In his book The Secrets of Happy Families author and New York Times family columnist Bruce Feiler turns to various fields and individuals — the military, Silicon Valley, sports coaches and Green Berets — for insights into creating stronger, more connected families. He also tries out these tips at home with his own family, which includes his wife and twin daughters.
In the book, Feiler shares all kinds of tools for teaching kids values, creating a more peaceful household and having more fun as a family.
Here are five tips and tools from The Secrets of Happy Families, which you might want to adopt for your family.
1. Create a morning checklist.
In many households, mornings are hectic. To simplify them and help them go more smoothly, Feiler and his wife collaborated on a list of tasks and activities with their daughters, writing their checklist on posterboard.
These kinds of chore lists might include: making the bed, getting dressed, eating breakfast, preparing backpacks, applying sunscreen and performing an act of kindness.
Ask your kids to check off the tasks they do, and to put an X by the tasks they don’t do. Create consequences and rewards around accomplishing each activity.
2. Have a family meeting.
Hold a 20-minute family meeting every week. Begin the meeting with a welcome game. Then take turns asking these three questions: “What went well in our family this week? What didn’t go well? What will we agree to work on in the week ahead?”
Ask everyone to contribute the ideas you could work on as a family. Then vote to pick two ideas, and ask everyone to suggest rewards and consequences for each one.
3. Discuss both the good and bad.
When he was growing up, Feiler used to play a game called “Bad & Good” with his family. Each family member would mention one negative thing that happened to them during the day and one positive thing that happened.
According to Feiler, “The only mandates: You must have at least one bad and one good every day, and you’re not allowed to knock anyone else’s answer.”
These kinds of activities help kids observe others, including their parents, navigate the ups and downs of life, helping them develop empathy and solidarity with the people around them.
4. Create a family mission statement.
A family mission statement helps families get clear on their core values. These are the values you’d like your kids to uphold. Feiler suggests families ask themselves these questions: “What words best describe our family? What is most important to our family? What are our strengths as a family? What sayings best capture our family?”
For instance, Feiler’s family’s statement is: “May your first word be adventure and your last word love.”
When creating your statement, be concise and keep it positive. Make it into a special occasion by going to dinner, for instance. When you have your statement and any other words or mottos, post them in a prominent place.
Feiler and his family did just that, and decided on a visual symbol for their family, which also appears on their poster: a chambered nautilus he gave to his wife when they get engaged.
5. Talk about your family’s history.
According to Feiler, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” The more people know about themselves and where they come from, the more prepared they are for navigating challenges.
Research also has found that this is key for kids. Writes Feiler: “Psychologists at Emory discovered that the more children know about their family’s story, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, the more successfully they believe their family functions.”
Share stories of your family over dinner, on vacation, during the holidays and while you’re running errands. Start by talking to your kids about these topics (based on questions from the “Do You Know” scale created by Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush): how you met, how your parents met, the inspiration for your child’s name, which person your child resembles most, the lessons you learned from good and bad experiences, your national background, memories from school.
Creating a connected family may take effort. But this isn’t about perfection or rigid rules. It’s about doing the best you can. As Feiler concludes in his book, “What’s the secret to being a happy family? Try.”