The Secrets of Happy Families:
Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More
By Bruce Feiler
William Morrow, 304 pages
In recent years, the credentialed experts on child-rearing—the psychologists, educators, and pediatricians who once presumed to dispense the bulk of American parenting advice—have been pretty much tossed to the sidelines and replaced by bestselling memoirists who offer ad hoc counsel to a public hungry for parenting tips. There is, for example, Pamela Druckerman, a Paris resident who found herself chagrined in French bistros by her boisterous and uncooperative American toddlers. Her determination to find out why French kids behave better than their American peers gave birth to last year’s very successful Bringing Up Bébé, devoured by parents who want their children to be more independent, more socially adept, more svelte. Presumably, moms have taken her advice to limit between-meal snacks, leave their children alone to play, and teach them that all pleasures come to those who wait. Whether they have followed her lead in arranging for a threesome with their husbands, as Druckerman did and then described for the readers of Marie Claire, is yet to be determined.
Then there is the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, whose account of her ruthless mothering adventures flew off the shelves. Her book contrasts Americans’ penchant for overindulging their children with the austerities of the Asian parenting tradition, in which the values of family loyalty, education, and self-discipline are inculcated far more forcefully than they usually are in America. Still, Chua, for all her talk of China, is a Westerner through and through. Few Chinese children, after all, receive not only a thorough training in European classical music but also a grand bat mitzvah celebration.
Now there is Bruce Feiler, author of the newly published Secrets of Happy Families. Feiler’s previous work includes the bestselling Walking the Bible (2001) and a book about living through a treatment for cancer with the help of other fathers. His foray into the everyday challenges and successes of modern parenting is one of the more wholesome. It begins not with a call to arms, but with the straightforward observation that, as the harried father of twins, he has found himself at a loss for good advice from the “family improvement industry.” The “traditional authorities” on family life, Feiler laments, are “a century after Freud…tired and out of date.” They are not answering the “gnarly” questions today’s parents are itching to have answered: “How do you teach kids discipline while making sure they have fun along the way?” And: “What is the secret sauce that holds families together?”
For this he turns not to the Bible he walked, nor to literature, but to business management. He urges us to look no further for good child-rearing advice than the best practices of corporate America, where the science of group dynamics empowers both employers and employees to increase “communication,” “productivity,” and “happiness” by applying some simple techniques guaranteed to improve organizational functioning.
Among Feiler’s suggestions for improving the quality of family life are these: weekly family meetings, accountability reviews for parents and children, goal-setting statements, progress reports, “flowchart” checklists, self-chosen penalties, and (last but not least) family mission-and-values statements. He calls these last things “family branding,” a term he borrows from the advertising industry. All these suggestions Feiler traces to a “twenty-first century” corporate model called “Agile.” The model posits that “successful organizations…[are] built around speed and flexibility” and that the best work—in the office, factory, or at home—will be produced by “tight knit” teams organized around egalitarian principles, agreed-upon values, and critical self-reviews.
Novel? Not really. In the late 1980s and early 90s, a rash of works by psychologists urged parents to consult industry for the best family- and child-management techniques. Boasting titles such as Megaskills: How Families Can Help Children Succeed in School and Beyond, these were themselves offshoots of a postwar trend to look for advice outside the home and traditional family power structure when searching for the key to effective discipline. And when Feiler says families should adopt “core values,” he thinks he is speaking business-talk, but in fact big business stole this kind of vocabulary from private life in the first place—to soften its image and personnel practices. The twist in Feiler’s approach is that he accepts what he calls “the rapid erosion of a wall which once divided work and family” and seeks to use this to the family’s advantage rather than simply railing against it.
In this context, his chapter on family dinner provides a window into what seems to be a peculiarly deconstructed view of healthy family life. Family dinner, Feiler tells us, has been found in a “recent wave of research” to be a remarkably effective measure against such adolescent teenage deviance as drinking, smoking, drugs, pregnancy, suicide, and eating disorders. Thankfully, he tells us, according to a UNICEF study, two-thirds of American 15-year-olds still eat dinner with their families several times in the average week. But Feiler also urges us not to worry if our families are among the growing number too busy for such a long and wearying family ritual. “It’s not about the dinner,” he says. “It’s about the family….Eating together is not as important as so many people say it is.” His prescription? Rethink the family dinner entirely. Food itself is not important; only getting the family members together once in a while is.
So, if you can’t do dinner every night, do a quick lunch, or a longer family lunch once a week. If you can’t prepare food, get it on the table pre-prepared. If you can’t eat more than one course together, get everyone together for a 10-minute dessert before bedtime. The positive messages imparted to children through the dinner ritual—namely, family discussions that develop a better vocabulary, a knowledge of family history, and a deeper, “inter-generational” sense of self—do not necessarily need to be imparted through an evening meal, Feiler says. They can be imparted in other ways, through games such as “Word of the Day,” played in the car on the way to soccer practice.
And when you do eat together with the family, he warns, try to avoid the conversational death march that begins with such exchanges as “pass the potatoes.” Have a plan for “ten minutes of quality talk per meal…and let your kids speak at least half the time.” Make sure to “teach your kids one new word every meal,” and to bring a good idea for a talking game to play at dinner. Among his suggestions: “Pain Point,” in which one member of the family introduces a project or task he just doesn’t want to undertake, and “everyone teams up to dissect the dilemma and devise possible solutions.”
Most of the happy family exercises Feiler contrives can be summed up in the laundry list that is the subtitle of Secrets: “Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More.” Whether these ostensibly involve child-nurturing or simply smoothing the wrinkles of household management, they are all designed to be dispatched with the utmost efficacy. Even the Feiler family meeting, he assures us, takes no longer than 20 minutes. Time with children is quite obviously not on his list of fatherly priorities (perhaps because Feiler himself works at home?), and God forbid that time should be spontaneous.
Feiler has something of an obsession with the notion of creating daily or weekly family “rituals,” by which he means regular tasks and activities that families perform together. The term “rituals” is an odd one here, because he uses it to refer to events that are not ceremonies, that rarely have a multi-generational history, and that Feiler insists must be readily adaptive to new outside influences. The Feiler-style ritual must be carved out of the conveniences of the day, and if it can’t be, it is just as well dismissed and replaced. Perhaps the saddest example of his allergy to actual ritual, as most of us would understand it, is when Feiler reports, without comment, a reference by one of his friends to the family Passover celebration: “Disgusting…hokey…but you gotta do it.”
Hardly a wonder, then, that Feiler dispenses with religion in the same spirit he dispenses with family dinner: by declaring that it’s not religious identification or attendance at worship services that determines spiritual well-being in families, but rather shared values and social connectedness. Of course, the inculcation of values is at the center of religious practice; without such practice, the task is made more difficult, not easier. Nor is it a wonder that Feiler fails to express a desire to interest his family in any collective activity that might have a shelf life of more than one generation. Nowhere in his book is there a suggestion that literature, theater, music, or even moviegoing might be the stuff of one of his planned family dinner discussions.
Similarly, vacations, for Feiler, are opportunities not so much to educate children but to amuse them with games that might alleviate, he posits, the inevitable boredom kids feel around their parents over longer stretches of time. And what about parents’ introducing children to their own vocations and extracurricular passions? Feiler makes not one mention of any aspect of such exposure as the building blocks of a resourceful life. He does, however, spend an entire chapter discussing the importance of teaching children to manage money.
The gurus of Feiler’s brave new world bear no relation to the kind of fathers and mothers who used to be the parenting models of our childhood: people who proudly passed down their ethnic traditions, apprenticed their children at work, or just simply took time to bake Christmas cookies with their kids. Feiler’s family heroes are people such as investment genius Warren Buffett; or Harvard’s Bill Ury and Roger Fisher, whose book Getting to Yes has become the bible of the pseudo-science of conflict resolution; or Mark Pincus, the founder of a “social” online gaming company. There is danger, one must think, in treating age-old family practices as though they were present-day corporate meetings that can always be rescheduled, and in treating parents as corporate executives whose first concern is the bottom line.
Thirty-five years ago, Christopher Lasch warned, in Haven in a Heartless World, that family life was decaying as the seedbed of culture and personality formation. The family, he posited, was being supplanted in its child-rearing function by the state, the health professions, and ultimately the marketplace. Feiler touches on this disorienting loss of meaning and connection in family life when he asks, in the beginning of his book, “Is it possible to develop timeless values in a 24/7 world that prizes novelty and coarseness?” He then drops the ball and retreats to handling children as commodities, objects to be “branded” with mission-and-values statements. Instead of searching out the complex and rich ingredients that might compose authentic recipes for a successful family life, he offers a fast-food vision of parenthood as dispensable as a McNugget.