Thoughts on Thoughts: Happy Families

The Week recently featured a piece from Eric Barker, author behind the popular blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree. The piece discusses the secrets behind happy families, which you can read in full here. While my family is in the midst of adjusting to change (that change being a new daughter), I’ve always considered my wife and I our own little family. However, now that our numbers are up, this particular article caught my attention in a way that it likely never would have before.

Barker’s piece isn’t new—it was actually written in September 2014, but The Week obviously felt it was pertinent enough to feature under the current headlines. Either it is pertinent because Barker is a successful blogger, meaning others must find his ideas valuable, or it is pertinent because it’s a soft core piece in a hard core news world. There is something to be said for “light news” now and again.

Most of Barker’s article is based on a discussion he had with Bruce Feiler, author of the book The Secrets of Happy Families. Given my newest addition to the family, I may be willing to shell out the $10.99 for a Kindle version of Feiler’s book—I’ll need all the help I can get, right? I mean, if I think about it, my wife and I have essentially produced a mini-version of ourselves, which means we are in trouble.

Barker introduces Feiler’s ideas as being business-centered, as if he simply decided one day to apply all his education to his family life, then hoped for the best:

“[Feiler] found solutions to common family problems in business theory, Harvard negotiation techniques, and even by talking to Green Berets.”

After introducing us to Feiler and his general basis for his ideas, Barker begins to detail the six tips he discussed with Feiler, which we can use in creating happy families. In summary, they are the following:

“1. Create a family mission statement
2. Share your family history
3. Hold weekly family meetings
4. Fight right
5. Have family dinner together… any time of the day
6. Just try”

Create a Family Mission Statement

For Feiler, a family mission statement is not so much about setting up a website and having something for the family to throw onto the “about” section of the webpage. According to Feiler, it’s about identifying family values—ten of them, preferably. He also encourages us not to be intimidated by the word “values,” telling us to think about it as if we are “setting goals” instead of creating firm, family values. Barker has a decent point about any reservations we may have in regards to setting down a specific set of values (goals) for our family:

“You have goals at work. You have personal goals. Why wouldn’t you have goals as a family?”

I’m all about goals, personally. I find it easier to maintain a core in this wild life when I am trying to achieve specific goals. Much of what I’ve read about minimalism, which my readers know I try to practice in my everyday life, would discourage setting a whole slew of goals to meet. Much of what I’ve learned from society is that we are a bit worthless if we aren’t setting goals and achieving certain things. The middle ground is what I think I’d like to seek in terms of setting goals with my family—let’s not be afraid to set goals, but let’s set the right type of goals. A value that comes to mind is committing to being a family that doesn’t shout. Just as Barker and Feiler point out, we won’t succeed all the time, but the effort is what matters. We have to consistently try to live by our family mission statement, never afraid to pick up and try again when we fail.

Share Your Family History

Check out this baffling insight Barker managed to snag from Feiler during their conversation about happy families:

“…researchers at Emory did this study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.”

What? Even further, Feiler believes we have a responsibility to give an honest, well-rounded description of our family history to our children and spouses. It isn’t enough to recount the positive history—we have to recount the negative history as well. The whole idea behind this method is giving our children a sense of how life dips, twists, and turns. It isn’t all fairies and puppy dogs, but a mix of fairies and crushing disappointments. Reality may be difficult, but it’s…reality.

The idea of recounting my family history to my children is difficult to grasp. While I can understand the idea Feiler is promoting in his conversation with Barker, it hardly seems possible to me. How is giving the whole story about my family going to help my children? Is it really that effective to give them a history—positive, negative, or midland? This is an area I particularly dread as a mother, worried about what is too much detail and what is too little. I guess since my daughter isn’t even a year old yet, I have some more time to consider Feiler’s ideas about sharing family history.

Hold Weekly Family Meetings

Barker tells us that this idea of Feiler’s was stripped right from the board rooms of the business world. For “20 minutes, once a week,” we can increase the happiness meter of our family life. In fact, Feiler even provides three simple questions to guide the trajectory of the family meeting:

“We basically ask three questions. What worked well this week, what didn’t work well this week, and what will we agree to work on in the week ahead?”

While Barker points out that talking this much with your family usually produces arguing, he assures us that Feiler will help us navigate troubled waters much in the same way he has offered tips to create a happier family. The family meeting seems to be about creating a sense of involvement, which extends not only to the parents, but the kids as well.

I am well-versed in the family meeting. My family had them when I was growing up. Sometimes, there would be a Nesquik drink or a hot chocolate in it for me, too. Despite being an introvert who mostly avoids speaking with others, when it comes to my wife, I do enjoy talking things out. In fact, it drives her a bit crazy sometimes because she wants to walk away and all I want to do is finish the discussion no matter what. “Oh darling, there is a python sliding its way through the kitchen? That’s lovely, but we haven’t finished deciding how to handle this overdue hospital bill yet…” My point is that I can see myself wanting to use family meetings when my daughter is old enough to contribute. I believe them to be useful, too, because we can’t beat getting it all on the table, good or bad.

How to Fight Right

When Feiler developed his ideas about effective arguments in the family, he had the techniques of Harvard’s Bill Ury in mind. In fact, negotiation is central to Ury and Feiler’s ideas on fighting in the family, as Barker describes in his blog post. Though it may seem strange to negotiate with not just our spouse, but our children also, Barker creates a vital rule as he covers the topic of arguing effectively:

“Don’t be a dictator unless you have to.”

My wife is going to love this idea, because it involves “separating” everyone, at least for a short time, in order to allow everyone to take step back from the argument. Screaming and throwing tantrums is an element I want to ban from my family life, especially as my daughter gets older, so I guess I am willing to swallow my pride and concede a bit on this topic. OK, OK, we will walk away. It makes sense to “create alternatives” like Feiler suggests, too. While we will probably never need three alternate solutions to a conflict, I always feel more comfortable when I have options. It is likely options will make my family feel more comfortable as well.

Have a Family Dinner Together…Any Time of the Day

The idea of a family dinner is certainly not new, and it is doubtful Feiler is the original source. I am so glad Barker included this tip from his discussion with Feiler, though. Feiler offers compelling reasons to include family dinners in our lives—check out this quote Barker provides from Feiler in his blog post:

“A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem…Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.”

Barker is quick to combat any resistance readers may be likely to put up against this idea, too. While he makes it clear he knows we all have busy schedules, he adds that it doesn’t take that long. Plus, we all have to eat right? He also includes Feiler’s thoughts on who does the talking during these “family dinners.” Feiler explains it is usually the parents who dominate discussion, and encourages us to flip the norm by letting the children do the bulk of the talking.

My family was big on having dinner together. We did it most nights, if my recollections are accurate. I believe they are accurate. There is this underlying sense of unease I have about how my wife and I handle dinner currently. Generally, we eat in front of the television, slumped around the coffee table for the ten or fifteen minutes it takes us to wolf down our dinner. I don’t mention it much, but I would much rather spend that time sitting at an actual table, at least staring at each other as we chew instead of a flickering screen. I feel like this would be an improvement whether we talk or not. Why don’t I say anything? I don’t know. I feel like we’ve tried it before and never maintained the habit. Perhaps I don’t want to fail again. However, if this is going to have a positive impact on my child while creating a happier family, I am likely to give it at least one more effort.

Just Try

The summarizing tactic that Barker tells us Feiler offers is the idea to “just try.” As Feiler explains, we can’t expect results without an effort, nor would we expect effortless results in other areas of our life, such as our careers. Barker equates it with dating, saying we show effort in the beginning, which is (often) the difference between dating and marriages. As long as we are “actively showing interest in the other person,” we can improve our marriage. Feiler seems to think this idea holds true in our families, as well:

“If we work with our families and take small steps to try and make them better, we actually can make our families happier. And in the process, we can make every member of our family happier. So what’s the secret to a happy family? Try.”

Pretending trying is easy would be silly. It would insult the intelligence of my readers. I know the simple task of giving an effort can feel monumental at times. I read books that encourage me to be more loving, patient, etc. with my wife. I read books that tell me to spend as much time as possible with my child. I read books that promise being a good person in private and public alike has positive, long-term effects. When Feiler says to give an effort to our families, it makes perfect sense to me and I believe it can have good results. The effort is the hurdle, though. However, in the advice itself lies the problem and the solution all at once. Yes, Feiler is encouraging us to make an effort, but at the same time, he is encouraging small steps, one at a time. Nothing terribly daunting is being suggested. So I will—I will “just try.”

Feiler has more than six tips for creating happy families. He has an entire book, a myriad of interviews, and countless videos online. Here is one such video to check out, if you’d like:

As my family grows, my attention is drawn in different directions. Much like when a friend buys a certain model vehicle we’ve never seen before, then we begin to notice them all over the roads, my attention has honed into a new type of “car”—family advice. While Barker and Feiler may not be the first people to make suggestions such as these, the suggestions all carry a certain, important weight with them. I hope my readers will take the time to view the full post by Barker, remaining open to the ideas he discussed with Feiler.

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