By Eric Barker
September 8, 2014
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Family life is hectic. Most of us play it by ear and hope it works out well.

Or maybe you haven’t started a family yet but when you do you want to do it right.

Aren’t there some legit answers out there about what creates the happiest families? Yes, there are.

To get the facts I called Bruce Feiler, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Secrets of Happy Families.

When writing his book, Bruce knew there were answers already out there — but not necessarily where we’d expect.

He found solutions to common family problems in business theory, Harvard negotiation techniques, and even by talking to Green Berets.

Below you’ll learn:

  1. The #1 predictor of your child’s emotional well-being.
  2. The #1 predictor of their academic achievement — and behavior problems.
  3. And the simple thing that steers kids away from drugs, toward better grades and even improves their self-esteem. And more.

Here’s what makes strong, happy families:

1) Create A Family Mission Statement

I asked Bruce what he would recommend if he could only give one piece of advice.

He said: “Set aside time to talk about what it means to be a part of your family.”

Ask: “What are your family values?” In business-speak: Develop a mission statement for your family.

Here’s Bruce:

Does “defining values” seem too big and intimidating? It’s really nothing more than setting goals.

Here’s Bruce:

You have goals at work. You have personal goals. Why wouldn’t you have goals as a family?

(For more on the science of happy families, click here.)

So you and your family discussed your values and came up with a mission statement. What other thing did Bruce say was vital?

Like the mission statement, it’s another story. But it’s not about the future — it’s about the past.

2) Share Your Family History

Research shows whether a kid knows their family history was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.

Here’s Bruce:

And research confirms that meaning in life is all about the stories we tell ourselves.

But here’s what’s really interesting: recounting your family history is not just telling kids, “Our family is awesome.”

Recounting the tough times, the challenges your family faced and overcame, is2 key.

Here’s Bruce:

(For more on how to make your kids smarter, click here.)

Mission statements, family history… that’s a lot of talking. When is all this supposed to happen? Whenever you get around to it? No way.

3) Hold Weekly Family Meetings

You’re not mom or dad anymore — you’re now co-CEO’s. To find the way to keep a family improving Bruce turned to the world of business.

Your family needs a weekly board meeting with all the shareholders present. Sound cold and clinical? Wrong.1

Bruce’s wife says it’s one of the best things they’ve done to make their own family life happier.

It’s not complicated and it only takes 20 minutes, once a week.

Here’s Bruce:

Bruce did a TED talk explaining in detail how techniques from the business world, like meetings, can improve our families

(For more on how to raise happy kids, click here.)

So your family has a mission, a shared history and you’re meeting regularly. This is great because everyone is talking, which is crucial.

But what inevitably comes with talking a lot? Arguing. It’s normal and natural and that’s okay.

But you have to have rules so it isn’t a path to hurt feelings and homicide investigations. What’s the proper way to argue?

4) How To Fight Right

Bruce wanted to find the best way to resolve disputes — so he didn’t turn to books about families, he turned to a pro.

Bill Ury is co-founder of the Project on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and co-author of the classic, Getting To Yes,

What can one of the best negotiators teach families about resolving those inevitable everyday squabbles of life?

Bruce outlines three key steps:

Bruce admits this part can be tricky. But you need to make it clear nobody is leaving the table until there are three options.

Have the kids pick one of the three that they like best. What’s key is that the children created the alternatives and agreed on the best solution.

As Bruce explains in his book, when kids get a say, it works out better for everyone. Don’t be a dictator unless you have to.

(To learn how how you can resolve conflict with lessons from FBI hostage negotiators, click here.)

So mission statements, family meetings and fighting right are great — but what keeps a family together day to day?

5) Have Family Dinner Together… Any Time Of The Day

Research shows having dinner as a family makes a huge difference in children’s lives.

As Bruce writes in his book, The Secrets of Happy Families:

I know what many of you are thinking: Our schedules are crazy. It’s too hard to get everyone together. We can’t do it every night.

And that’s 100% okay. “Dinner” isn’t the important part. All that matters is that time together, whenever it is.

And it doesn’t even have to be that much time. How much real conversation happens at family dinner? 10 minutes.

As Bruce likes to say, the rest of the talking is “Take your elbows off the table” and “Please pass the ketchup.”

What’s the best way to make use of those 10 minutes? Here’s Bruce:

(For more research-based parenting techniques, click here.)

Mission statements, family history, meetings, fighting right, dinners… That’s a lot to do. Heck, it’s a lot to just remember.

What’s Bruce’s recommendation to the family that’s already strapped for time? What overarching theme can we see in all of these tips?

6) Just Try

Ask anyone if they want to make their family happier and, of course, they’ll say yes.

Then ask how many hours they’ve actively invested in that goal over the past month. I’m guessing the reply is going to be “Ummmmm…”

Reading about improving your family is only the first step. But the second step isn’t all that much harder: Try.

Here’s Bruce:

And the research backs Bruce up.

Studies show improving any relationship is as easy as actively showing interest in the other person or sharing with them.

In fact, pretending time with your romantic partner is a first date makes it more enjoyable for you and for them. Why?

On first dates we make an effort. And that’s the secret here too: don’t just think about it, invest time and energy.

(For three of the most counterintuitive lessons on being a great parent, clickhere.)

So how do we tie all this together?

Sum Up

Here are Bruce’s 6 tips:

  1. Create A Family Mission Statement
  2. Share Your Family History
  3. Hold Weekly Family Meetings
  4. Fight Right
  5. Have Family Dinner Together… Any Time Of The Day
  6. Just Try2

Families come in all different shapes and sizes these days and the world moves a lot faster than it once did. But don’t fret.

Research shows that anyone can have a happy family.

Via 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families:

Share this post with your family. Start a conversation. Hold that first family meeting. And more than anything else: Try.

A PDF of my extended interview with Bruce will be in my next weekly email. In it he’ll explain:

  1. The magic phrase that parents can use to increase children’s self-esteem.
  2. The thing dads do that make kids smarter — which moms need to know.

To get the PDF join over 100,000 readers who receive my free weekly update. Sign up here.

Related posts:

How To Raise Happy Kids – 10 Steps Backed By Science

Good Parenting Skills: 7 Research-Backed Ways to Raise Kids Right

How To Have A Happy Family – 7 Tips Backed By Research

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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