight the parent. In short many of these children have become self-centered because the parent is neglecting the drudgery of parenting. Responsibility and work crowd out fun so many parents avoid raising their children properly in lieu of just enjoying them and having fun with them. All this lack of spirituality translates into people seeming to be happy when in fact they are not because they are missing something essential in life. They placate those pangs of emptiness with more shopping and eating in the same way an alcoholic drinks not make himself more happy but to just feel normal. Happier families avoid this trap by feeding the spiritual side by filling their life with meaning by being kind, selfless, hard working, and considerate of the worlds suffering and their obligation to alleviate what they can. I like the quote “Everyman is guilty of all the good he did not do” Voltaire because it emphasizes our need to think of others. Feeding the spiritual side wether through volunteerism, religion, education, hard labor, the arts, or dedicated service to your family makes people happy and in turn those are probably going to be your examples today. 

  • Jeff in Connecticut

    With many stuck on the bottom of the lopsided wealth gap in the USA today, an impediment to happiness for many families may be meeting basic needs of employment, health care, housing, financial security, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rich-Madison/100002956347397 Rich Madison

    As a child, my greatest longing in life was the distant dream of a happy family. It has been a long, long journey. But now, as an adult, I have that. 

    As your guest suggests, our family has found a lot of meaning and unity in celebrating the Passover every year, and also taking a Sabbath day of rest each weekend. We also make it a point to keep the TV off all week, limit computer time and extracurricular activities (including church activities), eat meals together, and spend a lot of time with each other. We also try to serve others as a family, and we talk over issues and ideas on a regular basis. 

    We disciplined our children quite a bit when they were young, so now (tweens and teens) they have a lot of freedom and are wonderful to be around. We have plenty of fights and bad days, but we know how to fight fairly, we’re brutally honest about our own faults, we don’t keep grudges, and we know we love each other. I am eternally grateful for my family.

    • Gregg Smith

      I really appreciate that none of your comment’s suggestions cost a dime.

    • viacarrozza

      The most important step that you make in life is the choice of the person you will have children with.  

    • Jim

      kudos to you. one thing i completely agree with you is your remark that every partner needs to be honest about his/her fault. i believe that is how every one of us can improve in familial relationships.

    • http://www.findingourdream.blogspot.com Hal Horvath

      Rich, when you said “we don’t keep grudges” I remembered how a relatively cold, unwelcoming church I know of conducted a review (due to dwindling attendance), and the community there decided that they are “welcoming” as part of their identity.

      And then, after that self-definition, they actually became more welcoming and friendly!  It does help to ‘fake it until you make it’ so to speak.

  • ToyYoda

    Does your guest have any suggestions for broke’ older families where the kids are adults and everyone gets together for the holidays?

  • Wahoo_wa

    Isn’t it also important to understand when to walk away from family members who are constant sources of drama and show no sign of changing for the better?  Sometimes it’s the most healthy thing to do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BGHooke Bruce Hooke

    One of the greatest gifts I’ve received in my life is a mother who has worked hard on dealing with her own issues from the hard times she went through when she was growing up, AND who has shared that personal growth journey with me and others in the family. This has shown me the path to dealing with my own issues and allowed us to communicate on a much deeper level and share the amazing stories about what really matters most to us. I should note that I am in my late 40′s so this is really about what has made for a happy family later in life.

  • Emily Lewis

    Growing up, my family had monthly family meetings where we read our family goals, negotiated chores, and talked about plans for the month.  It was empowering as a child to see the goals that we were working towards together as a family. I was taught we had a hand in keeping the family finances when a goal was set “To reduce unplanned spending on eating out or buying toys”.  I still remember some of those goals, including “To allow each person to pursue his or her career or learning interests, within the constrains of family resources.”   Those goals hung on the wall behind the kitchen table where we ate dinner together every night.

  • David_from_Lowell

    Everyone in the family needs a good sense of humor, especially about themselves. Also, it helps to learn to recognize that fight-or-flight-hair-raise-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling within yourself (like when kids are throwing things, and you and your spouse are arguing, and you need to get a report emailed to your boss in 2 hours), and breathe, and laugh about the situation, and then muscle through it, but with perspective. In those situations, I picture my kids as adults and living in a different city and I miss them terribly, and then I open my eyes and they’re still there. It makes the pasta bowl on the floor seem less important, and manageable.

  • sickofthechit

    Honesty didn’t make the list of core values?  Outrageous!
    Unless he is raising his kids to work on Wall Street!
    Charles A. Bowsher

  • nprname

    It’s pretty specific, but I think one of the best things that we do as a family, even as our kids have gotten older, is read out loud together.

    When we read together, everything about our family feels better.  Reading together puts us in close physical contact, it slows us down, and it allows us to talk about things that just wouldn’t come up in every-day conversation.  All of this carries over into the time we’re not spending reading together — the warm feelings “linger”!

    Sometimes, things get busy, and it’s hard to carve out the time.  But every time we do, we remember how important it is for us. . .

    • sickofthechit

       Who decides what is read?  What do you read?

      • nprname

         I guess we all sort of decide.  I usually suggest books I think they’d enjoy, tell them what the books are about, and we all agree on one.  Often, we read books that are a little above the level that they could read on their own and fully comprehend.  When they were younger, we read several of the Harry Potter books together (until they began reading them on their own. . . over and over again!), we read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe . . . now they read all of those sorts of books on their own.  They’re almost 9 and 11 and are strong readers.  So, at the moment, we’re reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” together . . . it would be difficult for them to grasp on their own, but together, they completely get it and LOVE it.  Scout is so mischievious and REAL, but the book opens up so many topics of conversation — kids’ behavior and feelings, racism, bodies, right vs. wrong, social pressure, parenting… so much!  It’s really wonderful!

    • CynthB

      I agree totally about the reading together as a family. Another thing we would do is takes turns making up and telling a story. When the power went out, we would tell ghost storis in front of the fireplace. Sometimes we would do it even if the power hadn’t gone out.

  • CynthB

    My husband and I both work and have 3 boys, 17, 14, and 12. I make more money, so my husband stayed at home for 5 years when the boys were younger. My husband did his best to make sure that when I got home, I just spent time with the kids. He did the cooking and cleanup. Our philosophy has always been that we love being together more than anything else. We always had reading time in one of the boys’ bedrooms in the evening. So, when you like each other (and love obviously), and your priority is being together, everything else just falls into place. We all show each other respect. We both treat our parents (the kids grandparents) with love and respect. I think we model the behavior that we want our children to learn. Obviously, it is a balancing act with work, studies, sports and all the demands of modern society. But we tell each other how lucky we are to have a great family and that we love being togehter. The result is respectful, loving kids that strive to make us proud in all that they do.

  • ThisDudeAbides

    My parents raised 6 kids on a teacher’s salary. Things were extremely tight, but we all survived and now all 6 have Master’s degrees. How did we do it? Humor, humor, humor and humor.

  • Michael Moore

    What advice do your guests have for a family without children?

  • Richard Sauvé

    Thanks for the show. I’m 42 and not a parent yet. But i feel lucky to have
    had a communicative family, and have certainly witnessed good and bad parents throughout the years.

    A favorite faImily of mine back in Kansas city does many family things.. The most notable to me is a family walk after dinner with all cell phones left at home. Family only time is as important as time with the rest of their community and world.

    Thanks

    Richard
    Boston, ma

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    As a mother of 2 (now grown) children, I appreciate the suggestions of Feiler & Smith. However, none of them will be effective for families who cannot work out a sane, responsible, co-operative schedule for their kids in post-divorce situations.  

    Some parents will agree to specifics in the presence of a mediator yet completely fail to honor them in day-to-day life as the years go by. Power & control issues from the marriage can continue throughout the kids childhood years, in other words, even with an ironclad legal agreement in place.

    I wish all families the best of luck at staying together in these turbulent & chaotic times.

  • Katherine G

    I love the breadth of this discussion and feel a great wave of relief to hear that I’ve incorporated some of what I’ve heard in raising my young ones.  These things I did out of instinct.  It just seemed right and good for them.  How nice to be validated by the author’s research!  That being said, what I’ve found very calming in very difficult times when I was desperate for a compass, is to NOT think of our times as unprecedented in terms of how they operate.  I believe the work and home divide that is “coming undone” now is not limited to our modern lives.  What about the working family farm of generations past?  What about when kids had chores around the house because it was necessary for the family to function — not just because it was “good for them” for their future.  I think the stark divide between work and home and shielding children from learning survival skills – ie, finances, chores, managing an effective household – is a relatively NEW scenario…maybe a few decades.  AND that’s it’s limited to a certain socio-economic class most likely of the white world.  It seems as though we still take as the norm the nuclear 1950′s family.  I just don’t believe it’s as widespread and long-standing a paradigm as we set it up to be.  Therefore, to have to move away from it is not as scary or uncharted as we think.  

    Can’t wait to read the book!

    • brettearle

      The shroud of World War II–wherein, there was, perhaps, the specter of Global Destruction–went a long way in post-1945 parents shielding their children from what they went through and from what they remembered from the Great Depression.

      But then the Cuban Missile Crisis came along and reenforced `the sheltering syndrome’.

      [There was, of course, the "Duck and Cover" bomb shelter paranoia of the 50's.]

      I do not think that, these days, 9/11 nor the Church Scandal nor the 2007 Economic Hemorrhage nor the 24/7 news cycle of, “If it leads, it Bleeds”, are doing anything other than to reenforce, in a number of family cases, the same Syndrome.

      I wish that weren’t true.

  • http://www.facebook.com/letha.kunkel Letha Lewis Kunkel

    A country song was played near the end of the show about family reunions.  I’l like to know who sings it if anyone knows

  • http://www.facebook.com/letha.kunkel Letha Lewis Kunkel

    Near the end of the show a country song about family reunions was played.  Does anyone know the title of the song and the artist?

  • LoganEcholls

    Why are people so certain the definition of family includes children?  It seems to me that some of the happiest couples are the ones without kids.  I’m not saying that kids are a recipe for unhappiness, but the lack of them certainly doesn’t preclude happiness either.  People point to kids as their greatest achievement, but I wonder if they ever conceived that they had a choice in the matter?    There are so many things that one can aspire to in life when one has the time, money, and energy to do them.   It seems a shame that people only realize this in their fifties after their often less than grateful offspring have flown the nest.   I guess what I’m saying is:  the most important decision in ones life is not simply choosing a mate, but whether and when to have kids at all.

  • jefe68

    If there were no dysfunctional families think how less interesting literature would be. 

    • brettearle

      Amen to that.

      All of the members of Salinger’s Glass Family would have  been portrayed as walking on water.

    • brettearle

      Amen to that.

      Without pathology, Salinger would have had his Glass family walking on water.

    • Tyranipocrit

       disagree.  I never read lit about such mundane relationships–boring boring boring and one of the problems with
      today’s lit.  no substance–too commercialized.  How many times can you
      read a book about dysfunctional relationships?  Great lit is actually
      in sci fi and fantasy or abstract thinking and “political” novels that
      address social issues–not personal relationships.  I am fed up with the
      drivel that mass produce today.  Independent publishers are where its
      at.

      • jefe68

        I guess you never read much of Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner , Eugene O’Neill, John Updike to name a few. 

        Families are never so one dimensional in my view. 

        • Tyranipocrit

          read them all–drop dead boring–but of course we are told they are the best. I dont feel the need to conform to everything we are told is great. I think for myself. I respect tha tothers might find it intersting, but i tink most people just want to fit in with intellectual mainstream trends.

  • Gregg Smith

    The “Duck Dynasty” folks have the family thing figured out pretty good.

  • nannasin smith

    we know how to fight fairly.  
    PCF8574

  • lucheen

    Why must everything for Americans these days refer to the business world? People used to turn to religion for this. Has Silicon Valley replaced church? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Spencer-Doidge/1223386779 Spencer Doidge

      Depends on the church. Most people do not turn to religion now because it failed them. Churches, like all institutions, have always operated primarily in their own self-interest. When a business prospers sustainably over the long haul, it is because it delivers real value for a fair price, that is, it succeeds. Businesses don’t require blind faith.

      • humbow

         I’m an atheist myself, but I can see the value of religion when it comes to living within a community. This is one of the beauties of Christianity/Islam/Judaism. They are all very community-centered; they all focus on the other. One being a good person, etc.

        The problem with turning to the business world is that the business world cannot provide a moral compass. I am not saying that one must be religious to be moral, just that the focus should be on the other, not on the self, and that one is unlikely to get this from the business world.

        This is the biggest failing, in my mind, of Feiler’s approach. It’s sad that the kids define themselves as “helping people travel because we are travelers.” That is a self-indulgent self-reinforcement. They would be better off being taught, “We help people because it is the right thing to do.”

        Similarly, you shouldn’t tell your kids about your family’s history because it raises their self-esteem. You should tell them about your family’s history because you want to connect and bond with them, help connect them with the past and their history, pass on family stories.

        I know I’m going on and on, but I really have a problem with this guy calling Tom resistant, and then responding to a tweet congratulating him on it by congratulating himself. It’s not that Tom is so far removed and resistant, as he tweeted–it’s that Tom is still thinking in the “old” paradigm of teaching your kids to be good, self-reliant people by BEING a good, self-reliant person. The horror! Doing something because it is the right thing to do! Not because some research tells you too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Spencer-Doidge/1223386779 Spencer Doidge

    Nothing we tried by design worked or would have worked with our son, or so we thought. He would never let on that something sunk in. It seems now that it did. He tried everything he could think of to break us and make us disown him, and it didn’t work, thanks mostly to my wife. Today he is a model citizen. None of this was anything at all like what happened in my birth family. My wife was the family rudder. 

    Dads, if you’re like me, know that you can’t control anything or anyone but yourself. No matter what your kid does, don’t disown him. That’s the ultimate failure. Suck it up and see what happens.

  • http://www.facebook.com/karen.ziminski Karen Ziminski

    The idea of the family mission statement is nothing new. It is in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey, published in 1989.

  • humbow

    You know how you come across some tidbit of new research like “Registered Democrats more likely to vote Democratic” (for instance)–and you think, “Well, duh. Someone paid for this study?” That was kind of how I felt listening to this. It’s not that Feiler’s points aren’t valid or that he doesn’t offer good solutions. It’s that it all seems rather … obvious.

    I think the woman who called in and said to focus on PEOPLE hit the nail on the head. All the research from business, the military, whatever, may back up his statements, but it all feels so forced.
    Actually, it made me a little sad–because this is Interpersonal Skills 101. This is, as Tom said, leading by example, a notion that Failer pooh-poohed and called Tom resistant.

    Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe all roads lead to Mohommed. But it also seems a bit sad to me that his goal is having a happy family–not helping to ensure that everyone in the family is happy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000542965100 Freddie Fierro

    I just finished reading this book and its great.  Great conversation starter with almost anybody.  There is a little bit of everything in this book, from young new families to established in their way families. I’m so glad that I got this hour of On Point, on the way to a family member’s funeral no less, which is the way the book points out that most family reunions are initially talked about and started. 

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