There is one type of meeting that did not have to go virtual during the recent pandemic: the family meeting. Though holding meetings at home with your kids may sound bureaucratic and challenging, when parents approach family meetings with an open mind and without hidden agendas, they can be incredibly effective in increasing cooperation and communication. “One of the most powerful reasons to have family meetings is to teach your kids to be problem-solvers, for them to be stakeholders in the work of the family,” says parenting author and expert Alyson Schafer.
There may be as many family meeting formats as there are families. The Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland suggests starting off with a weekly Encouragement Council that lasts no more than 15 minutes and includes appreciations/compliments, calendar review, distributing allowances and scheduling family fun for the week – which can be as simple as playing a board game. Some families incorporate meal planning for the week, as children are likely to complain less if they have a say in what’s being served.
Family meeting style
Meetings don’t have to be formal, but since family meetings are for running the “business of the family,” it can be helpful to incorporate some workplace techniques such as following an agenda, recording minutes, sharing responsibility for running and recording the meeting, keeping to a time limit and, perhaps the most valuable of all, distributing “salaries” or allowances during the meeting. All family members ages 9 or older can take turns in the roles of leader, secretary and timekeeper as a way of sharing responsibility for the meeting’s success. Utilizing a “talking stick” – a simple object such as a wooden spoon, which grants only the person holding it the right to speak – can help with family members who interrupt or talk over one another.
As families become more adept at the Encouragement Council, PEP suggests moving on to a Family Council, which adds a problem-solving component. Robyn Des Roches, a Bethesda parent and PEP leader, suggests posting an agenda on the refrigerator that each family member can add to whenever an issue comes up. “Knowing that there is a set time during the week to work things out together, we avoid being reactive in the moment,” Des Roches says.
Because it is human nature that we are more likely to cooperate and follow procedures and rules that we help to develop, problem-solving as a family usually leads to more productive solutions. During one discussion of our family chore system, my son was playing with the dice for a game we were planning to play after the discussion. This led to the idea of rolling the dice for chores – the number you rolled corresponded to the job you were to perform that week: 1 for kitchen helper, 2 for dog walker, etc., with the number 6 being “chore free.” Thus was born the one chore system that worked well for a time. It was playful and, best of all, the kids designed it.
Not all issues are solved this quickly and playfully, but parents who have incorporated regular meetings into family life note an increase in their children’s willingness to be a part of solutions, rather than just the presenters of problems. These parents suggest the following tips:
Start small and kid-focused to build momentum
The perfect way to kill enthusiasm about family meetings is to start discussing undone chores or some other major family issue such as electronics usage. Focus early family meetings on appreciations, calendar review, allowance distribution and family fun until everyone trusts in the format. Once venturing into problem-solving, start off with a relatively small family issue in which the kids have a strong vested interest. “It’s vital for kids to see that these meetings help them and aren’t just another place for parents to complain about what they aren’t doing,” says Patti Cancellier, former Education Director at PEP.
Focusing on what is going well, as hard as that can be at times, can go a long way in setting a productive tone. The Des Roches family starts out every meeting offering appreciations for one another that they have collected throughout the week in a glass jar. “We each become more mindful of the things we have to be grateful for, and we feel appreciated by others. It also models encouragement – how to describe specifically the things you appreciate and their positive impact,” Des Roches says.
Know that timing matters
In honor of younger attention spans, keep initial meetings to 15-20 minutes tops and hold them when all family members are likely to be well-rested and in a positive mindset. Families often find success holding meetings during or after a meal. “We treat ourselves by ordering in dinner the night of our meeting,” Des Roches says. “Whoever is leading that week’s meeting chooses what we eat.” An Olney mom says her family holds their meetings while out for Sunday brunch because she feels family members are more cooperative in public. “We order our meal and hold the meeting while waiting to be served,” she says.
Focus on process, not outcome
Teaching our kids how to be cooperative meeting attendees is a life skill that will serve them well in the future. Even if the perfect solution is not designed for every problem, remember to think about the important lessons your children are learning, such as listening, respecting differences, verbalizing appreciation, brainstorming, focusing on solutions and experiencing how mistakes can be wonderful learning opportunities. Progress, not perfection, is the ultimate goal.
Allow room for creativity
There is no one way to hold a meeting and no one solution to any problem. Allow all family members to think out of the box when suggesting solutions and withhold judgment while brainstorming. If a child suggests that an alien pick up the wet towels from the bathroom floor, record that without comment during the brainstorming period and wait until reviewing all suggestions later before asking if this is realistic. When kids feel that we are listening to them and value their contributions, they will be more likely to be positive contributors.
Be patient, realistic and consistent
There is one guarantee as to family meetings: they will not go perfectly. You also should not expect everyone’s complete buy-in at the beginning. But by starting small, staying child-focused and open-minded and appreciating the positive, you can increase the opportunity for family members to become positively engaged in the concept of family meetings.
“We were never able to get our act together to do regular family meetings until Covid struck,” Des Roches says. “Once we were home, we finally succeeded, and family life runs far more smoothly as a result.” As one 12-year-old who grew up participating in family meetings puts it: “Family meetings have helped me and my brother so much. We really feel part of a team and enjoy being together. They have helped all of us feel like we are important.”