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Review: How work and play meet in the family home

"The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More" (William Morrow), by Bruce Feiler

Many parents claim they're too busy raising their kids to stop and read a book about how to do it better. Bruce Feiler, who has a full plate as a successful writer and dad of two, decided to make improving family life his business in his new book, "The Secrets of Happy Families."

The scene at Feiler's house, with his working wife and now 8-year-old twin daughters, is similar to most families: active and stressful. Feiler's goal was to put out a playbook for happy families to make life more efficient, relaxed and fun.

But instead of seeking advice from traditional sources, he consulted people at the top of their game in business, technology, sports and the military about innovative ideas they take from the boardroom to the playroom.

The best-selling author is known for tackling tough issues, including family, mortality and faith, and making them accessible to readers. In this book, he offers useful advice on everything from weekly allowances to road trip games to sex talks. But it's Feiler's unique perspective and voice that sets it apart from other work in both the parenting and happiness genres.

The book is organized and easy to digest. It's broken down into sections on the importance of families adapting to change, communicating and taking time to play. Each chapter takes on a new family challenge, including sharing meals, tackling difficult conversations, creating a more functional and comfortable home, and managing extended family.

Feiler will win readers from the get-go when he says the nearly 200 books he read by child-rearing experts and therapists were dated and out of touch with the reality of modern families.

His healthy mix of enthusiasm and skepticism for the solutions he uncovers instills trust in the reader. In each chapter, Feiler test-drives the methods he presents on his own family. Not afraid to admit their failures, his stories are relatable and infused with humor and authenticity.

Feiler takes his research duties seriously, offering many studies, references and viewpoints to back up his arguments. The most compelling groundwork is when he visits several families and examines their homes, joins them for meals and even attends a soccer game — all to see theories put into action.

Some of the book's best advice is simple, yet routinely neglected by many families. Feiler says their weekly family meetings — modeled after sit-downs at many giant companies — became the "single most impactful idea they introduced since their kids were born." His family also created a mission statement to sum up their priorities, goals and dreams, and posted it in a visible spot at home.

The chapter heading on sports, titled "Shut Up and Cheer," says it all. Examining this country's obsession with kids' sports, Feiler discusses the importance of parents staying neutral and supportive, suggesting that controlling, emotional parents can zap all the joy and life lessons out of sports.

Feiler offers practical solutions that can work for any family, regardless of the age or gender of the parents or kids. But he isn't offering a magic bullet for happiness. "I was determined not to force things I learned into some catchy list you absolutely must do to have a happy family. There is no such list ... no single formula."

His main point is to pay attention to family practices and customs, continue to discuss them and take proactive steps to make necessary changes when something's not working. It's up to every family to uncover its own secrets of what makes them thrive.

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