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What’s the Secret to a Happy Family?

happy familyI heard an interesting interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday with Bruce Feiler, author of the book The Secrets of Happy Families. Feiler’s great idea was to ditch the self-help and parenting books and gather ideas from a variety of disciplines among them sports coaches, software engineers, and business branding experts about what parents can do to create a happy family life.

Some of the resultant tips, like holding a weekly meeting with all concerned to discuss the state of the family, sound great to me. The ones that resemble corporate bonding exercises like coming up with a family mission statement or listing the family’s core values appeal less, but I’m not a corporate guy for a reason. Whatever the case (and I haven’t read the book), Feiler’s question is a great one, and it got my wife and I talking. What makes a happy family?

We came up with this: in addition to spending quality time as a group, the members of the family spend quality time apart, independent of one another, and in various permutations mom and son time, dad and daughter time, husband and wife time, sibling time, etc.

I know, we all have trouble fitting everything in these days, including spending time with our loved ones. Doesn’t dividing our family into component elements make it even more challenging? Not necessarily. Think of it like breaking a big problem down into a bunch of smaller steps, and aim small. Ten minutes spent alone with your child can be pretty great. Maybe you get other things done while you hang out could be you have a great conversation with your eldest when cleaning up after dinner, or joke around with the little one while you both dress in the morning.

I’m sure we all have memories of a special experience shared with just one parent, or alone with our sibling or siblings, make-believing and playing. I remember a trip to the marshlands of New Jersey with my dad and uncle, a journey that required us to wake up in the dark and saw us returning home sunburned with a bushel of blue-point crabs for dinner. Or an all-guys trip to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park for a steep hike to the statue of a Native American chief, who, my Dad would tell my brother and I, dived from this spot to save a drowning doe when the Wissahickon Creek flooded below him.

During these trips, my dad shared stories about growing up with my grandfather, whom I never knew. As Feiler says in his interview, this kind of knowledge knowing where you come from, and who your family is gives kids a bedrock of emotional stability from which to grow. Of course, being a writer, I’m biased. I love stories. But already I see how my three-and-a-half year old is fascinated by tales about my past, just as I was about my own parents’ backgrounds. Sharing knowledge with your kids is key to them trusting and loving you.

Talking one-on-one to your child is important in accomplishing this, just as it is essential for husband and wife to retain a romantic bond while also being parents. I think this holds true even for the workplace. The more you recognize your coworkers as individuals with needs, desires, fears, and neuroses, the better you can work together. People need to know one another as individuals as well as members as the collective, whether that be in the family or office.

Take the time to get to know your kids, just as you probably make time to hang out as a family. The two things feed one another, and make it easier to accomplish both.

Do you have a happy family life? If so, what are your secrets?

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