It was a Saturday night in Jerusalem when we gathered our children together on the living room couch to tell them that we were moving to America. There was complete silence. But the questions eventually came: To America? For how long? Why? Are we going to bring our whole house with us? Where will we go to school?
In the months that followed we answered their questions as we struggled with our own good-byes. My son did not want to leave his fish. My daughters did not want to leave their friends. My husband and I did not want to leave the sun setting into the sea outside our living room window, and the city where all of our children had been born. But for a variety of reasons, it was best for our family to move.
Many people have asked us how all of our children adjusted so quickly and easily to a new country. We didn’t really have any specific strategies other than maintaining the closeness of our family. Our schedules changed. Our language changed. Our social circle changed. But what remained constant was the cohesiveness of that Saturday night when we all sat down on the living room couch and said: This is what we need to do. We’re going to get through like we have with everything else. Let’s hear everyone’s questions and ideas.
There are some secrets to happy families. Some of us practice these ideas without even realizing it. And some of the following lessons are new strategies that we can try. They are based on the research of NY Times bestselling author, Bruce Feiler, who recently published the book, The Secrets to Happy Families.
1. Make Family Dinners Count. A recent study from the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at UCLA found that families ate together only 17 percent of the time, even when everybody was home. Today it is increasingly difficult to coordinate the schedules and needs of everyone in the family. Laurie David, in her book The Family Dinner, suggests the following alternatives: Can’t have dinner together every night? Try once a week. Aren’t home from work early enough? Bring everyone together at 8:00pm for dessert, a snack or just to talk about the day. Weekdays too hectic? Try weekends. Don’t have time to cook? Do leftover Mondays, takeout Tuesdays or breakfast for dinner.
Besides these practical alternatives, researchers have found that what matters most is not the dinner itself, but what is spoken about at the table. Aim for at least ten minutes of quality conversation. What is quality conversation? Marshall Duke, a renowned psychology professor at Emory University says: “The most important thing we can give our children, at dinnertime or anytime, is a sense of perspective. Children take their cues from us. When they’re young, and they hear a loud noise, they don’t look where the noise came from, they look at us. If you’re not upset, they’re not upset…When a child tells you something bad happened at school, sometimes the best thing to say is ‘Pass the ketchup.’ It’s your way of saying, there’s no reason to panic. Then, once you’ve taken the panic out of the air, once you’ve put the ketchup on your French fries, then you can begin the conversation.” (Bruce Feiler, The Secrets to Happy Families, p. 50)
Judaism gives us a weekly opportunity to make sure everyone gathers together and shares quality conversation. Shabbos dinner gives us this precious chance to pass on traditions and perspectives. No matter how hectic the week was, everyone comes to the table where blessings of gratitude and Torah thoughts uplift the meal and bring the family closer.
2. Rethink Date Night. Studies show that couples who do something new each week experience the same high as couples who are just falling in love. If a couple does the same thing every week for their date then it has the tendency to become routine like other aspects of family life and doesn't increase the sense of intimacy parents need. And even more surprisingly, studies show that sometimes the most romantic moments parents share are actually when they are with their children. With the hectic pace of family life, parents often take turns watching their children instead of sharing the joy of their children together.
Family night may be the most crucial tool for fostering that crucial intimate bond.
So family night, not necessarily date night, may be the most crucial tool for fostering that crucial intimate bond. “As every parent knows sometimes the most satisfying moments in marriage come when you look up from that board game on Friday night and catch the eye of your spouse, walk in on them putting cookie dough on a child’s nose, or reach over and take their hand when you tuck in a sleeping child…Maybe that’s why the authors of When Baby Makes Three were most startled to find that parents who have the most children (four or more) were actually the happiest of all. Sometimes the best way to get the marriage you’ve always wanted is to stay home and play with the kids.” (Bruce Feiler, The Secrets to Happy Families, p. 160)
The ideal goal is to have both a date night on which the couple does something new each week and a family night where they enjoy their children together. But either one increases the closeness between spouses.
3. Share Family History. Studies show that children who know a lot about their families fare better when faced with challenges. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale which asked children to answer 20 questions including: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know what went on when you were being born?
It turns out that the children who could answer these questions had a better sense of control in their lives, had higher self- esteem and more positive opinions about their families. Marshall believes these children fare better because they have what he calls a strong “intergenerational self;” they know they are part of something bigger than themselves.
Judaism gives us this opportunity to share not only our own family narratives at the Passover Seder each year but to connect our children to our narrative as a nation. This gives families the sense that they are part of something larger than themselves, and that they can face their challenges with the same courage and faith as their ancestors.
Conveying a family narrative requires us to be honest with ourselves and with our children. It requires us to believe in resiliency and pass that belief onto our children. It’s the ability to say: We’ll get through this like we’ve gone through everything else. As a family.