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The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler A few weeks ago I read a review of The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler in the New York Times, and as a very involved grandparent of small children I thought I might benefit from reading this book. We all want our family to be happy, although there are times when life generally is not so happy. The purpose of this book is to give families some strategies to cope with the hard times, and to not only cope, but also thrive the rest of the time.

What he discovered as he researched surprised Bruce Feiler and might also surprise readers – and sometimes it just confirms what we already know but need to be reminded of. There is a lot of research behind this book, with members of the author’s own family and other families, but also research into business models and how we can use these within the family.

In the “old days” we talked about DINKS – Double Income No Kids – now it is more often a parent raising kids alone on one income and there may be a whole lot of stresses that our traditional families of the past did have to deal with – including concerns about bullying, internet use, sexualization of young children and on and on.

Business people have meetings for all sorts of reasons – regular meetings to discuss where they’ve been and where they’re going – what is working and what is not – and it can be the same for a family. This is just what Bruce Feiler suggested we do as a family. Sitting down together at a pre-arranged time and place to discuss the week – at a time when you are not dealing with a particular issue – with all of your emotions at the surface. Knowing that you have a scheduled time to discuss something that caused an upset means that you have time to think before reacting. And, it is the family as a whole that is being discussed with everyone given a voice. Very powerful stuff and surprising what gets said – children sometimes being far wiser and more observant than parents may have realized.

The Secrets of Happy Families aims to give us the tools to help our children become confident, well balanced, and communicative young people by giving them the permission to be heard. One place to be heard is at the kitchen – or dining room – table, at the family dinner. As a family who has always eaten together every night I found it astounding to read about how rare it is overall. Bruce Feiler insists that sitting down together for dinner is such an important ritual that you must make it happen. That dinner table talk, between parents and children about the good and bad things that happened that day, helps children put things into perspective and feel a sense of control over their lives. If your children see you are not upset or panicking they can also remain calm. Talk about the big things and the small things, world events and things that happened during your day. Give the kids a voice.

Then we enter into the fascinating world of sibling relationships. Some of us have only memories of sibling squabbles, and some of you are living in the thick of it. It is easy to tell yourself this is the way kids work things out, but it is your responsibility to give them the tools to do this, and the strategies to reduce conflict. Again, it is about communication and discovering what is that is so important to the children that you have not considered or understood.

This book is worth reading just for the very good chapter on talking to your children about sex. In Bruce Feiler’s neigbourhood there is a woman who became known as the Sex Mom – a mother of three daughters and two sons, she told her children the “facts of life”. Discovering the younger daughters listening in as the older was told, she realized that they were in fact not too young to know the truth about the facts of life and their own sexuality. Realizing how many of her children’s friends were unaware and confused about sex, with the permission of other parents, she started to teach the neigbourhood children what they needed to know. She encourages us to use the proper words for all parts of the human body right from the start with little children, and to talk early and openly. Your kids are going to hear all sorts of things that could scare and confuse them, but she believes “if it’s coming from your parents at least you know it’s true!” She also goes after the parents, and encourages stressed out parents to have lots of sex themselves – there are more benefits that you might have imagined.

Of course a big part of what makes a happy family is happy marriage – or a happy parent in a single parent family. There is a lot to think about as you read about what works, and what doesn’t, and how we can make it better. Beyond who does the chores, even things like the arrangement of your living space has an effect on how your family functions. Bruce Feiler, gives you creative no cost suggestions about the rearrangement of your home to encourage communication and reduce conflict.

And then we come to grandparents – the old mother-in-law jokes are not so funny. With many parents both working – or a parent on their own with children – the grandparents are often very involved in their own children’s families. What are the boundaries when it comes to schedules, rules within each home, and the role of a grandparent in the lives of their children’s children? Parents and grandparents, in a mutually supportive relationship, can provide children with their unconditional love. I see it as a second chance to make a difference in the life of a child, and appreciate the advice and insights found in The Secrets of Happy Families.

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