Writer Bruce Feiler

The best-selling author discusses his new unconventional parenting text, The Secrets of Happy Families.

Bruce Feiler is one of his generation's leading writers. His best-selling books have been the outcome of his many adventures, including stints as an English teacher in Japan and a circus clown. He's also an award-winning journalist who's written for publications such as Gourmet and The New Republic. Feiler's audience expanded when he decided to explore Biblical history in such books as Where God Was Born and Walking the Bible, which he adapted for a PBS miniseries. His titles also include The Council of Dads, his personal story of illness and recovery and, his latest, the unconventional parenting book, The Secrets of Happy Families.


Tavis: Author Bruce Feiler has walked the Bible, written a biography of Abraham, and survived a difficult bout with cancer that almost took his life. That brush with death changed his priorities. He refocused on family and began to investigate just what happiness actually means. He writes about that in his new book, number five this week on “The New York Times” best-seller list.

It’s called “The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Eat Smarter, Go Out, and Play Much More.” That’s really the title. I said “Eat smarter;” it’s “Fight smarter.”

Bruce Feiler: “Fight smarter.”

Tavis: So yeah, that helps too, eating smarter. (Laughter)

Feiler: (Unintelligible) fight smarter. Whatever you can do smarter.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. As you can tell, I’m hungry right about now. I am hungry. Time for a late-night snack. Anyway, good to have you back.

Feiler: Nice to be with you.

Tavis: First of all, as always, how are you feeling? You look well. That cancer bout scared a lot of us, a lot of your fans.

Feiler: You’re very kind.

Tavis: So how you doing?

Feiler: I’m doing well. It’ll be five years this summer since my diagnosis and two years on crutches, a year on a cane, and I’m walking through my life.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I want to come back to that, of course, as it connects to this book and the lessons learned about the secrets of happy families. I thought I would start our conversation, though, by asking your take on the, I’m told – I haven’t had a chance to see it yet – the runaway success of this Bible series.

Is The History Channel, is that where this thing is running?

Feiler: It’s The History Channel.

Tavis: And everybody’s watching on Sunday nights. But the numbers, I’m told, are just off the charts.

Feiler: Yeah.

Tavis: Because you’ve written about this in the past –

Feiler: Yes, and hosted a show on it.

Tavis: And hosted a show on PBS, of course. What’s your sense of the way people are flocking to watch this stuff?

Feiler: I think that there is this tension in society, and we’re hearing that the religion is fading out, but there is still this enormous hunger that people have for the source material.

One of the things I often say about this is you may be frustrated with religion, but don’t take that out on God. But you’re still interested at core in these questions, and we just saw that with the Catholic Church – this huge attention around the papal enclave.

More outpouring of interest, positive, on the Catholic Church than we’ve seen in a long time, and I think that just because religion, organized religion, has gone through a few years, doesn’t mean people still have the yearning for these questions, because they do.

Tavis: So what, then, is the takeaway? What are the lessons, then, to your point for organized religion?

Feiler: That you have to adapt. That you have to respond to the questions that people have. We live in a time, and we will talk about families, but there’s a correlation between families and religion, which is we live in this time of more fluidity and religious identity than we have seen in thousands of years.

Half of Americans will change faith in the course of a year – I mean, in the course of their lives. Forty percent of Americans are in an interfaith marriage.

So people are asking these questions. We no longer just take religious identity from our parents, so what’s going on? Why are people going to this series, why are people reading so many books about religion? It’s because they want answers.

The answers are no longer just passed down from generation to generation. It’s harder for people. In effect, you have to roll up your sleeve and ask the questions. But if you do it, if you forge your own identity, it can be much more personal and much more meaningful to you.

Tavis: You will admit, though, Bruce, that answering questions and adapting your traditions are two different things. So I get the asking – I mean, I get the answering the questions part.

Feiler: Yes.

Tavis: But there are a lot of people who are troubled by the fact that religion –

Feiler: Yes.

Tavis: – these days will adapt itself to suit the needs of the people, and those are two different things, again. Answering questions is one thing; adapting your tradition’s another. Talk about that distinction.

Feiler: Well, I think that what’s happening, broadly speaking, in religion is that the home base of religion is shifting from institutions into the home, okay? So the days when you would go to an institution at the time of the institution’s choosing and sit in a pew, and somebody would get up on a very high stage and tell you what to believe, that is completely inconsistent with how everybody lives their lives these days.

What is the dominant way people engage the world these days? The answer is Google and that box. That’s about searching. Okay? People still search. They still have those questions, and the truth is you’re going to go to a place and someone else is going to tell you the answer from a book that hasn’t been touched in thousands of years?

That’s not consistent with people today trying to find their own answers. So there is this tension, and I think that most of the action in religion is around the home, is in families, and is in individual lives, and they can go on their own searches, watch their own TV shows, read their own books, form their own groups and discuss it, but that’s where the action is – on the home front.

Tavis: Before I advance off of this, do you think that people are looking for answers to their questions or are they looking for affirmation for what they believe or what they think?

Feiler: I do think people are open to new ideas, actually, so I’m not sure I totally agree with you on that. I do think that people are understanding that the old rules no longer apply but the new rules haven’t been written. I do think that they are open, at a core, to new ideas, because they see that life is changing and they see that the pace of life is quickening.

But there’s something else going on here today, which is in so much of our lives we are dictated by numbers, by metrics. How many Facebook friends? How many Twitter followers? How much money?

Numbers have taken over so much of life, but there’s certain questions that can’t be answered by numbers. Those are abstract questions, and that people still need a way to answer that, and that’s why religion is not going to go away. It’s going to be reinvented, but this core need that people have for meaning in their lives is not gone away. It’s deeper than ever.

Tavis: As I work my way into your need text, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” tell me about the lessons learned, the takeaway, if you will, of your own faith journey when your body was stricken with cancer. That is the precedent to this text.

Feiler: Yes. I think that what happened to me was that I had been living my life, I had been moving very rapidly, I had been traveling, I had been asking questions, I had been telling stories, and suddenly, I couldn’t walk.

So for me at its core there was this movement question. As you will recall, my cancer was in my femur, and suddenly I was the walking guy from “Walking the Bible” who might never be able to walk again. I had to lay still. I mean, almost absolutely still, except for the chemo that I went through during that year, as you will recall.

There is a passage in the book of Leviticus which is, as you know, a boring, stultifyingly quiet; it’s like a giant filibuster, that text. But in the middle is this passage called the Holiness Code, and in it, it says you should let the land lay fallow every seven years, and every seven sets of seven years the land gets an extra year of rest, okay?

As you know, that’s the Jubilee. That’s the origin of the term “Jubilee Year.” For me, I found great meaning in the fact that this was my jubilee year. In the middle of my life, I wasn’t – I was still shy of 50 – I had to take a year off.

What does the Bible say? You should let all the slaves go free and you should be reunited with the ones I love. And that’s in effect what happened to me. I took a pause. I had to reconsider what was really important to me, and I was surrounded not only with my family but with this group of guys, the council of dads, that I formed.

As you know, a quote, the quote on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all of the inhabitants thereof,” comes from that moment. That’s really the core idea in this country, that we’re going to bring people together and ultimately unite them.

It took a long time here, but that’s what happened. In a sense, it was a sabbatical. One thing that has happened to me is it’s kind of a floor. One way – we’re going to talk about happiness here in a second. One way you can encounter happiness, one way you can experience happiness, is to encounter unhappiness every day and to remind you what is so blessed in the world.

Tavis: I’m glad you went there, because I was about to ask you – and I guess I can combine two questions, which isn’t good TV etiquette, but I’ll do it anyway. So let me ask a two-part question. How, then, does the sabbatical, the forced sabbatical, the involuntary sabbatical, end up being the genesis for this text.

And along with that, and I’ll give you the room to respond to it, why does it take having to go through unhappiness to get to a place of happiness?

Feiler: Well, I just think that the forces of contemporary society pull us through so quickly, and then what is valued are all of these external things that you know about.

As for me and “The Secrets of Happy Families,” I think that I grew out of frustration. I’d gotten through this balance of unhappiness, and I was kind of ready to go back in. My children had gotten through the sippy cups and the diaper caddies, all those awful years where you’re on defense, and we were ready to build a family culture, but we didn’t know how to do that.

How do you teach values in a 24/7 world? How is it that you make children part of this connection? We talk about the biological clock to have our kids. There’s another biological clock – before they leave the house. I wanted to know how to do that.

Most of the answers are stale. It’s the same people in the family improvement business saying the same things over and over again, and it was very frustrating to me. It’s what I said before about religion – the old rules don’t apply.

Dad working, Mom fixing dinner, everybody having dinner at 6:00 every night. Very few people live that kind of life these days. But there wasn’t a sort of rulebook, a guidebook for us to follow, and so I very much wanted to go out, find some new rules, get some new ideas in so we weren’t playing defense all the time in our family, we were sometimes playing offense.

Tavis: So tell me now, to borrow a phrase, about the new rules that you came upon.

Feiler: Well, I said at the beginning I didn’t want to cram everything into a list of three, five, or seven things. I hate those lists. What if I disagree with number two or if I keep forgetting number four?

But I would say three, a number of themes did emerge that formed the backbone of this book, as you know. Number one is happy families, successful families, high-functioning families, they adapt all the time.

We are so crazy busy all the time that is there a system? The answer is yes. It doesn’t come from the family space, it comes out of this idea called agile, which began in Japan, started in Silicon Valley and sweeping through management that a lot of families are doing.

The core idea is you need to spend time focusing on the team. You need to be able to respond in real time, quickly. So we now, in my family, we hold a family meeting. We do it every Sunday night, takes 15, 20 minutes.

We ask three questions: What worked well this week, what didn’t work well, and what will we agree to work on in the week ahead. And here’s the thing, we now pick – my daughters will be eight in the next week or two. We have them pick their own rewards and punishments. It sounds crazy, but actually, it –

Tavis: My mother is picking herself up off the floor in Indiana right now.

Feiler: Exactly.

Tavis: That I would get to pick my own punishment.

Feiler: So I want to look in the camera and talk to your mom and say –

Tavis: Talk to Joyce Smiley.

Feiler: – here’s the latest research (laughter). Brain research is showing that kids who set their own goals, make their own schedules, evaluate their own work, they’re actually building up their prefrontal cortex. Their brains are getting bigger. It’s giving them the skills they’re going to need later in life.

It sounds crazy, but it’s incredibly valuable and it is where the science is leading us. So the old days when Mama or Daddy could tell you what to do – I try as a parent, it doesn’t work.

Tavis: I’m laughing because the only agency I had was to go outside and to pick the switch off the tree with which my behind was about to be beaten. (Laughter) And if the switch was too flimsy, I was sent back out again to get another one. That was the agency that I had, but I digress, Bruce.

Feiler: Right, but here’s the thing – so nothing is top-down anymore. Business is not top-down, government, religion. We just were talking about that. Everything has slipped. So to prepare our kids for the world they’re going to enter, we need to, with parental supervision, bring them into the process as much as possible and get them included, empower them as much as possible.

Tavis: But the traditions, like my mother and others watching right now would say, but that’s not what parenting is. That’s not what parenting is. When you bring them into the process of that kind of decision-making, well, why do they –

Feiler: So here’s what (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah, okay.

Feiler: The test of parenting is when the parent is not there and the decisions that those kids are making –

Tavis: Agreed.

Feiler: – when they’re not there.

Tavis: Agreed.

Feiler: So you have to give them practice. I went to see – as you know, there’s a chapter in this book about money, how to prepare kids for money, and I went to the folks around Warren Buffett. I talked to Warren Buffett’s banker.

He pulled a list out and said, “This is the hundred richest families. I advise a hundred of them.” I said, “Well, you must know how to teach kids about money.” He said, “The opposite, actually. These people make all the mistakes.”

He told me a number of things. Number one, you should talk to them, bring them into the process. Eighty percent of kids, Tavis, get to college having never had a conversation about money – how it’s made, how it’s lost, debt, okay?

He said you should let your kids make their own decisions. We give our kids allowance. The research shows you should separate it from chores, and all that’s in the book. I said, “But what if my kids make a mistake? What if they run through their, burn through their money, right? Or what if they drive into a ditch?”

He said – it’s one of my favorite lines in the book – “It’s much better to drive into a ditch with a $6 allowance than a $60,000 a year salary or a $6 million a year inheritance.” That’s the point.

You’ve got to let your kids make mistakes, and failure turns out to be the best teaching tool of all. One of the things that I’ve learned – you talk about the cancer – one of the things I’ve learned is to be much more open about my frailties and about our failures, because when you show your kids how you can resolve conflict in your life in real time, you’re giving them confidence that when they have conflicts, they can push through them.

Tavis: I jumped in and cut you off. You were giving me at least three overarching themes. The first one –

Feiler: Yes, adapt all the time.

Tavis: Okay, adapt, right.

Feiler: There’s a whole chapter in this book about time-shifting family dinner, okay? The old days – if you can have family dinner every night, that’s fantastic. Doesn’t work in most of our schedules. Americans rank 33 out of 35 countries.

There’s only 10 minutes of productive time in the meeting; the rest is taken up with – in the dinner – take your elbows off the table and pass the ketchup. You can do it at family breakfast. You can do it at bedtime snack. I got a bunch of ideas of how you can talk about it. So adapt all the time.

The second, talk. A lot. And not just difficult conversations, I got plenty of stuff about that, but specifically what it means to be part of your family. Here’s two great ideas.

I talked to Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great,” the defining management book, and he said – he coached us through this process of creating a family mission statement.

Other organizations do it. I thought it was cold, frankly, and impersonal. One of the best three things we did with this book. We had a pajama party, piled everybody into the bed, and we said, “What does it mean to be part of our family?”

Somebody said to me, “Can your kids tell you what values are most important to you?” I’d like to think they could, but I’ve never really told them, and you can do this – your mother and you can sit down and do this right now, even as a grown person.

So we had this conversation to identify our 10 core values, and again, the latest research backed this up, which it shows that if you want to improve yourself, if you identify your best possible self, you’re more likely to achieve it.

This process, it’s our best possible selves as a family. It now hangs in our living room, and when one of our daughters got into a fight with school and we didn’t know what to do as parents, we called her into the office and we had this thing up on my wall, and my wife said, “Anything there seem to apply?” My daughter looked it up and she said, “We bring people together,” and boom, suddenly we had a way into the conversation.

One more idea on talk before we move on to the last of the three things is, and this is my favorite tip from “The Secrets of Happy Families,” researchers in Emery gave kids a do-you-know test. Do you know where your grandparents were born? Where your parents went to high school? An aunt or an uncle who had an illness that they overcame?

The kids who scored highest on this test, who knew more about their family history, a higher sense of self-confidence and a greater ability, they believe, to control their lives.

It was the single biggest determinant of a child’s wellbeing. Because, the researcher said to me, kids know they’re part of a longer history, and you want to tell them not only the positive moments, but I would say this to your mom too, also the negative ones, and how your relatives overcame them.

Because kids are going to hit hurdles, you want them to believe that it takes a little grit and that their family history, there is that grit and they can make it (unintelligible).

Tavis: (Unintelligible) before you move on, I was not surprised to read that result, to read that research at all, because it makes so much sense. It is not something that we process in the way that we should.

Feiler: Exactly.

Tavis: But when you read it on paper, you’re like, “That does make a lot of sense.” If you know you are part of a continuum, and if you know the good, the bad, and the ugly about your family, what to be proud of, what to look out for, what to avoid, it makes perfect sense. If you understand that, then you’re so much better off.

Feiler: Another great thing about religion, by the way. It tells the awful part –

Tavis: Absolutely.

Feiler: – I’m thinking of the Passover story and slavery and the Easter story and the crucifixion. These are unpleasant things. Maybe that’s one of the reasons these religions have survived.

There are three types of family narratives. Ascendant: We had nothing, we worked hard, we have a lot. Descendent: We have a lot, there was a storm, a war, a recession, (laughter) we lost a lot.

Tavis: Right.

Feiler: There’s also an oscillating family narrative. Kids who understand that they come from an oscillating family narrative will believe that their life is also going to go through ups and downs and it won’t be so threatening to their identity when they inevitably hit those points.

Tavis: Your third thing?

Feiler: Go out and play.

Tavis: Yeah.

Feiler: It seems so simple, but it’s also the hardest to do. I went to lots of places. I went to Zynga, as you know, and said, “Design me some new card games, because I’m tired of playing 20 questions, the hundred-year-old game,” and one of my favorite things, I went to work and you know, because it’s the last chapter about a family reunion, I went to work with the Green Berets, okay?

It’s like who’s better at bringing people from different worlds together than the Green Berets? They’ve been studying it for 50 years. It’s called unit cohesion. So we would have these family reunions and that family would be in one corner and another family would be in and Grandpa and Grandpa over there complaining that the kids don’t have any manners.

How do you get people together? There’s a lot of things you can do. You divide people into teams, you come up with hokey cheers and games and next year, everyone’s going to want to do it again. Suddenly Grandpa’s telling a story to the kids about the old days, suddenly a kid’s showing Grandpa something on their device.

You’re making those bonds. Because here’s what the research shows also very clearly – all families have conflict. You want to limit and control that conflict. Spend less time worrying about what you do wrong, more time focusing on what you do right. If you do right, you make those positive memories, they will outweigh the negative and the kids will have that sense of bonding.

Tavis: I want to ask a question which I rarely, if ever, do. I want to ask a question the thesis of which I don’t believe myself, but I want to just push the envelope to get your take on it.

Feiler: Sure.

Tavis: What does it say to us that where decision-making and family values and the like that we’ve discussed here now used to be organic, that to be convinced that those things matter we have to now rely on the research.

If I could count every time you’ve said “the research shows -”

Feiler: Yeah, the research.

Tavis: The research shows, the research shows, and I’m sure it does.

Feiler: Yeah.

Tavis: But what’s it say about what used to be organic in families that now families have to be convinced that it’s the right thing to do because Bruce Feiler says that the research says?

Feiler: And a lot of families I’ve talked to, but let me answer that question. There’ve been three big changes since you and I were being switched occasionally by our mothers.

Tavis: Yeah, you never got switched.

Feiler: Mine was a belt. (Laughter) So three things (unintelligible). One is the definition of the family has changed, okay?

Tavis: Okay.

Feiler: So you’ve now got nuclear families in separate houses, you’ve got divorced families in the same house, you’ve got single families, you’ve got blended families, adoptive families, gay families. So the nature of the family has changed, that’s one.

Number two, women have gone into the workplace. That’s been discussed, but there’s something else that’s not discussed, which is that dads have come into the home space. They’re much more involved.

So the point is, what’d I say before? Things are a lot more fluid, and these parents are impatient. They want to know what works, and the good news is there is a body of knowledge.

Negotiation studies? I wasn’t around when Dr. Spock was (unintelligible) in the 1950s, but we now, there’s a whole study of peace studies, how to solve problems. I went to talk to those folks to find out how to fight smart, because I think here’s what’s going on, Tavis.

We have our jobs. We work on those. We have our hobbies. We work on those. We have our bodies. We work on those. We have our families. We actually don’t work on them. We just think it’s going to be organic, but the truth is there’s a lot of knowledge out there.

What I’m saying is you can take small steps, you can accumulate small wins, you can make your family happier, and I wanted results. We do have that knowledge. We just have to flood it into families where parents are desperate for it.

Tavis: Since I screwed this up at the beginning and heard my stomach talking to me, I said eat smarter instead of fight smarter.

Feiler: Yes.

Tavis: When you think of family, you don’t want to think of fighting, but what do you mean when you say fight smarter?

Feiler: There’s a lot of know-how. For example, my wife and I used to have the 7:42 fight. The kid’s would be down, we’re talking about who’s dropping off the dry-cleaning, who’s picking up the milk, and we would clash, and she would say – she’d go off and she’d say, “I want to watch ‘The Voice’ tonight.”

There must be a better way. So I went to find out how to fight smarter. This is some of my favorite stuff. Number one, turns out highest stress time in families, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at night. 7:42, it’s the worst time to have this fight. (Laughter)

So number one, we moved it. Number one, we were doing this in my office because it’s next to my daughter’s bedroom. I’m at my desk; it’s got the computer equipment. She’s low in an old Ikea chair, crossing her arms, feeling resentful. I’m in the “power position.”

So where I was sitting, we changed where we sit. You and I are on the same level here. Research shows that if you’re in front of a rigid surface on a hard chair, you’ll be more rigid. If you’re on a cushioned chair, you’ll be more accommodating.

We changed how we sit so we now – across from each other, you’ll be confrontational. You and I are next to each other, okay? More likely to be collaborative. When we, just last weekend, went over my daughters’ report cards, we sat on a windowsill, cushioned, them on our – to say, look, we’re on your side.

We’re going to push you. You’ve got some things to work on here in this report card. This knowledge is out there. Businesses are doing it. Government’s doing it, companies are doing it, sports teams are doing it to make sports teams work. Parents need to have access to this knowledge.

Tavis: What do you say to those persons watching right now who either believe this as a concept or believe it in their own family, the notion that their family is cursed, that it has been for generations? The notion that it’s always been this way in our family?

I think there are families who buy into that. I hear that all the time. It’s always been this way in our family, and this was passed down, and great-grandpa did this and then my dad did it and I did it, or my great-grandmother had it and my mother had it and I had it.

But there are families who buy into this. This is true intellectually – that is to say, emotionally. It is true physically, where our physiques are concerned. You get my point here.

Feiler: Yup.

Tavis: What do you say to families who think that happiness is not in their purview because for generations their families have had to deal with X, Y, or Z? Does that make sense?

Feiler: Almost anybody who has looked at happiness has found that happiness is not a matter – it’s not something you find, it’s something that you make. There’s been a lot of study of well-run groups in countless fields, including families, and it shows clearly that greatness is not a matter of circumstance; it’s a matter of choice.

You don’t need a grand plan, you don’t need to go back to the ancestors and rewrite the rules. You just need to take small steps and accumulate small wins. So the reality is that family narratives go on a long time, but they can be changed. They’re changed every day.

Tavis: His name is Bruce Feiler. The book, as I said at the top of the show, is number five this week on “The New York Times” best-seller list, which means that a whole lot of people are reading it, including, perhaps, you, and if not before now, I’m sure you’ll want to get it now.

The book is called “The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out, and Play Much More ” Bruce, I am always honored to have you sit in this chair. Thanks for coming on.

Feiler: You’re the best. Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you, man. That’s our show for tonight. See you next time on PBS. Good night from L.A. and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: March 25, 2013 at 12:04 pm