Life Mothers & Babies

Sunday 21 January 2018

Six steps to help you achieve the perfect family balancing act

To find the key to a happy home, Bruce Feiler sought the advice of the most creative minds, from Silicon Valley to peace negotiators -- with surprising results.

Happy Families: Long-running American TV series The Waltons
Happy Families: Long-running American TV series The Waltons

Bruce Feiler

The six simple steps to help you achieve the perfect family balancing act.

1. Family mealtimes don't matter that much

Parents have always been told that family dinners are incredibly important, and there is plenty of research to back that up. But here's the problem: it doesn't work in many of our lives. As many as a third of us are simply not having family dinners. In the old days, the wife would stay home and cook dinner, but that life doesn't exist any more; everyone works long hours. The old rules no longer apply.

Nothing has been studied more in the past 50 years than family mealtimes. One discovery is that there are only 10 minutes of conversation at any family meal. Ten minutes. The rest is taken up with "pass the ketchup" and "take your elbows off the table". Parents do two-thirds of the talking and children one-third.

So, what's the right way to have family meals? Really, it's those 10 minutes of bonding that you're after. If you can do it at dinner, fantastic. If not, take those 10 minutes and move them to any time of the day. What about a family breakfast, if that's more suited to your schedule? Or a bedtime snack at 8.30pm when Mum or Dad comes home from work? You can even do it in the car to school. You can have many of the same benefits. The point is that you're after those 10 minutes of connection every day. Dinner is one way to do it, but it's not the only way.

Also, what you talk about matters as much as what you eat.

2. Let your children pick their own punishments

Nothing has traditionally been more top-down than the family. It used to be the father who made the rules and the mother and kids had to follow them; these days, both parents make the rules and the children must abide by them. But the truth is, nothing is top-down any more: not business, religion, or government. I can force my kids to do something once or twice but it just doesn't work if you keep telling them to do the same thing over and over again.

Once a week, at a family meeting, we talk about what is and isn't working and encourage the children to pick their own rewards and punishments. So, for example, if a child isn't making their bed in the morning, we would tell the child that being a part of our family means making the bed in the morning. It is their responsibility. Then we'll discuss what reward they will get for doing it and what punishment they will receive if they don't.

You might assume that children would be lax with their punishments but they are actually very strict and we often have to tell them not to be so severe. Giving children some independence and allowing them to set their own schedule somewhat builds up their brains and gives them skills for later in life.

3. Banish bad mornings

You want to avoid the usual hectic scenes in the morning. "Brush your teeth!"; "Hurry, we're late!"; "Where's your bag?", that sort of thing. Parents tend to have a list in their head and scream it at the kids. The goal here is to empower children and give them more responsibility. We have a morning checklist, which is very clear. These are the things you have to do in the morning -- whether it's make the bed, open the windows, get backpacks ready, set the table, or help to make breakfast -- and if you don't, you have to pick the punishment that you'll get. If you keep all the power yourself, you'll be constantly nagging them. Empowering them is the best way to stop the screaming.

4. Plan your fights better

his applies to parents and siblings. My wife and I were having what I call a 7.42pm fight every day, where she'd come into my home office and ask me questions about who was going to pick up the milk, and who was dropping off the dry-cleaning. Finally I thought, "I'm fed up with this; there's got to be a better way." So I went and took a course from the Harvard Negotiation Project. These people deal in Israeli/Palestinian peace talks and nuclear-arms treaties.

We learned a couple of things. First, the highest-stress time in families is 6pm-8pm every night. So 7.42pm was really the worst time of the day for those conversations. Second, I would be seated higher at my desk and my wife was lower so I'm in what was called the "power position". When we have serious conversations now, we sit at the same level, and when we're having tense conversations we sit side by side. If you sit across from somebody, you're being more confrontational; if you sit alongside them, you'll be more collaborative.

5. Brand your family

In my experience, all parents worry about teaching values to their children. I wanted to find out how other groups such as sports teams, organisations and companies do this, and somebody recommended that we create a family mission statement. Frankly, I thought this was cold and kind of corny.

But one day, somebody asked me whether my kids knew what values were important to my wife and me as parents. I thought they probably did but I'd never really mentioned them to my children.

So we asked a series of questions such as, "What do you like most about our family?", "When you leave, what do you miss most?", and "When friends come over to our home, how do you want them to feel?" We had a flip chart and all had a great conversation. We made this list and the kids got really into it.

What I learnt was that we know a lot about personal improvement and you need to articulate your goals and take steps to achieve them. The same applies to families. A family-mission statement is like an expression of the best possible family.

6. Talk about sex early

When I became a parent, I thought I'd get my child to 10 or 11, hold my nose, and have a conversation about the birds and the bees and be done with it. But that is simply outdated. Children are inundated with sexual ideas from pop culture, the internet, and there's a load of misinformation out there. It's not a talk any more, it's a series of talks.

Doctors suggest talking to your kids using proper names for body parts as early as 18 months. Use appropriate, proper names for body parts and don't giggle and snort, or roll your eyes.

In research, a 16-year-old told me that when her mum talked to her about sex she would put her fingers in her ears and then pull them half- way out. "I want to pretend that I don't want to hear, but the truth is I want to hear it from her," she said.

The more parents talk to their children about sex, the more it delays the onset of sexual activity and the healthier their sex is when they get old enough.

The Secrets of Happy Families, by Bruce Feiler, published by Piatkus, price €10.99.

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