Daddylibrium Bookshelf: ‘The Secrets of Happy Families’

Bruce FeilerAuthor Bruce Feiler knows the “Leave It to Beaver” version of American family life no longer exists.¬†Today’s families need new ways of embracing cultural changes caused by technology and an evolving work force.

Feiler’s new book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” looks at how experts in a variety of fields can help parents navigate life in ways they won’t expect. It’s a self-help book with teeth, loaded with examples that keep the feel-good blather at arm’s length. Fathers of teens and pre-teens will get the most from Feiler’s text, but even those with toddlers should make mental notes throughout each chapter.

“The last fifty years have seen a wholesale revolution in what it means to be a family,” he writes. He’s correct, of course. So much has changed about our culture and the family unit itself, and to cling to the old rules makes little sense.

“Happy Families” begins with a “to do” list chapter, a blueprint forged by business pros who know how to get things done. The advice involves check lists, family meetings and other regimented planning dubbed the “agile” approach, and at first blush it all seems so … bureaucratic. Yet the idea of empowering kids and letting them open up in new ways sounds inherently positive.

And, as with most aspects of the book, Feiler shows families who have adopted these practices. Not every clan embraces these programs wholeheartedly, which adds value to the lessons.

Family dinners come next, and we’re assured that it doesn’t have to be exactly like Ward and June Cleaver had in mind. Family breakfast, lunch or snack time will suffice, and Feiler augments the chapter with studies underlining the importance of these family rituals.

Some data points seem less certain, like the notion that families with a strong sense of their biological kin can deal with tragedy in a more effective, and healthy, fashion. The chapter on creating a family brand is equally shaky, with the rationales sounding a bit obvious to make a real impact.

“Happy Families” regains its footing while discussing how to fight smart, new ways to factor allowances into your children’s lives and how military adventures can create a palpable sense of bonding. You also may want to buy an extra copy or two and politely hand them to that obnoxious parent who can’t stop screaming at their kid’s soccer games. The sports parenting information is first rate.

Feiler’s prose is confident and curious, like a docent who knows the material by heart but still makes the crowd feel as if he’s discovering it anew along with them. One also senses the author’s kids are terribly lucky, what with all the thought pappy puts into family vacations. Feiler’s novel suggestions on transforming a potentially chaotic trip into one filled with games, surprises and contests will inspire even old-school fathers who scowl at the notion of self-help books.

The most surprising chapter involves sex, and at first blush some fathers may recoil at what the author has in mind. The goal is not to put off sexual topics until, say, graduation day, but slowly acclimate your children to sexuality in age-appropriate fashion. Feiler even offers ways for couples who are struggling with intimacy to relight the proverbial fires.

It takes chutzpah to cover so much terrain, but Feiler rarely makes a false step.

“The Secrets of Happy Families” is comprehensive and clear, a how-to guide for dads who may not have realized they needed one.

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