A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy and The Know-It-All, interviews Bruce Feiler about The Secrets of Happy Families.
A.J.: Congratulations on this book -- it's amazing. I predict that my family's happiness level will rise approximately 63 percent after I incorporate these tips. You say you read tons of parenting books and most were eye-glazingly dull. Why?
Bruce: First, 63 percent. That’s better than our family! As for parenting books, the biggest problem is they’re out of fresh ideas. Meanwhile, in every other world – from Silicon Valley, to corporate America, to elite peace negotiators, to the U.S. military – there are cutting-edge ways to bring groups closer together. I asked what those folks were doing with their families, then tested their ideas out with mine.
A.J.:I absolutely love the idea of weekly family meetings. I’m going to start holding them this week. Any tips for keeping kids from zoning out?
Bruce: Holding weekly family meetings is the single best improvement we made to our family. My wife adores them. Tips: play a short game at the start; have your kids pick their punishments; stop after 20 minutes. Oh, and give allowance at the end; that keeps ‘em interested!
A.J.: You talked to a number of experts about how to fight smarter, including simple changes you could make around the home. Which of these improved your life?
Bruce: My wife and I changed where we have conversations at night after we discovered we fought more because my spot put me a power position. As a family, we implemented one of my three favorite tips from the entire book: when we discipline our kids, we sit in upright, cushioned chairs. (My other favorites are “The Law of Two Women” and the “What Do You Know?”)
A.J.: As you point out, the Tiger Mom approach has some downsides. Is there an animal you more identify with?
Bruce: Pillow pet.
A.J.: In the section on Warren Buffett’s guide to allowance, you talk about the importance of having kids work. But the lemonade stand market seems overcrowded. Any alternative?
Bruce: First, I was quite surprised by the advice that it’s better for kids to earn – and lose – their own money. Buffett’s banker told me, “It’s much better to make a mistake with a $6 allowance than a $60,000 salary or a $6 million inheritance.” And I’m a believer in lemonade stands, but remember that the lemonade’s a loss leader -- the money’s in the cookies.
A.J.: Are you worried you can never lose your temper at your kids in public, or people will say “Hey, aren’t you the Happy Family guy?”
Bruce: Oops, was that you behind me at the supermarket the other day? Seriously, I wrote about happy families not because we had one, but because we wanted one. Unlike most “experts,” I didn’t have an ideology to promote. I had a question: What do happy families do right and how can the rest of us make our families happier? We’ve definitely improved, but kids change, so we keep having to turn back to the book.
A.J.: You start off with Tolstoy’s famous maxim “All happy families are alike.” Do you agree?
Bruce: I didn’t at first, but now I do. Happy families have certain larger things in common: They adapt all the time. They talk. A lot. They go out and play. And they work at it. We try to improve at our jobs, our hobbies, even at being ourselves, yet somehow we forget to work on the one thing that most defines our well-being -- our family. That’s my biggest takeaway. Want to have a happier family? Try.