Happy families don’t just magically happen – they all share common behaviors. That’s according to Bruce Feiler, author of the bestselling new book The Secrets of Happy Families. He spent years meeting with everyone from videogame designers to Green Berets, to bankers to TV executives in order to pinpoint which strategies work best. And here are his findings:

  • Secret #1: The kids know their family’s story. Feiler explains that your family history – the good and the bad – helps kids feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. And knowing what the family has gone through and overcome, prepares kids to face challenges in their own lives. Research even backs it up. Studies show that kids who know their family history have higher self-esteem, are more resilient, and are better at handling stress.

  • Secret #2: They hold weekly family meetings. That gives them an opportunity to hash out what’s working – and what isn’t – so they can make changes before minor glitches turn into major problems.

  • Secret #3: Happy families also eat meals together. The benefits of family mealtime are huge. In fact, studies show that children who eat dinner with their parents do better in school, and are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, or develop eating disorders. If nightly dinners aren’t possible for your family’s schedule, you can get similar results by eating together even once a week – like Sunday breakfast.

  • Secret #4: Beware, dinnertime is also when most family fights take place. It’s partly because everyone is stressed by the end of the day, hungry – and preparing dinner may become a chore. So, psychologists recommend saving difficult conversations for after dinner – when people have put on their comfy clothes for the night. A full belly and comfy clothes reduces stress, so those difficult conversations may not blow up into arguments.

  • Secret #5: Happy families have their living room furniture set up a certain way – in a circle. That encourages conversation and literally brings your family closer. In fact, research has found that people are much friendlier when they’re seated in a circle because they can easily look at and talk to each other. The ideal distance between people is five feet – so the eye can comfortably take in the torso, face and hands for body language cues.

  • Secret #6: Happy families aren’t perfect families – and when it comes to punishing kids, it works best if the kids have a say in what the punishment should be. But you need to talk about punishments before the “crime” has occurred. Like, “If you break your curfew, what do you think the consequence should be?” Psychologists say when kids have a role in picking their own punishment, it gives them a sense of ownership over their own behavior. So, instead of hearing, “That’s not fair” or “I don’t deserve that!” – kids will own up to what they did, and are more likely to change bad behavior.

  • Secret #7: Even happy families fight – but when they do, they copy each other’s body language. Feiler says that mimicking body language puts you on the same physical level. And that instantly reduces feelings of tension, power imbalance and resentment. That way, you’re more likely to calmly work out a solution together, instead of competing in a shouting match.

Lesson Expert

Meredith McKenna