Leo Tolstoy had it right when he wrote in Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike." Okay, he wasn't thinking about a three-kids-and-a-minivan lifestyle, but his point was timeless: Some families just seem to enjoy one another's company more; to have more fun; to be, well, happier. What do they know that the rest of us don't? We asked parents and other experts to spill their secrets. For a more joyful clan, why not try what works for them? Here are some of their techniques.
Whether it's making pancakes for dinner on Sunday nights or ending every car trip by saying "Home again, home again, jiggity-jog," unique family rituals strengthen ties like nothing else.
"Traditions give children a sense of identity and belonging," says Richard Eyre, coauthor of The Happy Family: Restoring the 11 Essential Elements That Make Families Work. "They may seem insignificant to adults, but kids hang on to them."
The Eyres have celebrated family birthdays in special ways since their children were small. "Because mine is in autumn, we always rake a big pile of leaves and jump in them," says Eyre. The year three of his nine children, now ages 16 to 30, left home, he opened the mail on his birthday to find three separate envelopes, each with a leaf inside. "It was each child's way of saying 'I'm still part of the family,'" he says.
The Friday-night tradition in the Pritz household, in Glenside, PA, includes two pizzas, a movie in the living room, and everyone—Mom, Dad, and their four kids, ages 2 to 7½—on the floor in pajamas. "It's a simple ritual, but we look forward to it all week. I grew up going to Friday-night drive-in movies with my family," says mom Denise. "I hope my kids remember our movie nights as happily as I remember the drive-in."
Rally 'Round the Table
Families who chow together bond better than those who eat at separate times and spaces. Sitting around the table—or even just grating carrots in the kitchen—encourages kids and parents to relax and share what's on their mind (keep the TV off!). The benefits of this quality mealtime are long-lasting: Kids from families who dine together frequently are 31 percent less likely to smoke, drink, or do drugs later on as teenagers, according to a study of 2,000 youngsters by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
If your schedule doesn't allow for family dinners as often as you'd like, consider bonding over breakfast. The Geddes family of New York City manages to have dinner together a few nights a week, but they make sure to sit down to eat every morning. "Sure, it can be hectic," says Jennifer Geddes, mother of two girls, ages 18 months and 4 years, "but we count on that time together before we go our separate ways."
Get Into the Game
"Playing together builds strong bonds and warm memories—you're in effect saying 'We have a great time together,'" says Nick Stinnett, Ph.D., professor of human development at the University of Alabama and author of Fantastic Families: 6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family. In his 25-year study, which tracked 14,000 families nationwide, he found the happiest families spent time playing board and card games together.
On her family's weekly Game Night, "we spread out puzzles and games like Candy Land and Go Fish on the floor," says Chris Crytzer, mom of a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old in Pittsburgh. "Everyone gets a chance to talk, we're all laughing, and the kids have to cooperate and take turns. There's a real peace that comes when everyone's clicking. I always think, 'This is what a family is supposed to be.'"
Clean Up as a Clan
Who knew that excavating the garage together could yield more than ten-year-old paint cans? Doing chores as a family can be a major bliss booster. You work, you talk, you get closer. "Children might grumble when they're helping wash dishes or sort laundry, but these things create a sense of achievement and connection," says Stinnett. Even running everyday errands with your child, whether walking the dog or going to the gas station, can provide short but sweet bonding time.
Enhance One Another's Ego
If you want to build team spirit, encourage your family to be cheerleaders. In a survey of 150 families conducted by Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, those who seemed most content—and had the most fun together—also expressed their support most often. They exchanged compliments in public and private and generally rooted for one another. "When parents went to their kids' sporting events, for instance, they took the younger siblings along instead of leaving them with a sitter," says Rutgers's Susan Newman, Ph.D. "The message is 'We're here for one another.'"
You can foster this kind of alliance just by keeping everyone up-to-date on one another's lives, says Michele Borba, author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing. The more your kids know about their siblings' schedules, the easier it is for them to say, "Good luck on your test" or "Don't worry. I was scared on the first day of school too."
Nurture a Spiritual Side
Whether or not they follow an organized religion, happy families tend to spend time reflecting on gratitude and blessings. Doing that out loud in the evenings with sons Nic, 8, and Zak, 5, is the most rewarding part of Sue Lewis's day. "The kids are totally spontaneous, and it's always interesting to see what's on their mind," says the Grand Rapids, MN, mom. "They offer thanks for something good that happened at school or ask for blessings for other family members who are having a hard time. We learn so much about one another after sharing our concerns out loud. I think it keeps us all close."
Hand Out the Hugs
Anyone who's ever had a massage or been comforted by an embrace knows what a powerful force touch can be. "Strong families show a lot of physical affection," says Stinnett. "Touch communicates—and nurtures—connection. Even a simple pat on the back at a difficult moment can strengthen the bond." And don't underestimate the power of silly displays of affection, like rubbing noses or trading butterfly kisses. In my house, it's the Great Big Good Morning Hug: My kids, 4-year-old A.J. and 6-year-old Mathilda, refuse to budge from bed until they get one.
Look for Laughter
You don't have to learn new knock-knock jokes. "Humor isn't about consciously trying to be funny," says Eyre. "It's really about creating a light, 'life is good' atmosphere at home." Some of the most irritating moments—three cups of spilled juice in a row, crayons melted on car upholstery—can become your family's funniest, most cherished stories in years to come. The other day, A.J. and Mathilda ended up covered in finger paint during a playdate at a friend's house. I had a choice:
I could get upset (their new clothes got drenched in blue and green paint) or I could joke about how they were walking works of art. That night, we all went home laughing.