Obstacle Courses, Charades Are ‘Secrets of Happy Families’
Could the secret to a happy family be sweating it out with your three kids while a former special ops Marine barks orders? Or is it playing a goofy game of charades? Or is it Kyle Richards, a star of Bravo’s reality TV series “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” playing barefoot backyard basketball with her four daughters?
According to best-selling author Bruce Feiler, your family bliss can be found in all three.
Feiler spent years searching for the secret elixir of happy families, often using his own wife and twin girls as guinea pigs.
“I was frustrated,” he said. “I felt like, as a parent, we were just stuck. We were lost. The shrinks, the self-help gurus, the family experts, those ideas were really stale.”
Instead, Feiler turned to hundreds of examples of non-parenting wisdom from a variety of sources — from bankers to Green Berets — for his new book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” out in stores today, to bring families closer together. Some advice was quite surprising: try moving the furniture, ditch date night and let the kids pick their own punishments.
“Frankly, it turns out that our girls are little Stalins,” Feiler said. “We actually constantly have to dial them back. They are usually much harsher than we are.”
For advice on allowances, Feiler spoke with Warren Buffett’s banker, who said not to tie allowances to chores. For games, he went to the folks at the online gaming giant Zynga, the makers of Farmville and other similar spinoffs, who told him that failure can be motivation to do better. For conflict resolution, he went to the Harvard Negotiation Project and the set of ABC’s TV series “Modern Family.”
“All families have conflict,” Feiler said. “It’s the families that cope with the conflict best that are the best able to function successfully. Laughter, silliness, games can be a great antidote to the conflict.”
Speaking of conflict, how is it possible that the star of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” a show that thrives on screaming matches and backstabbing, could be the head of a tranquil family? But Richards said her family life is “very real.”
“The moms at school who know me as showing up in my pajamas and slippers know how real it is,” she said. “I’m a mom and a wife, that’s what I do, number one, that’s my number one job.”
It’s a job she takes seriously, raising daughters Farrah, Alexia, Sophia and Portia with her husband, Mauricio Umansky. Turns out the Umanskys instinctively live by several of the happiness secrets that Feiler uncovered for his book.
“Having four kids is not — especially as they get older — is not easy to get them, all four, at the same time to sit down to dinner,” Richards said. “We have to fight for that all the time, but it’s worth it.”
But those hard-fought moments create memories — a stitch in the tapestry of the larger family history, which is something Feiler also talks about in his book: The more your kids know about their family’s legacy, the more resilient they are because it gives them a sense of pride in who they are and where they come from. In the Umansky family, for example, Mauricio told his daughters he was born in Mexico and his father was Russian.
“I lost both my parents, so it’s really important for me to talk about them a lot with our daughters,” Richards added.
In another chapter, Feiler writes that successful institutions have mission statements and wacky family traditions can also breed happiness. And when researchers asked 1,000 kids “if they could have one wish about their parents,” many of the kids said they wanted their parents to be less tired and less stressed.
“The week we introduced the morning checklist into our family, we pre-cut parental screaming in half,” Feiler said. “So if the standard here is parental stress, our stress went in half.”
And to maximize team spirit among family members, Feiler said the Green Berets believe in pushing everyone’s physical limits in pursuit of a common goal.