Be just like The Waltons: You can have a happy family too

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

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. Every "you know", "um" and "like" has been taped and analysed, and we know a lot about these conversations. 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". And 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, and dinner is one way to do it, but it's not the only way to do it.

Also, what you talk about matters as much as what you eat. For example, we know that if your child has a big test the next day, you should have your child recall a positive experience that they achieved in their lives (maybe a previous test that they did well on, or a sporting event where they performed well). That will give the child confidence and it will boost their performance the next day.

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. We live in a world in which top-down authority is being reduced constantly. I can force my kids to do something once or twice but, as every parent quickly discovers, 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, then instead of instructing them to make their bed or be punished, 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, and bring them into the process of how we function as a family.

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 somewhat to set their own schedule builds up their brains and gives them skills for later in life.

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 shutters, 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. The point is that if you keep all the power yourself, you'll be constantly nagging them. Empowering them is the best way to stop the screaming.

Plan your fights better

This 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, so I thought they should be able to help me and my wife to stop bickering about the milk.

We learnt 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 really 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 and it's a lot less confronting.

Brand your family

In my experience, all parents worry about teaching values to their kids. 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. Now, frankly, I thought this was cold and kind of corny. But then one day somebody asked me whether my kids knew what values were important to my wife and me as parents. I thought that they probably did but I'd never really mentioned them to my children.

So we decided to go through this process and we sat down and 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. There was popcorn; it was like a pyjama party. We made this list and the kids got really into it and it was very helpful. What I learnt was that we know a lot about personal improvement – if you want to lose weight, quit smoking, run a marathon – and you need to articulate your goals and take steps to achieve them. The same applies to families. A family-mission statement is basically an expression of the best possible family.

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 ton 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. When your children are very young, use appropriate, proper names for body parts and don't giggle and snort, or roll your eyes every time you use that kind of language.

There was a moment that I had in research where I was with some teenage girls and I asked them if they wanted their parents teaching them about sex. And 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 she'd pull them halfway out. "I want to pretend that I don't want to hear, but the truth is that I want to hear it from her," she told me, because she didn't trust what she read on the internet and she was too embarrassed to tell her friends that she didn't know what something meant. 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, is published by Piatkus, £14.99. Interview by Gillian Orr

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