Books about families fall into two categories: those proclaiming that we’re all doing it wrong and those detailing just how badly the author’s parents messed up.
Although New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler figured there had to be some happy families out there, he knew he wasn’t going to find them in the self-help section. So Feiler set out to write a parenting/marriage manual without any self-help experts (a few crept in, despite his refreshing intentions).
The Secrets of Happy Families opens with a profile of the Starrs, a software engineer and his wife who used a system borrowed from Japanese auto manufacturers to streamline how they and their four children function as a family. Among the results: a kid-designed morning checklist and a weekly meeting to analyze what went well and what didn’t.
Feiler interviewed former Green Berets about team-building exercises, and he got advice on allowances for children from a banker Warren Buffett trusts.
Celebrity chef John Besh realized that he needed to spend more time thinking about what the kids ate. His schedule made family dinner an impossibility, so the Beshes gather for family breakfast and family dessert – as well as a blowout feast every Sunday.
Although Feiler spends a day on the set of the TV sitcom Modern Family, the happy people he profiles would feel at home amid the cast of Leave It to Beaver. Among the underrepresented in this book: single parents, gay parents, adoptive parents and parents of children with serious illnesses or developmental delays.
Feiler profiles several Jewish families and one black family, but as far as this reader could tell, no Asian, Muslim, Hispanic or mixed-race parents.
And it turns out, Tolstoy was right: Happy families – at least the ones profiled in this book – are all alike: They have abundant disposable income. In one chapter, Feiler interviews Zynga executives about how to have more satisfying family vacations. (The annual weeks spent on Cape Cod and occasional jaunts to Europe just weren’t proving memorable enough.)
Families struggling to pay rising grocery bills probably aren’t going to have a Eureka! moment while reading about ways to get a hesitant child to swim under a Hawaiian waterfall.
Feiler has an engaging style, however, and his primary thesis – that people should work as diligently on their families as they do on their careers – is well worth exploring. Feiler, who received a diagnosis of a rare form of bone cancer when his twin girls were 3, is all too aware that a happy family is one of life’s greatest treasures.