The essence of a happy family is that they truly uplift each other and that all comes down to how they treat each other, says Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a New York-based family and relationship counselor and host of The Learning Channel's Shalom in the Home. "There is a joy that characterizes their interaction," says Boteach, father of eight children and author of several books, including the forthcoming Shalom in the Home. "Parents come home and the kids are happy to see them and when kids come home, the parents are happy to see them."
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"When your kids come home, ask them what happened in school and have a story for them," he says. "If you come home dejected and not really interested and then five minutes later the TV is on, why would they be happy to see you?"
The bottom line, he says, is that when you come home, your kids have to come first. "You must drop everything you are doing and always come home with something to share with your kids, whether a story or even the smallest vignette," he says. "This way you give your kids something to look forward to. The great bane of family life is boredom and that is what leads to dysfunction, affairs, and kids wanting to be with their friends over family."
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"Set a real example of love," Boteach says. "The relationship and marriage must come first." Think Carol and Mike Brady of the Brady Bunch and Cliff and Clair Huxtable of the Cosby Show.
There are many families where kids always come first, says Boteach. Then they become substitute providers of love, he says. "That's an unfair burden to put on a kid." It's also bad for families, he says, "because kids will move out of the house eventually."
Families that eat together, stay together. It's that simple. "Family dinners are essential," Boteach says. "It's a time to connect." Have a minimum of four family dinners per week, he suggests.
"Have one or two unifying activities that the family does together on a nightly basis," Boteach says. He suggests bedtime stories for young children or reading a chapter from a novel to an older child.
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"In happy families, family comes before friends," he says, "The camp counselor understands something that parents don't and that is that caring for kids also has to be fun. Give rules, but understand that kids need fun, too. When kids get bored and listless, they start looking for excitement out of the home and that is when friends become more important. Friendship is important, but subordinate to family."
Today, growing numbers of kids are overscheduled and participate in six or seven after-school activities per week. The mother becomes a chauffer and the children are never home at the same time. This is not a recipe for a happy family, Boteach says. "If your kids grow up not knowing how to do ballet, they will be OK. No after-school activities is an extreme and too many activities is the other extreme, but moderation is where we should aim." Create your own after-school activities as a family, he suggests. For example, take your kids rollerblading, bike riding, or swimming after school as a family.
"Families need rituals," Boteach says. Rituals can be religious, national, or even family-specific, he says.
Barbara Fiese, PhD, professor and chair of psychology at Syracuse University in New York, agrees. "Happy families have meaningful rituals and are not stressed out by them," she says. "They can be unique to your own family such as going for bagels on Saturday morning, a weekly pizza night, or even a family song. Rituals tend to bring family members close together because they are repeated over time."
To work, rituals need to be flexible, she adds. "They can't be rigid," Fiese says. "If the bagel place is closed, you have to go someplace else."
Remember that children thrive on stability. "There has to be a calm environment at home," says Boteach. "Talk to your kids, give them strict rules, and punish children when necessary, but don't lose control and yell. If you yell at kids, that shows you are out of control and you create a nonpeaceful environment."
TV viewers never really saw Carol and Mike Brady go at it, did they? While some fighting or bickering may be inevitable, try to keep it away from the children, Boteach says. "If your kids see you fight and argue, apologize and say, 'We are sorry you had to see it. Daddy and I just had a disagreement, but everything is OK now.'"
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All work and no play does worse things to a family than make it dull. "If you are away all the time and don't prioritize your kids, your kids will internalize feelings of insecurity," says Boteach. They'll begin to believe that they're not valuable enough.
Sibling rivalry can be divisive. "I try to speak to my kids about how fortunate they are to have siblings," Boteach says.
Happy families have inside jokes, Syracuse's Fiese says, "Jokes and nicknames symbolize that this is a group that you belong to and serves as a shorthand for larger experiences," she says.
"This is easier said than done," says Fiese. "But by their very nature, families change so you have to be open to change in membership and age," Fiese says. "Somebody gets married, somebody dies, somebody remarries and teenagers are no longer children and young adults are no longer teenagers, but they are all still part of the family."
Rose J. Perkins, EdD, associate professor of psychology at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., says that a happy family communicate with one another. "Frequently families are set up where everyone tells the mom and then the mom sends the message, but in a happy family, there are more flexible, open lines of communication."
In happy families, "all the members of family unit are able to communicate openly," she says.