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Linda & Richard Eyre: The keys to having a happy family

Published: Tuesday, April 2 2013 3:25 p.m. MDT

It's important to tell your kids about where they came from and about what their progenitors were like, and have family traditions and regular conversation.

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Four of the prime things that we recommend to parents in our presentations and speeches as well as in our books are:

First, to have dinner together as often as possible and to make the dinner table a place of family communication.

Second, to value and enshrine family traditions.

Third, to tell their children “ancestor stories” about the real lives of their grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents.

And fourth, to create a family mission statement where kids participate in creating a short document about “what we want our family to be.”

So you can imagine how thrilled we were last week to find an article in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler giving solid and specific validation to these four practices and even connecting them and their benefits to social structures other than the family.

Quoting from his article, Feiler said:

“The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.

“Myth-shattering research has reshaped our understanding of dinnertime, discipline and difficult conversations. Trendsetting programs from Silicon Valley and the military have introduced techniques for making teams function better.

“The only problem: Most of that knowledge remains ghettoized in these subcultures, hidden from the parents who need it most. I spent the last few years trying to uncover that information, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers.”

So Feiler, in his research, tried to look at what business, military and creative teams have been doing to promote unity, esprit de corps and loyalty among their members — and then to see how those same “best practices” would apply to families.

His conclusion: “After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: Develop a strong family narrative.”

In other words, tell your kids about where they came from and about what their progenitors were like, and have family traditions and regular conversation.

In the article, Feiler quotes Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush of Emory University who found that the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

Duke and Fivush were actually in the midst of their study when 9/11 happened. As psychologists, they knew that although the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. The researchers went back and reassessed the children.

“Once again,” Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Feiler also quotes Jim Collins, the author of the book “Good to Great,” who said “successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity,” and who recommends that families create a mission statement similar to the ones companies and other organizations use to identify their core values.

The military has also found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit.

Duke recommends that parents pursue similar activities with their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, he says, the more likely it is to be passed down.

According to Feiler, “the bottom line is if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit them anytime at www.EyresFreeBooks.com or www.valuesparenting.com. Their latest Deseret e-book is “On the Homefront."

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