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.
Happy Family Secret No. 6: Put Family Before Friends
"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."
Happy Family Secret No. 7: Limit Children's After-School Activities
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.
Happy Family Secret No. 8: Build and Honor Rituals
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."
Happy Family Secret No. 9: Keep Your Voices Down
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."
Happy Family Secret No. 10: Never Fight in Front of the Kids
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.'"
Happy Family Secret No. 11: Don't Work Too Much
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.
Happy Family Secret No. 13: Have Private Jokes
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.
Happy Family Secret No. 14: Be Flexible
"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."
Happy Family Secret No. 15: Communicate
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.
SOURCES: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, New York-based family and relationship counselor; host of The Learning Channel's Shalom in the Home. Barbara Fiese, PhD, professor and chair of psychology, Syracuse University, N.Y. Rose J. Perkins, EdD, associate professor of psychology, Stonehill College, Easton, Mass.