Book Review: 'The Secrets Of Happy Families'

Feb 22, 2013
Originally published on February 25, 2013 10:44 am
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Tolstoy put it this way: All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So if Tolstoy was right, what do happy families have in common? That's what Bruce Feiler attempts to find out in his new book "The Secrets of Happy Families." Laura Kaiser has a review.

LAURA KAISER: Think of Bruce Feiler as a kind of positive psychology aggregator. He writes a column on family life for The New York Times, and he's on a quest for fresh ideas to help the sandwich generation manage our frenetic home lives. Some of the ideas sound counter-intuitive. For example, let your kids pick their punishments. Or skip the vaunted family dinner. You can get away with such radicalism if you are what he calls an agile family.

What's that? You remain structured yet flexible. You create checklists for the morning routine, post chores on a white board and hold at least one family powwow a week to go over what went well, what could have gone better and what everyone hopes to accomplish in the coming week.

Sounds exhausting. But as I read this book, I couldn't help keeping a mental scorecard. As for what we were doing right, after my second child was born, for some reason my husband dubbed our nuclear unit Team Family. According to Feiler, branding your family is a brilliant move - thank you very much - because it gives the kids a sense of belonging. And I can testify that, amazingly, nothing quashes a bout of whining faster than the rhetorical question, hey, is that what Team Family does?

So I decided to test drive some other Feiler ideas. We had a family meeting. We created a belief board. That means we shouted out the values we hold dear as my daughter wrote them down on a whiteboard. We all got a kick out of that. But I pushed my luck. When we tried drafting a playbook of rules to live by, my 7-year-old son insisted we respect his right not to use a knife and fork. And, well, things bogged down.

But that won't stop me from still trying to improve my family the Feiler way. I like his parenting style, even if some of his gambits seem corny. Hey, I'm corny, he shrugs. I have to admit, I am too. What parent isn't? But there are limits. One family in the book painted their belief board on a wall in their house. Yeah, right. Graffiti is not in the Team Family playbook.

BLOCK: The new book is called "The Secrets of Happy Families" by Bruce Feiler. Laura Kaiser's writing can be found at the blog Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.