In his new book, The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler disrupts the normal psychobabble jargon, throws rocks in glass houses and dares to dig deeper than the snippets of research often cited to support a certain zeitgeist of parenting and family management. Here is a link to Bruce’s pretty cool interview on Weekend Edition Sunday. We have given you five of Bruce‘s main points below.
1. Let your kids pick their punishments. Our instinct as parents is to order our kids around. It’s easier, and we’re usually right! But it rarely works. The number one lesson we’ve learned is to let our kids pick their own rewards and punishments. We hold weekly family meetings where we all vote on two things to work on (this week it’s overreacting) and ask our kids what will motivate them. (Under five minutes of overreacting, they get a sleepover; over 15 minutes, it’s one pushup for every minute.) Research backs this up: Kids who set their own goals, make their own schedules, and evaluate their own work, build up their prefrontal cortex and take greater control over their lives. Give your kids practice developing the independence you want them to have later in life.
2. Don’t worry about family dinner. Sure, we’ve all heard that family dinner is great for kids, but for many of us, it doesn’t work with our schedule. Dig deeper, though, and the news is brighter for parents. Turns out there’s only ten minutes of productive time in any meal; the rest is taken up with “Take your elbows off the table” and “pass the ketchup.” You can take those ten minutes, place them at any time of the day, and have the same benefit. Can’t have family dinner? Try family breakfast, meet for a bedtime snack, even one meal on weekends can help. Time-shifting isn’t just for work or your favorite TV show; it also works with families.
3. Tell your story. The most important thing you can do may be the easiest of all. Tell your children the story of their family. Children who know more about their parents, grandparents, and other relatives – both their ups and their downs – have higher self-esteem and greater confidence to confront their own challenges. Researchers have found that knowing more about family history is the single biggest predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.
4. Ditch the sex talk. This may have been the hardest lesson for me to learn. As the father of girls, I was tongue-tied when it came to talking about sex, even body parts. Then I read that a majority of boys and girls know that boys have penises and girls have “down there.” Guilty as charged! Even the American Society of Pediatrics say we should talk to kids as early as 18 months about proper names for their body parts and other age-appropriate issues. And as kids get older, it’s much easier to talk about sexuality when kids are under ten, because as they get older, they tune us out. As one group of girls told me, “It’s not ‘The Talk.’ It’s a series of talks. It’s a conversation.” Dead on advice.
5. Change where you sit. There’s tremendous know-how out there about how we rearrange our spaces to make our families function better, but most of it has remained hidden from parents. An environmental psychologist gave me some helpful advice. If you sit at hard surfaces, you’ll be more rigid. If you sit on cushioned surfaces, you’ll be more accommodating. “When you’re disciplining your children, sit in upright chairs on cushioned surfaces,” she said. “The conversation will go better.” My wife and I even changed where we have difficult conversations, moving from my office, where I was sitting in the “power position” with her six inches lower, to a window seat in our bedroom, where we can be side by side at the same level.
Bruce’s book can be purchased here at Amazon.