Bruce Feiler draws on his own family in writing ‘The Secrets of Happy Families.’
NEW YORK — Before Bruce Feiler, 48, can discuss his new book, The Secrets of Happy Families (Morrow, on sale Tuesday), a bit of family unhappiness erupts in the living room of his Brooklyn Heights brownstone.
Reports vary from his 7-year-old daughters, identical twins Eden and Tybee, but it appears someone broke the rules of a card game they were starting to play during Dad’s interview. Tybee is in tears.
Mom Linda Rottenberg, 44, who is CEO of a non-profit that helps entrepreneurs, intervenes. She encourages the girls to come up with two solutions.
They agree on one: “We’ll start over,” Eden announces, although their dispute will be revisited an hour later, at the family meeting held every Sunday.
“All families have conflict,” Feiler says. “Research consistently shows that families who handle the conflict best are more likely to succeed.”
In 11 books and as a monthly columnist for The New York Times, Feiler has built a career out of writing mostly about his own life and interests, supplemented with a lot of research. He calls himself “an experientialist,” a word he made up, and “an explainaholic,” a phrase from Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer.
Walking the Bible (2001) describes Feiler’s 10,000-mile journey retracing the Five Books of Moses. The Council of Dads (2010) is about being diagnosed with bone cancer and forming a support group of men who could help his daughters if he were to die.
Five years after his diagnosis, “I’m cancer free,” he says. “You hear people talk about medical miracles. I’m a miracle.”
But two years ago he felt frustrated and clueless, caught in what he calls “the parenting wars,” with marching orders swinging between “Be strict like the Chinese. No, be lax like the French.”
He read nearly 200 books by therapists, counselors and other parts of what he calls “the family improvement industry.” He found most of the advice stale and unconvincing.
He ended up interviewing other kinds of experts, in technology, business, sports and the military. He found they had innovative ideas they used with their own families.
For example, when Feiler’s daughters start arguing, as they just did, he says he and his wife use a three-step, watered-down version of techniques he learned from leaders of the Harvard Negotiation Project who are involved in peace talks and union strikes:
1. “Separate the girls for a few minutes to let everyone calm down.”
2. “Encourage them to come up with at least two solutions. This usually breaks the ‘My way is the only solution.'”
3. “Vote on the winner … Linda moved them to alternatives; and everyone moved on. Not bad.”
The fact that the dispute comes up later at the family meeting makes Feiler happy: “One point of those gatherings is that they’re a safe zone where problems can be brought up.”
What else did he learn?
– “Let your kids pick their rewards and punishments. Our instinct as parents is to order our kids around but as we all know it doesn’t really work that well. The more you’re enlisting your kids in their upbringing the more you are giving them the skills to succeed later in life.”
– “Don’t worry about family dinner. We’ve all been told that family dinners are great. But the truth is for many of us it doesn’t work in our schedules. Research shows that there’s only about 10 minutes of productive conversation at family dinners. The rest is taken up by ‘Take your elbows off the table’ or ‘Pass the ketchup.’ You can take that 10 minutes and put in anywhere in the day.”
– “Play a simple game: ‘Do You Know?’ It could be at dinner. It could be anytime. Ask your kids; Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know how your parents met? Do you know of someone in your family who had a tragedy that they overcame? The more children know about their past the more they are able to deal with problems in the future.”
Feiler says he considers his book as a “playbook” armed with new tools and techniques. “So when problems do come up – and they come up every day — instead of feeling like we’re on defense all the time, we feel like we’re playing offense.”
His wife says, “Before I felt hopeless. Now at least I have some new techniques to try.”
And he says, “That’s enough to make me happy.”
Their family meeting begins with a finger-tapping drum roll by all.
Mom asks the first question: “What went well this week?”
The girls, who are in second grade, mention getting up in the morning and getting to school on time.
Dad asks, “What didn’t go so well?”
“Overreaction!” Eden says, revisiting the card-game dispute.
That leads to a discussion about rewards and punishments. No more major overreactions and there will be a sleepover with friends. Any overreaction beyond 15 minutes, and the girls promise to do push-ups. (They rejected mom’s idea that in addition to making their beds, the girls make their parents’ bed, too.)
The next day, as Feiler later reports, “Tybee screamed again over some incident and Eden started saying, ‘Overreaction! Overreaction!’ And counting. Within 10 seconds, Tybee had quieted down. A certifiable family miracle.”