Sunday, March 10, 2013

Paper Backtime: All In The Family

Savannah native Bruce Feiler put this book out a couple of weeks ago, and as it was a topic that meant quite a bit to me, so I of course devoured it.

It's not a typical self-help book (though it does contain a lot of lists) and there is a spoiler in the title. Note that it is not called "The Secrets TO Happy Families." There's a lot of trial-and-error stuff, a lot of adapting and unconventional family strategies. As the author indicates, nobody can use all of this information, but everyone can use some of it.

The most important key to a successful family dynamic is to be agile (chapter 1). It's hard to describe other than the word itself, there are a lot of lists involved but the lists are constantly changing. Think of a whiteboard on the fridge with dry-erase markers checklisting the family responsibilities before leaving the house in the morning, and who completed them.

That way everybody shares in the responsibilities, and scores can be kept. Ultimately the children (and parents) can be rewarded or punished in a manner that they helped formulate, creating camaraderie, accountability, and personal investment.

Knowing how to "fight smarter" is also a key. Siblings between 3 and 7 fight three-and-a-half times an hour, with only one in eight disputes reconciled. "The other seven wrap up when one child simply withdraws after being bullied or intimidated by the other."

While the disputes are inevitable, the lack of closure isn't. There are meaningful projects and chores kids can work on together, and empathic exercises in the conflict resolution process.

And when you do have to punish your children, dole out the consequences with the child sitting in a padded chair. This literally and figuratively cushions the blow.

There are hundreds of little things like that in here. Everything from displacing the family dinner talk (who really has the time?) to guidelines on kids' allowances to how to talk about sex. And these aren't things that Feiler came up with on his own, or channeled from child-rearing experts. Many come from the top business minds and conflict negotiators, which he applied very neatly (in most cases) to the family unit.

The final chapter, which I found the most interesting, was how the military teaches us how to put on the best family reunions. Where else do you get the "no pain, no gain" team fulfillment, to work together and in competition on goals that appear unreachable?

I have no military experience or family reunion experience, and yet I found this chapter fascinating. It resonated and inspired me. I thought about inviting family from all over the country to come down in the hot Savannah summer for an all-day tug-of-war sweatfest. Now that's bonding!

And the word "family" is the key to the book. Kids who know their family history, where their grandparents came from, the illnesses and adversity relatives have overcome, where their parents grew up, make children feel they're a part of something bigger. That effect on their self-esteem is immeasurable.

Bruce Feiler spoke at the JEA this morning. While his delivery was nice and engaging, I felt a sense of deja vu, since I'd heard it all before - in his book! So I bolted about halfway through to go work out.

I was only home a few hours, I still had to make lunch for the kids, take them out to burn some energy, and I had a flight to catch later in the day. The second half of the Feiler lecture on the idyllic family life got cut to accommodate my actual family life. Hey, you've gotta be agile.

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