By Alex Moss

Many parents can feel on the back foot when it comes to family life and it would be unwise to think that children don’t pick up on this. In a thought provoking TED Talk, Bruce Feiler points out that ‘children sense we’re out of control’.

That didn’t sit right with Feiler. Surely there was a way of taking that control back? Not just for the parents but for the happiness of the whole family. He wanted to know, ‘are there concrete things we can do to reduce stress, draw our family closer and prepare our children to enter the world?’

Feiler felt somewhere there must lie an alternative way to ‘run’ a family. In his search he spoke to as many people as possible from elite peacekeepers, members of The Green Beret right through to Warren Buffett’s bankers.

And while the solutions were plentiful, Feiler wasn’t satisfied until he met the Starr family who had turned to the father’s work to help them create a workable family dynamic. The method the Starrs had put into practice was Agile Development. It is a system well known in the software development industry in which small groups work together for a short time to achieve a simple goal.

Agile was formulated by Jeff Sutherland who, in 1983, had become frustrated at the way in which software was being designed. The executives would issue orders which would eventually filter down to the programmers but it was the programmers who then had to execute, not the executives. He felt that ideas should flow in both directions to produce the best possible outcome.

The Starrs had implemented this idea into their home. Feiler was there one morning when the system was in place. “So on the morning I visited, Eleanor came downstairs, poured herself a cup of coffee, sat in a reclining chair, and she sat there, kind of amiably talking to each of her children as one after the other they came downstairs, checked the list, made themselves breakfast, checked the list again, put the dishes in the dishwasher, rechecked the list, fed the pets or whatever chores they had, checked the list once more, gathered their belongings, and made their way to the bus. It was one of the most astonishing family dynamics I have ever seen.”

But Feiler didn’t believe it could work for his family, something Eleanor agreed when her husband David first proposed it. Feiler was curious as to how it really worked in motivating the kids and David’s response was simple: “You can’t underestimate the power of doing this.” And he made a checkmark. He said, “In the workplace, adults love it. With kids, it’s heaven.”

So Feiler took a leap of faith and implemented the system in his own home. “The week we introduced a check list into our house, it cut parental screaming in half”. Key to this was a weekly meeting in which all members of the family are allowed to have their say on what worked, what didn’t work and what could be improved in the day to day family functionality. “For many people, kids are like Bermuda Triangles; thoughts and ideas go in but never come out”. But they should have a say in their upbringing as well.

So impressed by the Agile method, Feiler decided to create an Agile Family Manifesto. Here are the key points.

1. Adapt all the time:

Parents wrongfully assume they have all the answers to any given situation. “We have to break parents out of this straitjacket that the only ideas we can try at home are ones that come from shrinks or self-help gurus or other family experts.” One such example was when Feiler met a celebrity chef in New Orleans who couldn’t get home in time for family dinner every night. It’s been proven that only ten minutes of a family meal time are productive, the rest is ‘take your elbows off the table’ and ‘pass the ketchup’. So this chef would time shift those ten minutes to a time in the day when he knew he could communicate with his family.

2. Empower Your Children

“Our instinct as parents is to order our kids around. It’s easier and frankly we’re usually right.” But Feiler believes this is too like the waterfall adage of executives giving out orders without the people executing them having any kind of say. He discovered that by getting the kids involved in certain rules and punishment they were more likely to pay attention to them. Research has also shown that children who plan their own goals, set weekly schedules, evaluate their own work build up their frontal cortex.

3. Tell Your Story

By laying out a family mission statement, everyone knows what they are doing right as a family unit. But Feiler points out that children who know their family history, know about relatives that fought illness and overcame high odds, have higher self esteem. They feel part of ‘a greater narrative’.

Feiler, in closing, sums up everything you need to know about achieving family happiness: “Happiness is not something we find, it’s something we make…What’s the secret to a happy family? Try”