Photo: Darren Braun

How Can I Know My Loved Ones So Well—And Yet Not at All?
My cat, at least, is another species, so I don't pretend to know why he sniffs chairs or chews plastic bags. It is enough simply to share our love of shrimp and napping. But the humans I live with? In some ways they are utterly familiar: I know that my daughter has a fever because I wake to some invisible molecular disturbance in the room, that my son hates his frittata though he insists he doesn't, and that when I bend to sweep up the spilled oats, my husband is ogling my behind. And yet everywhere, there is evidence of their otherness. I discover that one of them has Googled "Jamie Lee Curtis" during the night. I find a cupful of rocks in the freezer. Billy Joel's "Piano Man" comes on, and my daughter sighs: "This song makes me sad. If all those people are putting bread in his jar, how is he going to get his tips?"

They are strangers. And thank goodness! Otherwise there would be no awe, no suspense, no exquisite wonder—even though if I could, I would jackhammer into their heads (carefully!) to peek inside. I would shrink down and roam around their brains, opening file cabinets, looking into bedside drawers. Instead I just stare at their sleeping faces—beautiful mysteries—as their dreams flicker behind dark lashes, and the pussycat snores gently at the foot of the bed.

Catherine Newman is the author of Waiting for Birdy.
happy kids

Photo: Brian Rea

What's the Magic Formula for Raising a Happy, Successful Kid?
People are so hungry to know how to let their kids flower. But your child's "self" isn't in hiding, waiting for you to flush it out. It's constantly evolving, and your job is just to pay attention.

Every child has at least one "superpower." If that superpower is math, we're thrilled. But parents will say, "All my daughter wants to do is talk to her friends about their problems. What can I do?" You don't do anything. She might grow up to be a psychologist. My son played softball with a kid who would always wander off the field to find plants, and now he's the head of botany at a major university.

It's hard to let your child grow when you've stopped growing. Don't mold her into the adult you'd like her to be. Work on being that adult yourself.

Psychologist Madeline Levine, PhD, is the author of Teach Your Children Well.
family talk

Photo: Thinkstock

Can I Get My Family to Stop Grunting and Really Talk?
This may be easier than you think. There are actually a lot of simple changes you can make around your house to encourage conversation and closeness.

Turn down the lights. Dim lighting can make people feel relaxed and safe, so they may be more revealing in conversations.

Circle the sofas. In the '50s, a Canadian psychiatrist noticed that patients were encouraged to interact socially when they sat facing one another instead of side by side.

Don't distance yourselves. Try putting five-and-a-half feet between seats. That gives you a comfortable amount of personal space but is close enough to let you interpret expressions or gestures.

Cushion your blows. One study showed that people are more accommodating when they sit on cushioned surfaces. My wife and I now have difficult conversations on the sofa, and we have family meetings at the breakfast table, which has padded seats.

Bruce Feiler is the author of The Secrets of Happy Families.


Photo: Thinkstock

How Do I Criticize Without Being a Nagging Harpy?
Shore up goodwill. Your positive comments should outnumber the negative ones by a healthy margin. Don't expect people to value your criticism unless you've first surrounded them with love and respect.

Strike while the iron is cold. All criticism should be offered with kindness, not anger.

Ask for a specific behavioral change. Your loved one is less likely to respond defensively if you say, "Please call me when you're going to be more than 15 minutes late" instead of "I can't rely on you."

Keep it short, and don't exaggerate. Stick to three sentences or fewer, and don't tell your sister she's done something "a million times" when it's really three occasions. She'll only want to correct your distortion—and won't hear anything else you say.

Psychologist Harriet Lerner, PhD, is the author of Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up.

Next: 6 ways to nurture happy, healthy kids