Secrets of Happy Families

If you’re like Sophia Bailey-Klugh, featured in our video from a moment ago, then Father’s Day is a super huge day for you. Because you have not just one dad but TWO. You have to double everything. Not just one Bacon-of-the-Month Club membership, but TWO Bacon-of-the-Month Club memberships (or whatever your cool Father’s Day gift happens to be). Double the celebration!

How many families here have two dads? Let’s hear a round of applause…

All kinds of families are welcome here at UUCA. It’s just as the Rev. Bill Sinkford, past President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, once said: “The religious right finds threats to the family pretty much everywhere it finds difference. To them, ‘family values’ are rules that require everyone’s family to look like their families, love like their families, and believe in the same things as their families—or else be excluded from the definition of ‘family.’ As religious liberals, we have a different view. We have long worked to expand the conversation about family values to reflect the reality that there are many kinds of families in this country. Our values ground us in respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and our experience tells us that our diversity is to be celebrated rather than feared.”

Amen. This is what we Unitarian Universalists believe. This is the kind of values community you’ve found yourself in, on this Father’s Day morning.

Welcome to all kinds of families.

And once we do that, we have to take into consideration how each form of family requires some different things to get happy.

For example, take people who are single—who do not currently have a significant other. Like me. Part of what happiness requires is picking and choosing your battles wisely. Don’t fight against that desire to feel rooted in a network of loving relationships which is the essence of family feeling. Don’t fight against that! We’re hardwired as humans to seek that out. Instead, fight against the idea that you can’t talk about yourself and family in the same breath unless you are married, or unless you have children. Fight against the old stereotype that family always involves a mortgage and a matched set of towels in the bathroom. Fight it. Like Po Bronson says in his amazing book Why Do I Love These People: Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families, “They say you can’t choose your family, but increasingly, people do. People build families out of whatever they’ve got that works, Swiss Family Robinson style. They build with best friends and in-laws, with adoptions and second or third marriages. Uncles replacing fathers while cousins replace sisters. They build with grandparents they’re not really related to. They build new traditions, and they pass these on to their children and friends, spreading a simple value—that we are stronger together than alone.” That’s what Po Bronson says. “People build families out of whatever they’ve got that works.” That’s what’s worth fighting for…. Whatever works to secure us and surround us with love and support…

Did you know that of all American households, only 20.2% are comprised of a married mother and father with their children? That’s the statistic from the U.S. Government’s 2010 Census. 79.8% of households are in the alternative category—which seems strange to say because the alternative category is the biggest category by far. We say “alternative” only because the image of “mother and father with children” looms so large in our imaginations. But we must reimagine the family, in all its forms and varieties.

Which brings us back to Sophia Bailey-Klugh and her two dads.

Families in which the parents are of the same sex (approximately 200,000 of them!) face some truly significant challenges, and happiness requires facing them with resilience if not hurdling them outright. One has to do, of course, with the prejudice out there. “It hurts my heart and feelings,” says Sophia of the bullying she experiences on the playground—enough hurt for her to feel the need to write no less than the President of the United States for advice. Going to the highest levels. That’s a lot of hurt…

Then there’s the lack of legal recognition. Some of us know this all too well—but others of us have no idea what it’s like to get a simple form from school to fill out and you can’t do it, it doesn’t make sense where your family is concerned. Or to be afraid to visit one set of grandparents because they happen to live in a state or a country that does not recognize adoption by same-sex parents and the kids could be taken away, just like that.

Here, to get happy, it’s going to have to take all of us. Making this world a more just place. Our Unitarian Universalist Second Principle calls out to us: “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Like Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

But now I want to share with you something I discovered about ALL families in the course of my research on same-sex parent-led families. Lots of different kinds of families in America, absolutely, and each kind has its unique needs. But we can also talk about needs that apply across the board—happiness strategies that lift and energize all.

To begin with, consider what I found in the American Psychological Association’s official publication entitled Monitor on Psychology. I’m just going to drop you right into the middle of the article, entitled “The Kids are All Right,” from December 2005:

“University of Virginia psychology professor Charlotte Patterson’s study debunks the myth that children of gay or lesbian parents have trouble developing romantic relationships due to a missing father- or mother-figure — a concern that judges making custody rulings have cited. Equal numbers of teenagers from each group reported that they had been in a romantic relationship in the previous 18 months. Participants from the two groups did not differ in grade point average, symptoms of depression or self-esteem. While the sexual orientation of the parents in Patterson’s study did not predict the adolescents’ social adjustment, the quality of the parent-child relationship did. Children who reported warm relationships with their parents tended to be the most mentally healthy and have the fewest problems in school.”

Hold on to that while we look at a second article, dated April 24 2014, which comes out of the British Sociological Association and its major UK study on family wellbeing. Again, dropping you right into the middle. It says, “Whether the children lived with two biological parents, with a step-parent and biological parent, or in a single parent family, made no difference: 64% said they were happy ‘sometimes or never’, and 36% said they were ‘happy all the time’. Jenny Chanfreau, Senior Researcher at NatCen, said, ‘We found that the family type had no significant effect on the happiness of the seven-year-olds or the 11-15 year olds. It’s the quality of the relationships in the home that matters – not the family composition. Getting on well with siblings, having fun with the family at weekends, and having a parent who reported rarely or never shouting when the child was naughty, were all linked with a higher likelihood of being happy all the time among seven-year olds.’”

Those are the articles, and can you hear in both the emphasis that it does not really matter what the particular structure of the family is where happiness is concerned—two biological parents, single parent, stepparent, same-sex parents, and on and on. What matters is the quality of the relationships in the home. That’s what cuts across everything.

So we’re going to turn to that for the rest of my message today. Strategies that support quality of relationship. Getting happy, and everybody’s invited.

Strategy #1: Improve family communication by adjusting the conditions of your household. Here, I’m following the lead of a book I want to recommend. It’s written by Bruce Feiler and called The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More. Check this book out.

It’s eye-opening and somewhat in the same vein as Malcolm Gladwell’s books like The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers: books that shed light on old problems with new research, or different lines of research synthesized in new ways, or research that comes from unlikely sources. It means that Feiler stepped away from the traditional marriage and family therapy sources of solutions and stepped towards experts in other fields: computer design, international crisis resolution, the military, interior design, and others.

So many ideas worth talking about, but the one I want to touch on here stems from what’s called “agile development” which, in business, means learning how to live with constant change in a way that continues to drive the organization forward. Part of this involves opposing the traditional “waterfall model” in which top executives are seen as having all the knowledge and all the power, their orders come down like a waterfall, and the people below are expected to just receive and perform. Unfortunately, the reality is otherwise. In Silicon Valley, they found that eighty-three percent of programming projects would come in late, overbudget, or would fail entirely.

Now this sounds like it’s a completely different thing from what happens during mornings in many of our homes, but the genius of Bruce Feiler’s book is how he asks us to look again. Part of the misery of the mornings is how parents can unknowingly position themselves to be traffic cops to kids who don’t know how to self-direct. It’s the waterfall model all over again, and just as in Silicon Valley, so in our kitchens: the kids are late, the parents are tense, the day starts out poorly.

So the idea—which adopts the logic of agile development—is to create a morning checklist of what is to be done before school. Tack it on the kitchen wall. Something like this:

1. Take vitamins or medicine
2. Eat breakfast
3. Shower or wash face and neck
4. Take care of your hair
5. Do morning chores
6. Brush your teeth (two minutes)
7. Backpack, shoes, and socks

Then:

What are you having for lunch?
What are you taking to school today?
What are you forgetting?

It’s fascinating, the record of how this tactic was initially received and then gradually absorbed, gradually transformed into habit. Here’s Bruce Feiler, reporting what happened when his friend Eleanor decided to implement:

“For the first few weeks, nothing really happened. The kids wandered around in something of a daze, asking what they were supposed to be doing and generally complaining. ‘And every time they would start mulling about,’ Eleanor told me, ‘I simply said, ‘Check the list.’’ After a while, I became like a broken record. ‘You need to check the list.’ Gradually the kids began gravitating to it without having to be told. It took about two weeks … but eventually it clicked.

“And boy did it. When I showed up at Eleanor’s kitchen at 6am, five years after this system had been implemented, I was amazed by what I saw. Eleanor came downstairs, made herself a cup of coffee, and sat down in a reclining chair. She remained there for the next ninety minutes as first her two oldest children came downstairs, checked the list, made themselves breakfast, checked the list again, made themselves lunch, checked the list, emptied and reloaded the dishwasher, rechecked the list, fed the pets, checked the list one final time, then gathered their belongings and made their way to the bus stop.

“When I asked why they checked the list so often, she said they found it comforting on groggy mornings.”

But now listen to this next part:

“As soon as the older children were gone, the two youngest ones came downstairs and did the same things, though with different chores. With the logistics taken care of, Eleanor could concentrate on the softer side of mothering—asking about an upcoming test, smoothing over an anxiety, spreading a little love on their day. It was one of the most astonishing family dynamics I had ever seen.”

Astonishing—perhaps because with the adjustment in family dynamics that the mere checklist brought, the parent no longer needed to be a dreaded traffic cop barking out orders again and again and again, but instead, they could operate out of “the softer side.” That is truly sweet….

Lots and lots of ideas like this, in Feiler’s book. The main one being: there ARE solutions out there. “The secret to being a happy family is … TRY.”

But there is one other basic strategy I want to share—one that I would be remiss in not sharing—and it is not so much technical as existential, big picture. Strategy #2: Bring less perfectionism to the family.

This is a huge one. How we can beat ourselves up because we’re worrying that our family, for some reason or another, is falling short of the ideal. Because of strained relationships, the bickering, the grudges harbored…. Because we haven’t been able to insulate the children or ourselves from every disappointment, because we haven’t been able to do everything “right” and be at every soccer game and make every school function and on and on…. Perhaps because we’ve already read and absorbed books like Bruce Feiler’s and we’ve tried checklists and the results are … only mixed.

Such perfectionism brings incredible tension and pressure to the family, harming the quality of relationship; whereas a lighter touch might be more effective, and definitely more human and humane. As my favorite philosopher Reba McEntire says, “To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funnybone.” There needs to be a balance…

To this end, we might take another look at a story that comes to us from the spiritual traditions of Judaism and Christianity. That old story about God and Adam and Eve. God creating this perfect paradise home for them, which is called the Garden of Eden. But there is also chaos in that Garden—represented by the Snake. Eventually, Adam and Eve come across the Snake, the Snake tempts them to do a bad thing, there is a Fall, and from this Fall—from this one thing—comes nothing less than all the joys and sorrows of the entire human condition that will shape the life of every human being ever after, for all time.

Now, I’m asking you to explore this story as a Unitarian Universalist, which means: let’s not take the story literally. There never was an actual Adam and Eve and an actual Garden of Eden. God, if God exists, is just not the sort of being that can walk around on legs. Scapegoating the Snake does injustice to the regular snakes we find in actual nature. Let’s not take the story literally. But let’s take it seriously, as a myth that speaks to the deepest realities of what it means to be a family. God is the parent who seeks to make a perfect home for his children. He’s the archetypal helicopter parent, the original dragon mother. But no matter how overachieving He is, still, there is that Snake in the Garden, that force for trouble. The Bible is silent on how this can be possible, when God, like our parents, can seem so all-powerful. As parents, we can ourselves buy into this fantasy of being all-powerful. But we simply cannot control everything. Again and again, we learn this the hard way. There is always some kind of Snake, there is always some kind of Fall. Nothing we do can prevent it. Some bad experience or illness breaks into our kid’s life. A move takes a child far away from friends and plops her down in a strange new world and it feels horrible. In my own case, I think of divorce. I never would have imagined this for myself, and yet it happened. Sometimes, relationships just end, and it is good that they end. Not all relationships need saving. But it means that the Snake just entered the Garden that I worked so hard to create for my daughter, and now her life has been touched by that…

There is always a Fall. God in the Bible can’t prevent it, and neither can any of us. This does not mean we should stop caring, or trying. But it does mean that we should think twice about our perfectionistic fantasies and how they never fail to make us the opposite of happy. Reality is always throwing us curve balls; reality is always taking us places we never thought we’d go; reality is always challenging us to be flexible and fluid and, despite everything, to keep on showing up with an open heart. Problems come; and we must trust that from every problem and struggle (no matter how seemingly senseless) there can ultimately be learning and growth which gives meaning to it all.

Ultimately, what the Story of the Fall suggests is that we are more likely to get happy if our family priority is not so much avoiding problems as being the kind of mini-community that is good at overcoming problems together. Learning how to be resilient together, which sometimes means forgiveness, sometimes patience, sometimes sheer stamina, sometimes courage to do a new thing.

Today, I wish for each of you—and all our families—a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone. All three.

Happy father’s day!