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5 Secrets to a Happy Family

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Here's a confession: I hate parenting books. I hate the ones that are earnest and repetitive. (If one more self-help guru tells me to listen actively, repeat what my child says... ) I hate the ones that promote a country. (Be strict like the Chinese! No, be lax like the French!) I hate the ones that have handy checklists. (What if I disagree with no. 2 or can't remember no. 4?)

And yet as a parent, I found myself incredibly frustrated. My wife and I were screaming ourselves hoarse in the mornings; beating ourselves up for not being home every night for family dinner; finding time to fight all the time but rarely seeing each other naked; and generally making every mistake those books try to prevent.

So I set out to write an anti-parenting parenting book. I wouldn't talk to any shrinks or other "family experts." (I violated this only once, when I met a Belgian sex therapist.) I wouldn't shill for a country or adopt a mascot. I would go looking for solutions wherever I could find them. This ultimately led me to elite peace negotiators at Harvard, top game designers at Zynga, a "Sex Mom" in Connecticut, and Warren Buffett's bankers.

And I certainly wouldn't make any lists.

Yet now that my book, "The Secrets of Happy Families," is being published, people keep asking me, "What's the most surprising thing you learned?" or "What's your favorite tip?" So I have no choice: Time to eat crow.

Here is my non-list of five secrets to make your family happier. All are backed by research. All have been tested by families. Feel free to ignore them. They're not all or nothing. They're just five of the 200 new ideas I've tried to gather in one place in the hopes that a few might be helpful.

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. Cutting-edge brain research shows that children 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. The number one lesson we've taken from this is to let our kids pick their own rewards and punishments. Following the lead of other families, 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. (Their choice: Under five minutes of overreacting, they get a sleepover; over 15 minutes, it's one pushup for every minute.) The point is: If we want our children to have the skills to make good decisions, we have to give them practice when they're young.

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 meaningful conversation 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 family time.

3. Tell your family history.
The most important thing you can do may be the easiest of all: Tell your children the story of their own family history. Researchers in Georgia have found that 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. Knowing more about family history is the single biggest predictor of a child's emotional well-being. Grandparents can play a special role in this process, too.

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! Even the American Academy of Pediatrics says 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."

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.

The bottom line: Tolstoy was right. Happy families do have certain things in common. Today we finally have the knowledge to know what those things are.

This piece is adapted from The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, & Much More, by Bruce Feiler, which has just been published. For more information, please visit www.brucefeiler.com.