Bookworm: 'The Secrets of Happy Families'

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Six o’clock, right on the nose.

That’s when your family sat down for the evening meal when you were a kid, and nobody dared be late. Back then, Dad sat on one end of the table, Mom on the other, and you ate what was put in front of you.

These days, though, everything’s changed. One of your kids has practice, another has friends over, and it’s rare that you do anything together at all. Families are just different now, but in the new book The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler, you’ll see how they’re also quite the same.

What makes a family?

The answer today is very different than it would’ve been 50 years ago. Back then, June Cleaver was a happy homemaker with two-point-five kids. Today, June might live next door to gay parents, across the street from an interracial couple, and down the block from a single mom or Grandma raising her second family.

But what holds those families together? What, exactly, do they have in common? At the tail-end of a disastrous family get-together, Feiler decided to find out.

Happy families have a plan, Feiler said. Many of them base their operations on business models, such as “agile development.” They even make business statements, so they know where they’re headed. They empower their children to help figure things out which, studies show, actually enhances kids’ brains.

Stories are key in happy families, which give everybody a connection to their powerful past. Family members talk about everything including money and sex, which prepares kids for the future. They fight, but they know how to do it respectfully. Parents in happy families understand that there needs to be a “yours, mine, and ours” in finances and in furniture. They strive to understand where everybody stands on important issues and they set rules, but can adapt.

Oh, and that dinner? Happy families understand that having any meal together is important. They also know that “dinner is not really about the dinner. It’s about the family.”

So, admit it: there are times when you truly wish you lived alone on a desert island, no family allowed. Those bleak times are when you really need The Secrets of Happy Families.

With open curiosity and obvious delight in what he finds, Feiler used his own family as guinea pigs for his research. He then utilized the advice of experts from business, medicine, psychology, and sociology, and got a smoother-running family and children who are strengthened for their futures. I loved that Feiler admits being dubious about some of the methods he learned (but was willing to admit he was wrong about that), and I greatly appreciated that he offers lessons that span all generations, from kids to baby boomers to great-grandparents.

It’s hard to argue with the successes you’ll find in this book, and it’s hard not to be charmed by Feiler’s experiences.


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