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The Secrets of Happy Families

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Date: August 15, 2013      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source: Bruce  Feiler      Print:

Rethink the family dinner…tell stories…rearrange your furniture…and more

It’s hard for stressed-out modern families to feel like effective, close-knit teams these days. New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler—himself part of a two-career couple with twin eight-year-old daughters, aging parents and a large extended family—wanted to find ways to make his family life richer and reduce tensions.

He looked to unexpected sources, gathering and adapting innovative ideas about team-building and ­problem-solving from corporate boardrooms, university campuses and even the US military.

Bottom Line Personal asked Feiler for the strategies he found most helpful. He says incorporating just one or two of these ideas can make a significant difference in family closeness…

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RETHINK THE FAMILY DINNER

Eating dinner together has long been shown to unify families and reduce behavioral problems in children. But fewer and fewer families are actually eating dinner together. And nearly ­everything in my life conspired against regular nighttime meals—from longer working hours for my wife and me to more extracurricular activities for the kids.

The Columbia University Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse has studied the role of family dinners in uniting families. It found that most of the benefits are derived from just 10 minutes of connection time during the meal—and you could get the same results at any meal. It’s really about coming together as a family.

What my family does: We have a family-bonding experience over food every day. Sometimes, we opt for a family breakfast or a family dessert in the evening depending on our ­schedules.

Important: Adults tend to take up around two-thirds of the conversation. Family meals are most effective in building cohesion if you let your kids speak for at least half the time.

TELL FAMILY STORIES

Researchers at Emory University who studied myth and ritual in American families created the “Do You Know (DYK) Scale,” widely regarded as one of the best single predictors of children’s emotional health and happiness. It asks 20 questions about family history, such as “Do you know where your parents met?” and “Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?” Children who provided the most comprehensive answers to the test had a stronger sense that they controlled their lives and a deeper belief that their families functioned well. You can find the full list of questions at TheMustardSeedHouse.com. 

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What my family does: We tell stories of our family history that convey our values and emotional ­toughness. Kids need to know that they are part of something bigger and more important than just the ups and downs of their own daily needs and ­behavior. We don’t try to shield our children from struggles or failures that have occurred in our family’s past.

For example, one of our family’s most memorable stories was my diagnosis with a rare and potentially deadly form of cancer at 43. Wracked with worry that my daughters would grow up without a father figure, I wrote a letter to six of my closest friends, asking them to be there for my daughters if I died. Each man represented a different era of my life and had different characteristics and values that I hoped to pass on to my girls. My “council of dads” are not just my friends now but also my daughters’ friends, and they enrich all of our lives.

STRIKE THE WORD “YOU” FROM FAMILY SQUABBLES

William Ury, a senior fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project, gets called in to handle some of the toughest disputes in the world, including nuclear-test-ban treaties and major labor strikes. He and other conflict experts sometimes make headway over deadlocked issues by simply changing up their language. For example, using the pronoun “you” throws the blame for a dispute on the other party. Rephrasing issues with the pronoun “we” can force both sides to acknowledge that there’s a joint problem and to seek joint solutions.

What my family does: Instead of telling my wife, “I waited for an hour, and you never called,” I say, “I waited for an hour. We need to improve our scheduling and communication during the day.” Other big-league negotiating ideas we adapted…

Keep your facial expressions neutral and especially avoid rolling your eyes. Eye rolling conveys not just impatience or annoyance but contempt.

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Walk away from fights after three minutes. Beyond that, family members just repeat themselves at higher and higher decibels. Instead, I separate my bickering daughters until both cool down. Then I ask each girl to come up with a few alternative solutions to the conflict before she speaks again. This way they move from rigid positions in an argument to starting with new options that they can shape together.

REARRANGE YOUR FAMILY ROOM FURNITURE

Sally Augustin, PhD, founder of Design with Science, is well-known in the corporate world as a “place coach.” One of the country’s leading environmental psychologists, she redesigns workplaces so that employees can relate better. I realized that many of her ideas were applicable to home life.

What my family does: We circled the furniture so that it resembled an O shape (seating in a circular pattern) rather than the more alienating L-shape (two sofas at a right angle) or V-shape (a sofa flanked by two chairs). If O-shaped layouts aren’t possible or offend your decorating tastes, use ­ottomans or other portable seating that can be easily repositioned during family gatherings. We also use plush surfaces for tense conversations. Sitting on chairs with soft cushions makes people more flexible and conciliatory than hard-backed surfaces.

KEEP EVERYONE VERY BUSY DURING FAMILY GET-TOGETHERS

Many extended families dread these gatherings because the focus is too often on sitting around, watching TV, drinking or gossiping. I was having trouble finding good advice about how to create camaraderie among disparate individuals until I ran across groundbreaking research done by the US military’s special forces unit, the Green Berets. They use a constant ­cycle of games and exercises to promote ­cooperation and team-building among recruits.

What my family does: We never rest when the extended family gets together each July 4th on Cape Cod and then again on Labor Day off the coast of Georgia. At “Camp Feiler,” as it is known, we have a watermelon seed–spitting contest, make homemade ice cream and play touch football or Frisbee, complete with team colors, cheers and flags. While these activities may seem hokey, friendly competition is very ­effective at uniting different generations and personalities in our families and allowing moments of genuine connection.

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Important: Conclude family gatherings with an emotional ritual. What happens last is often what’s most deeply remembered. Camp Feiler ends with an elaborate family play. The children take the lead roles…aunts and uncles wear silly costumes…and my mother paints the backdrop on the stage.

Source: Bruce Feiler, a New York Times columnist and six-time best-selling author based in Brooklyn, New York. His books include The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me and, most recently, The Secrets of Happy Families.