Family Matters

Q&A: The (Unconventional) Secrets of Happy Families

Some of the best parenting advice may come from unusual places—the military, gamers and financial experts.

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In a veritable sea of parenting books, the title of the newest entry makes even the most skeptical parent sit up and take note: The Secrets of Happy Families.

The latest book by best-selling author Bruce Feiler contains a refreshing amount of counterintuitive advice: forget family dinners, for example. And let your kids choose their punishments.

Feiler, 48, the father of 7-year-old twin girls, writes a column about contemporary families for The New York Times, but he doesn’t dole out his own advice in the pages of Secrets. Instead, he goes to the experts, who in this case happen to be some pretty surprising folks. Forget the typically well-credentialed child-development talking heads; Feiler opts to reach out to Warren Buffett’s advisers for insight on meting out allowance, to Green Berets for tips on building a tightly knit family unit and to members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, who dish on the best ways to resolve family conflicts.

Feiler — who has written about faith in Walking the Bible and family in The Council of Dads — shares the reasons behind why he decided to write an unconventional parenting book — and the punishment his girls most recently selected (it involves push-ups):

What prompted you to want to write a book like this?

Feiler: I wrote about the secrets of having a happy family not because I had a happy family but because I wanted one. I was incredibly frustrated as a parent. Our life was chaotic but I was especially frustrated that so much of this space is dominated by what I call the family improvement industry. Parents are in this straitjacket where the only ideas we are allowed to implement must come approved by shrinks or self-help gurus or other family experts. But in every other area of life — business, sports, the workplace, the military — there are all these new ideas about how to make groups work. A family is a group.

I’m not wagging my finger. I don’t have a country like France. I don’t have a mascot like a tiger. [Referring to recent best-selling parenting tomes, including Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.]

There is a glut of parenting books out there. What makes yours different?

I think of this almost as an anti-parenting parenting book. I don’t have an ideology I’m trying to promote: if you do these 5 things, it will work. I am not an expert. I am a frustrated parent, and I think there’s a big difference. I have gone to all these experts in very diverse fields. I need to fight smarter? I need to talk to experts in peace. I want to come up with new games for long car rides? Let me talk to the people at Zynga. As a frustrated parent, my job was to get myself into the room with people who have new ideas. In this book there are hundreds of new ideas that I believe have not been part of this conversation.

What are some of your favorites?

Let’s take family dinner: if we’ve heard anything, we’ve heard you should have family dinner with your kids. But for most of us, that doesn’t work with our modern lives. Dig deeper into the research and there’s much better news for parents. There are only 10 minutes of productive time in any meal. The rest is, Pass the ketchup and take your elbows off the table. You can take that 10 minutes and put it anywhere in the day and get the same benefit. Can’t have family dinner? Have family breakfast. Meet for a bedtime snack. You can time-shift family dinner and still have a bonding experience.

You talk about fighting smart. What do you mean by that?

Linda [Feiler’s wife] and I have what I call the 7:42 fight — who’s picking up the dry cleaning, where are the shin guards. It’s the logistics conversation and it would always end badly. Research shows that 6 to 8 at night is the most stressful time for families. So now we do it later, after she’s eaten and watched The Voice. And usually we do it in the living room, not in my office. If it’s particularly tense, we do it in the bedroom because we can sit side by side.

I met this environmental psychologist who showed me research that if you sit on a hard surface you will be more rigid; if you sit on a cushioned surface you will be more flexible. This weekend we will go over our daughters’ report cards on a window seat in our bedroom that’s cushioned and we will sit side by side. When you sit across from someone, there’s very clear research that you are more likely to get into conflict; if you’re sitting next to someone, you’re more likely to collaborate.

Which other ideas in your book have you incorporated into your life?

Number one, far and away, is let your kids pick their punishment. I tend toward being a controlling parent and I have really learned how unwise that is. We now have a weekly family meeting where we ask three questions: what worked well this week, what didn’t work well and what will we work on in the coming week. This week we are working on overreacting — not screaming if you don’t get your way, not crying if you lose the card game, not kicking your sister if she took the socks you wanted to wear. Research shows that kids who set their own goals and make their own punishments build up their prefrontal cortex and become more capable of taking control of own lives.

So they get to pick their own reward and punishment. In this case, if they overreacted 5 minutes or less, they get a sleepover. Fifteen minutes or more? They have to do one pushup for every minute over 15. I would never have picked those rewards and punishments. They know what motivates them. It’s about enlisting them in their own upbringing.

(MORE‘Slow Parenting’: Why a Mom Is ‘Fed Up with Frenzy’)

You mention spicing up boring car rides and family vacations. How?

I went to Zynga, the online gamer, and I said, I’m bored with playing 20 Questions. They designed a very involved scavenger hunt we can do. It’s called an Amazing Race. It’s a multi-day event. If you go count all benches in the park, you get two points. If you help lead me through the subway, I will give you six bonus points. You constantly make up little missions. It makes people team up and creates inter-generational cooperation and memory-making.

There’s a debate among parents over whether kids should be paid for doing chores. What did you learn?

Separate money from chores. Sorry, making your bed and setting the table is just the way it works around here. I was very persuaded by research that the more people think about money, the more selfish they become. We also added a fourth pot to spend/save/give away. We added “share” and we have to spend the money together.

What about telling kids they can or can’t buy something with their allowance?

They buy a lot of doll clothes. It’s their money. They can do with it what they want.

(MORE: The ‘Tiger Mother’ Debate: Are Chinese Moms Really So Different?)

What made you turn to the military for parenting advice?

Who’s better at building group identity among groups with disparate people? They throw people together and make them into a unit.

Do your girls like being used as guinea pigs?

If you asked them if they like the Amazing Race, they do. If you ask do they like the dinner games we play or allowance, they do. They don’t see it as part of a larger strategy of making a happy family. That part doesn’t really engage them. It used to be that we were always playing defense and now it feels we are much more on the offense. Not that problems don’t come up. They come up every day. But we have this playbook now. We are more creative and connected to this world of new ideas out there. We are more adaptable. We try things and succeed or fail quickly.