Solving family chaos

I am the queen of failed organization systems. I've kept to-do lists for my kids' household chores, made wall charts for music practice and homework, and used a dry-erase calendar to plan date nights with my husband. All my attempts at organization and control slowly petered out.

My intentions are good, but the truth is that I hate making lists and charts. I just want what a lot of working people with children want: joy and ease in day-to-day life.

Since my children, now 8 and 10, were born, I've read piles of books on parenting, marriage, organization and simplicity, searching for ways to make family life less stressful. Some were useful, but most were narrowly focused and none offered different ideas. A new book, "The Secrets of Happy Families," by Bruce Feiler, comes close to being the guide I was looking for. There is a chart involved, but no book is perfect.

Feiler, a bestselling author and family-life columnist for The New York Times, rejected the standard advice about families. Instead of self-help experts and psychologists, Feiler spent three years interviewing leaders in business and the military to discuss team-building, conflict resolution and problem-solving. He even visited the set of the TV show "Modern Family" and got advice from one of Warren Buffet's bankers on managing allowances.

The best part of the book is the way Feiler tries out the techniques he learns on his own family. Some work and some don't. The key, he learns, is to use business-style management as a guide, but, first and foremost, to be flexible. He urges readers to pay attention to family practices, discuss issues immediately and make adjustments when the family's needs change or something's not working. I like that there are no hard-and-fast rules. Feiler offers plenty of best practices, but readers can pick and choose what works for them.

The book opens with a profile of the Starrs family, a software engineer, his wife and four children. The Starrs use a system borrowed from Japanese auto manufacturers and Silicon Valley start ups to organize routines and duties. It includes a kid-designed morning checklist and a weekly meeting to discuss what went well and what didn't. They started the system when their children were in grade school and continue to adapt it over the years as the kids grow into high school and college.

Last week, I tried it out on my family. During a dinner mini-meeting, we talked about how to make our hectic mornings and after-school time easier. Both boys said they didn't like the fact that I repeat things to them every morning such as "brush your teeth" or (no kidding) "wear clean underwear." They admitted that they sometimes forget to do the things they are supposed to do, but said they would prefer to deal with bad breath and funky butts than my nagging.

I reminded myself to be flexible and helped the kids create their own work plan, one which includes accountability. For example, they agreed to forfeit video games if beds weren't made. So far, things are going smoothly. The boys like that they are participating in organizing their week. I like that they are wearing clean underwear.

Some of the advice is surprising. For example, he suggests parents do away with "date night." While marriage experts urge tired parents to keep the marriage sparky by scheduling dates, just planning and prepping for a date night can be stressful. Rather, says Feiler, take a class or do a hobby together. Time spent together is what counts.

Feiler's writing is good and his tone is balanced. He's not enthusiastic about everything, such as using conflict-negotiation strategies to plan a birthday party, but he gamely tries it all. That's my big take-away from the book: Try everything, choose what works and don't give up.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at

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