Bruce Feiler: How Can Kids Help Parents Manage Their Family? Parents help their kids manage their lives. But according to Bruce Feiler, it can work the other way around. It just takes a little insight drawn from Japanese computer programming principles.

Bruce Feiler: How Can Kids Help Parents Manage Their Family?

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All right, first, let me describe to you the last 15 hours of my life, OK, this is what I did.

I was talking here with Bruce Feiler. He wrote a book called "The Secrets Of Happy Families."

BRUCE FEILER: Not because I have one, but because I wanted one, OK?

RAZ: Bruce has two young kids, and like me...

I left at 5:30...

...Like a lot of parents...

And I rushed to the supermarket to buy some groceries to make dinner...

...He sometimes feels a little overwhelmed.

FEILER: Every single conversation that I have about families begins in one way or the other with this idea...

RAZ: You know, a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old...

The idea that modern family life...

...Jumping up and down...

Is chaotic...

...And I'm trying to make dinner, and I making the chicken. Like, I'm making broccoli...

And even though the momentum of that chaos feels unavoidable, Bruce says there is a better way.

FEILER: If you want to run a marathon, you have to plan it.

RAZ: Yeah.

FEILER: OK, if you to lose weight, you need map it out.

RAZ: And I...

My wife was working late. I've got to get them into their beds.

FEILER: Whatever - if you want to be a better painter, you just can't go from zero to Picasso. You've got to take baby steps and accumulate small wins.

RAZ: I get a call - a work call - I got to do that.

FEILER: Why is that we don't do this with our family? Why is that we don't have time to sit down and say this is what we're striving for.

RAZ: And then at 11:30 I then realize that I haven't prepared for my interview with Bruce Feiler, which is happening in just a few hours. Not only that...

What we need, Bruce Feiler argues, is a system to organize all this chaos.

FEILER: It's chaotic, but it's also growing...

RAZ: Yeah.

FEILER: ...And we're all in it together.

RAZ: It's like a tech startup.

FEILER: Yeah, it's like a startup where basically everybody has to contribute. You have to adapt all the time. You need some order, but you got to keep moving forward.

RAZ: So keep that idea in your head that, in some ways, a family is kind of like a scrappy upstart business as you listen to Bruce Feiler tell this next story on the TED stage.


FEILER: In 1983, Jeff Sutherland was a technologist at a financial firm in New England. He was very frustrated with how software got designed. Companies followed the waterfall method, right, in which executives issued order that slowly trickled down to programmers below, and no one had ever consulted the programmers. Eighty-three percent of projects failed. They were too bloated or too out of date by the time they were done. Sutherland wanted to create a system where ideas didn't just percolate down, but could percolate up from the bottom and be adjusted in real time. He read 30 years of Harvard Business Review before stumbling upon an article in 1986 called "The New New Product Development Game." It said that the pace of business was quickening - and by the way, this was in 1986 - and the most successful companies were flexible. It highlighted Toyota and Canon and likened their adaptable, tight-knit teams to rugby scrums. As Sutherland told me, we got to that article, and said, that's it. In Sutherland's system, companies don't use large, massive projects that take two years. They do things in small chunks. Nothing takes longer than two weeks. So instead of saying, you guys go off into that bunker and come back with a cellphone or a social network, you say, you go off and come up with one element, then bring it back. Let's talk about it. Let's adapt.

RAZ: This system of organization is called agile development. Today, it's used in corporations all over the world, and the basic idea - you succeed or you fail quickly.

FEILER: And that is the great thing about this core agile idea, which it acknowledges that we have to be adapting all the time, but yet we need some structure to that adaptation.

RAZ: There are literally dozens of books out there about how agile can provide structure in the workplace. But Bruce Feiler's idea is that you can actually take certain core lessons from agile and apply them to your family. So how do you do it?

FEILER: The answer to that is you set aside a period of time each week where you are going to discuss how you're functioning as a family. Not how each individual person is doing, not how the 5-year-old is doing; you talk about how you're functioning as a family, OK? Try to answer three questions. These are the core three agile questions, all right?

RAZ: Yeah.

FEILER: What's working well...


FEILER: ...In our family this week? What's not working well? And what can we focus on in the week ahead because you're going to know this week ahead, guess what - Dad's got a business trip, OK? Therefore everybody's going to have to adjust. You want them to say I'm going to set the table and I'm going to clear the table where normally I do it once. Or I'm going to give myself a shower or I'm going to help my sibling do their homework. So I one of my messages here is park the helicopter.

RAZ: Bruce has actually tried this in his own family. He lets his two daughters take more responsibility for daily tasks. And he says the one thing that made this system of organization so much easier was a checklist of their daily responsibilities.

FEILER: Get yourself a whiteboard, or get a piece of paper, and rather than you running around saying brush your teeth and floss and lay out your clothes and whatever else it might be as part of your bedtime routine, you're giving them the authority to do it themselves. And it becomes much more inherent. But here's the thing - don't you make it. Say we're going to do this. I want you to list all the things you're going to do in the morning and then we're going to check them off.


FEILER: The week we introduced a morning checklist into our house, suddenly the most amazing things started coming out of our daughters' mouths. What worked well this week - getting over our fear of riding bikes; making our beds. What didn't work well - our math sheets or greeting visitors at the door. And like a lot of parents, our kids are something like Bermuda Triangles. Like, thoughts and ideas go in, but none ever comes out, I mean, at least not that are revealing. This gave us access suddenly to their innermost thoughts. But the most - no - the key idea of agile is that teams essentially manage themselves and we - it works in software and it turns out that it works with kids. Our kids love this process, so they would come up with all these ideas. You know, greet five visitors at the door this week - get an extra 10 minutes of reading before bed. You know, kick someone - you know, lose desserts for a month. It turns out, by the way, our girls are little Stalins. We constantly have to kind of dial them back.


FEILER: Now look, naturally there is a gap between their kind of conduct in these meetings and their behavior the rest of the week, but the truth is it didn't really bother us. It felt like we were kind of laying these underground cables that wouldn't light up their world for many years to come. And by the way, research backs this up, too. Children who plan their own goals, set weekly schedules, evaluate their own work, build up their frontal cortex and take more control over their lives. So the bottom line is empower your children.

RAZ: Can I tell you something? I'm going to tell you something very personal. The thing that, like, gives me the greatest sense of purpose is the chaos that comes from being a father. Like, all the things that I have to do, it gives me a sense of self-worth more than anything else I do.

FEILER: But meaning is different from happiness. And the research into meaning shows the reason that parenting is such a profound experience is because it gives us more meaning because it makes us reflect on our own childhood. It makes us look at our children and realize where they've come from and to do things now based on where we hope they might get in the future because when they get older, if you expect your 15-year-old to go out and make a decision about whether to drink and drive, OK, whether to use contraception, whether to experiment with drugs - if you have made every decision for that child along the way, you know why we do this? Because it's easier and we're usually right.

RAZ: It's not 'cause we love them.

FEILER: No, it's not just because we love them. It's because we know how much pressure we have in our lives. Yes, we love them, but that is not enough. That is, in some ways, the message here, right?

RAZ: Yeah.

FEILER: What is - one of the golden tickets of parenting is children who go off and are independent, but are still connected to you in some way. So that when we all go like marbles spilling on the floor into our individual lives that we have that thing that will still connect us.

RAZ: Bruce Feiler - his entire talk on agile programming for your family can be found at


DOTTIE PEOPLES: (Singing) Get your house in order. Do it today. Get your house in order. Do it right away.

RAZ: Hey, everyone, thanks for listening to our show this week on getting organized.

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