If you get the Sunday newspaper, you were probably one of the 33 million subscribers who saw yesterday’s Parade Magazine cover story, “The Secrets to a Happy Family,” by the New York Times columnist, best-selling author and dad, Bruce Feiler. Feiler is perhaps best known for his book Walking the Bible, also made into a wonderful PBS series. I respect the man for many reasons–he is a great writer, an intrepid explorer of diverse cultures and religions, and a deeply committed father. But the article, and other information gleaned from interviews with Feiler, left me worried.
Already poised to be a best-selling parenting book on Amazon, since the book hasn’t quite gone to print, I haven’t gotten a copy yet. Nevertheless, as a mental health professional with more than thirty years of experience successfully helping parents and families to be more loving and effective, I was upset by the article featured so prominently in Parade. Quite a publishing coup, but at what cost to parents and families? Here are some thoughts for future readers to consider:
What credentials make Bruce Feiler an expert on parenting or on characteristics of healthy families?
Quoted in an interview on his Amazon page, Feiler proclaims,”As for parenting books, the biggest problem is they’re out of fresh ideas.” Step aside, mental health professionals. You have nothing new to offer. Besides, the “old” information, confirmed by thousands of researchers, is, well, old. Which must mean invalid, right?
Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. A body of solid research–and books that outline the findings–are there for the picking, and new studies on healthy families are being done constantly. Important findings are available from resources such as the National Institute of Mental Health, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, the Pew Research Center, The Harvard Family Research Project (and similar projects in universities around the world). In fact, there are so many professional, competent contributors to this field that the amount of information is overwhelming. They/we are not out of fresh ideas.
Surprisingly, Feiler chose to ignore the usual psychologists and family experts, and instead, as stated in his interview, “he sought out the most creative minds from Silicon Valley to the country’s top negotiators, from the set of Modern Family to the Green Berets and asked what team-building exercises and problem-solving techniques they use with their families. Feiler then tested these ideas with his own wife and kids.” The book then explores what makes families happy through the lens of business precepts, other parents, and his own experience. Although this certainly makes for an interesting book, lively discussion, and some fresh ideas, it is being sold to the public as if it is research-based information. Sadly, there is no fact-checker to back up the claims.
When we go to a doctor to get an annual check-up, even if we appear to be in good health, the doctor runs through a checklist of important indicators of health and well-being. He or she takes our blood pressure, listens to our heart, pushes and probes our bodies, and runs tests to look at our cholesterol, our hormones, our blood sugars. If we have indicators of problems, then more extensive tests determine (hopefully) the underlying causes that must be addressed to maximize our functioning.
The same principle holds true for the psychological and emotional well-being of our kids and other family members. There is a wealth of good information about the underlying structures and skill sets that are the essential building blocks of healthy families. Without these cornerstones, the family itself will be built on a flimsy foundation. And no amount of helpful hints from successful business entrepreneurs will fix the problem until the structure is built or repaired.
With the media’s emphasis on sensationalism and sound bites, it’s trendy to report what seems counterintuitive to make the headlines. Find the oddball piece of information that captures readers attention and run with it. In contrast, mental health professionals are trained to examine all behavior within a given context. Although there are, as he notes, some common threads that run in healthy families, not everyone reading Feiler’s words of advice comes from a healthy family.
Within the 33 million readers, there are vast differences in education, culture, and upbringing. There are readers with family members struggling with marriage problems, substance abuse, domestic violence, depression, trauma, as well as those in happier, healthier partnerships. For some families, the very advice that this book is touting would be less than helpful–it could be downright harmful.
An obvious example shows up in the 19 point quiz which is supposed to help the reader discover how to have one big happy family. Feiler’s advice is to give the kids a role in picking their own punishment with mention of Carol Dweck’s work. (As an aside, I have huge respect for Dweck’s research and have previously blogged about how parents’ might integrate some of her findings.) Unfortunately, this advice would be great for some families and counter-productive for others. Why? Because not all families are alike.
There are far too many families today who have built their foundation on too little parenting strength and too much kid power. As a result, there are kids ruling the roost, often sadly and frighteningly out of control. For families such as this, the first tool we give parents is to put them back in charge or in charge for the very first time. Telling all readers that one of the secrets of happy families is to have the kids determine the consequences would be like giving a pre-diabetic more sugar. On the other hand, in another family that is far too authoritarian, this advice might be useful.
Another example advises adopting various sitting positions in order to reduce feelings of power imbalance. While the ideas might well work in some families, it is predicated on the idea that all parties involved want to share power equally. Sadly, this is very often not the case and the use of this tip might well increase the level of conflict in the family or even lead to increased aggression. It all boils down to seeing problems in a larger context.
My husband and I are not only dedicated parents but have spent our entire professional life dedicated to helping families. We do not want the key elements of successful thriving relationships to remain secret. Our dream is to see the day when a curriculum is taught in every high school in America about how to create and maintain loving families. The information is available, being added and revised in clinics and research labs around the world. Let’s not totally reinvent the wheel–even if it sells a lot more books.
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Last reviewed: 18 Feb 2013