In his newest book, The Secrets of Happy Families, author Bruce Feiler definitely comes across as a Camp Person.
In the pages of The Secrets of Happy Families, Feiler approaches his research and fieldwork with all the optimism and resourcefulness of a senior counselor. He reaches out to experts in various fields in a Freakonomics-esque attempt to debunk conventional wisdom about what makes a functional family, and challenge some widely held beliefs about mundane practices such as the family meal, sex talks, conflict resolution, and allowance, while sharing his candid personal parenting victories and foibles and using lots of Camp People tactics throughout.
I come from Non-Camp people. I realized this after spending some time with my husband’s family when we first started dating. On his mom’s side, he hails from proud alumni of an Ethical Culture camp in upstate New York. His aunt and uncle, now long married, met as kids decades ago during one fated summer. They all share adorable beloved traditions, including singing odes to family members on special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, weddings) set to the tunes of popular songs. That’s the kind of thing Camp People do.
While love and warmth were never in short supply, my Non-Camp People family was corny ritual-free. Play organized games with lots of invented goofy rules together? Plan annual inter-generational trips? No way. I always wondered, who are the kind of people who, say, take family portraits at the beach? Not us. Don’t WASPs do that stuff?
Given that I was raised by two full-time working parents in a big city where none of my schoolmates lived in our neighborhood, my nuclear family forged its own path in our self-contained orbit, for better or for worse. So as a result, I’m committed to establishing a stronger family culture with my two kids, and sending them to Jewish pre- and day schools and feeling connected to a community–via school, temple, neighborhood, and circles of friends–is an attempt to be a part of something that’s bigger than just our unit.
But in Feiler’s world, you gotta have a plan. Family life is a project to tackle with the seriousness of a management consultant and the heart of a preschool teacher. And darn it, we’re going to have fun, raise upstanding, motivated citizens, and make memories to treasure for a lifetime and pass on to subsequent generations.
The result is a quick-moving narrative, with a lively and accessible mix of his research process, general context, personal anecdotes, and how-to conclusions. Bare statistics and dry data are kept to a minimum. Whether or not one buys into the emerging school of happiness studies (my father, unsurprisingly enough, is a skeptic) with its attempts to quantify the ineffable isn’t really part of the discussion.
Feiler turns to innovative thinkers in the fields of finance, sex therapy, business management, conflict resolution, and even something called “applied family studies” to see what these experts cull from their respective specializations to improve the trickiest dynamic of all–the family. Sometimes Feiler’s quest means using a certain brand of touchy-feely corporate retreat speak.
Between Feiler and his wife, they have a bunch of fancy degrees, ridiculously impressive career accomplishments, and a set of twins, one of whom is named for the coastal island in Georgia where his family gathers every August. (As an identical twin whose own father is also an author who works at home, I was particularly interested in Feiler’s parenting perspective.) Despite his attempts to appear relatable–we all love the hapless father figure trope, which he also covers in his chapter on the sitcom Modern Family–the prolific Feiler and his clan are hardly your average Americans. He’s also from a Jewish family in Savannah whose presence in that historic town reaches back five generations. Now that’s fascinating.
So how can I, as a proud Non-Camp Person, apply these lessons? Could my family, for instance, draft a mission statement, and find a hip graphic designer to transform it into chic motivational art? We love to tell stories, but can we shape our worldview into a pithy proclamation to guide us through our lives as individuals and as a unit?
At least most Jewish families have a head start. As Rob Eshman pointed out in the Jewish Journal, crafting shared family narratives in the service of identity building and resilience isn’t exactly news, especially come Passover. “Using a story not just to create a cohesive family, but a happier one — Jews have been doing just that for thousands of years,” Eshman writes.
Finding family team-building exercises that won’t devolve into a fierce eye-rolling competition will take some work, especially if you come from a family like mine which routinely watched the evening news together during dinner. Personally, I’d rather try out Feiler’s “menu of constructive mealtime activities,” essentially themed conversation starters he calls the “The Hunger Games.” Monday is Word of the Day, Tuesday is Autobiography Night, and so on. Gosh, I’m tapped out already just thinking about keeping that up all week.
That’s if you can swing nightly meals, but if not, Feiler presents other options. He meets the Besh family of New Orleans who eschews the pressure in favor of an extended open gathering they host for family and friends on Sunday afternoons. The fact that John Besh is a famous chef might boost this idea’s street cred among foodie families.
As for financial responsibility and establishing a purpose in life, let the existential crises come later. That said, it doesn’t hurt to plant the seeds of family happiness, coherence and resilience early.
With some pluck and determination on our part, maybe Feiler’s findings will help set us on the road to being happier campers, after all.
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