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There's not a secret to creating a happy family; there are 100

August 03, 2004|Samantha Critchell | Associated Press

NEW YORK — There is no secret recipe for a happy family, but psychologist and social scientist David Niven says there are several -- OK, 100 -- ingredients that help create the framework for a harmonious household.

It's important for family members to listen to each other, avoid comparisons and be punctual -- all logical and fairly easy things to do, he says.

The goal is to create an atmosphere of goodwill and encourage mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and even grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins to genuinely enjoy each other's company, not merely tolerate one another.

"We tend to underestimate the importance of everyday activities. A family is built around the mundane, not the highlights like a vacation when the dynamics change," says Niven.

Each of the entries in "The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families" is based on research conclusions of scientists studying family life, not personal experience of Niven or those near and dear to him, he explains. The tips that can be implemented as soon as tomorrow include:

* No. 39. Show up on time.

Punctual parents are the foundation of consistency in children's lives; kids won't think they are being left on their own without guidance and supervision, and they'll feel like they can depend upon their parents.

"Anyone could do this, but many don't," says Niven.

* No. 12. Tell your family story.

When parents talk about their upbringings and even their parents' upbringings, it gives the next generation a sense of the big family picture. They'll understand the relationships and not just see relatives as otherwise unrelated people who pose for a portrait on holidays.

Offering family context also helps humanize parents. "To a lot of children, their parents never had a childhood with childhood issues. They [children] think their parents were born in their 30s. But if they knew about the fights their parents had over clothes when they were young, then the kids will understand that the decision of when they can pierce their ears isn't being decided by some old fuddy-duddy."

* No. 17. Live your views.

Showing what you value by doing it encourages the next generation to respect and follow. This method of teaching also allows children to make decisions for themselves, which likely will lead to decisions and convictions that stick. However, ruling with an iron hand will only encourage rebellion.

"People who feel they were brought up in very restrictive households tend to feel like they are not in control of their own adult lives, mostly because they don't feel they know how to make a decision."

Other "secrets" offered by Niven might take longer to accomplish because they require some thought and planning.

"One of the most important aspects of family life is for everyone to be a family member and an individual. It can be a difficult balance," says Niven, who is taking a sabbatical from his teaching job at Florida Atlantic University to do research at Ohio State University.

Tip No. 88: "Don't do everything together."

He compares families who love each other but spend too much time together to a vacation in an interesting, faraway land; it's great for a two-week visit but you probably don't want to move in permanently.

"Putting every moment available into your family is not a healthy thing. Just because it's important doesn't mean you should spend every moment possible on it. It'll eat away at your own identity."

Dialogue among family members is very important, Niven says.

"Everybody needs to feel listened to. Not everyone needs to win, but they need to feel listened to," he explains. "Even though children might not like a decision, they'll accept it if they feel like they were listened to."

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