Books about families fall into two categories: those proclaiming that we’re all doing it wrong (delivered with a French accent or the roar of a tiger mom) 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. “How-to manuals with their chirpy banalities pile up unread next to our beds,” he writes. “Even our metaphors are outdated. Sandwich generation? Linda wouldn’t dare serve processed luncheon meat to our kids. So what are we, then, just schmears of organic hummus in a vegetarian wrap?”
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 kids from a banker Warren Buffett trusts. (It’s much better to start managing money early, “with a $6 allowance instead of $60,000 salary or a $6 million inheritance.”)
Celebrity chef John Besh, outraged that his wife took his four boys to McDonald’s, 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 around the table for family breakfast and family dessert — as well as a blowout feast every Sunday. (Dinner is now a quick meal at 4 p.m., before sports practice.)
Not every idea will intrigue every reader. As the survivor of too many all-day meetings, I would rather have a family crest tattooed on my forehead than be responsible for unleashing another mission statement on the world, as suggested in a chapter titled “Branding Your Family.”
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 African American family, but as far as this reader could tell, no Asian, Muslim, Latino 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.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.
discusses “The Secrets of Happy Families” with “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, also a father of twins, at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington on Tuesday. For information, call Politics & Prose at 202-364-1919.
THE SECRETS OF HAPPY FAMILIES
By Bruce Feiler
Morrow. 292 pp. $25.99