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Forget Flowers, 5 Ways to Make Mom Happier

Since we know so much more about what makes Mom unhappy these days, we also know more about how to make her happier.
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Daughters giving mother Mother's Day card
Daughters giving mother Mother's Day card

Hey dads, this year, give Mom something she really wants. Flowers, breakfast in bed and girls' night out are all great (and, for some of us, obligatory), but the truth is, what moms really want these days is to reduce the chaos of their lives. Countless surveys have shown that mothers list stress as their number one challenge. Even with dads stepping up on the home front, moms still spend more time caring for kids, doing housework and tending aging parents.

But there is hope.

Since we know so much more about what makes Mom unhappy these days, we also know more about how to make her happier. I spent the last few years gathering best practices from contemporary families about how to improve day-to-day life, from cutting down morning chaos to making peace between squabbling siblings, from rethinking the sex talk to making summer vacations more fun. (See my book, The Secrets of Happy Families.)

In honor of Mother's Day, here's a bouquet of alternative ideas to make mom happier.

1. De-stress her morning. Researchers have found that the highest stress times in families occur in moments of transition. The hour after everybody wakes up in the morning and the hour after everyone comes home in the evening are particularly vulnerable. Tired of nagging your kids to hurry up, get dressed, drink their milk and brush their teeth? Here's a radical idea: Don't.

Though it seems counterintuitive, one strategy that's proven to work is for parents to cede more authority to the children. Create a morning checklist where kids are responsible for checking off their own obligations. Or, choose alternate weeks where different members of the family play "morning captain." Or, assign days of the week where children either prepare breakfast or serve as sous chef for a parent. Besides reducing parental yelling, you'll help your kids. Children who plan their own schedules and evaluate their own work build up their brains and learn to take more responsibility.

2. Reduce sibling squabbles. Siblings between the ages of 3 and 7 clash three and a half times per hour, studies have shown, with those fights taking up ten minutes out of every hour.

To help address this problem around my house, I took a course from the team at the Harvard Negotiation Project. My wife and I now use a watered-down version of the Harvard technique with our daughters. When problems erupt, we separate them to allow them to cool off. Then we ask each party for three alternatives. Usually, they insist theirs is the only option, but eventually, they relent. Then we bring them back together. At that point, with so many options on the table, a solution usually arises fairly easily.

3. Boost your child's self-esteem. A fascinating new body of research suggests one of the best things you can do for your children is to tell your family history. Researchers at Emory found that children who know more about their family history have a higher degree of self-confidence and a stronger sense that they can control their lives. It was the single biggest predictor of a child's well-being. As Marshall Duke, the chief researcher, explained to me, kids needs to understand not just their family's positive moments, but their negative moments as well. The healthiest children know they "belong to something bigger than themselves." And as all harried moms know, if your children are happier, you're feeling happier.

4. Spice up date night. All couples have been told to schedule regular one-on-one time. "Date night" is the default answer to most problems in modern marriages. And research backs this up. The National Marriage Project released a study in 2012 showing couples who have weekly time to themselves are 3.5 times more likely to be happy, including sexually happy.

But not just any date will do. A growing body of research suggests simply going to dinner and a movie has little impact. If you want to improve your relationship, try something novel with your partner. Helen Fisher of Rutgers has observed that couples who participate in activities that are unusual or different, from taking an art class to driving to a new part of town to cooking a new recipe, flood their system with the same chemicals as couples just falling in love. The best way to bring the butterflies back may be to go butterfly hunting.

5. Let her win every argument for a month. All families have conflict; those who control and manage that conflict can make their family happier. One way to do this is to do what Gary Chapman, the author of The Five Love Languages, calls "take the fight out of the night." As he put it in a marriage seminar I attended with my wife: "Guys, I'm going to give you a sentence and encourage you to write it in your notebook," he said. "I guarantee it will change your life forever: Honey, what you're saying makes a whole lot of sense. You say that, you are no longer her enemy. You are her friend who understands her."

So, if you agree to let her win every argument for a month, long after those flowers wilt, she'll still be reaping the benefits of Mother's Day. By then, Father's Day will be just around the corner, and maybe she'll return the favor.

Bruce Feiler writes a column about contemporary families for the New York Times and is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers. This piece is adapted from his latest book, The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More.