How to Use Family Meetings to Build a Closer Family

Does the idea of Family Meetings seem stilted and artificial to you? It certainly did to me, when I first heard about them.

But once we tried them, we loved them. They create connection. They give you a way to work things out when everyone's calm. They help your kids learn to solve problems. They help kids feel like integral members of the family. They even help siblings work things out and appreciate each other.

Held regularly at a mutually agreed upon time, family meetings provide a forum for discussing triumphs, grievances, sibling disagreements, schedules, any topic of concern to a family member. To get resistant kids to join in, combine the get- together with incentives such as post- meeting pizza, or assign children important roles such as recording secretary or keeper of the family record book.

Introducing family meetings is the hard part; after that they're so rewarding they take on a life of their own. If you start family meetings during preschool, you'll have them later when you really need them. Here's how to begin.

1. Invite your kids.

Explain to your children that you have a fun idea to make it easier to work out problems that come up. Make sure you serve a delicious and festive snack, and keep it short and fun. Over time, as your children get older and everyone enjoys the meetings, they can get longer.

2. Schedule it at the same time every week.

That way, even if you skip it, working it in the next week will be easy. For instance, make Sunday evening dinners your family meeting.

3. Invite suggestions for the agenda. 

Post a sheet of paper low enough on your refrigerator that everyone in the family can reach it. As you go through your week, notice issues that come up, and say "That might be a good thing to talk about at our family meeting..I'm going to add this to our agenda." If the issue is between your children, you can ask "Would you two like to put this on the agenda for our family meeting?"

This is not the time to bring up a behavior issue that concerns only one child. In fact, most items that are important to parents will get solved out-side of family meetings. These are primarily forums for kids to get help solving issues that aren’t working for them in your home.

Don’t let negative issues always dominate, or kids will stop enjoying the meetings. So keep a list of pleasant topics— how to plan the family trip coming up, who’s going to cook for Mom’s birthday— and be sure to add one of those to the agenda every week.

4. Add a little magic.

Create a ritual to signal that this isn’t ordinary time together. You might start by holding hands while one parent (or child) offers a blessing or lights candles.

A talking stick, decorated shell or other object is a sacred tool drawn from indigenous traditions that helps everyone participate and feel heard, since only the person holding the talking stick has the right to speak, while the rest of the family listens. Maybe one of your first agenda items will be to ask if your children can collaborate to make one.

5. First on the agenda is everyone's favorite thing, Appreciations.

In no particular order, everyone offers appreciations, until everyone has appreciated every other family member:

 

"I appreciate that Daddy played catch with me."
"I appreciate that Eli helped me carry in the groceries."
"I appreciate that Alice worked so hard to teach herself to tie her shoes."
"I appreciate that Mom helped me make my costume for the school play."
"I appreciate that Eli helped me build a fort."

Children love getting and giving appreciations, and doing this regularly is reason enough to have a family meeting. It’s important to begin this way to create a positive connection before you address any problems. And if this is all you end up doing during the meeting, you’ve done a lot, since this is such a powerful tool to build sibling relationships.

What if one child just “can’t think of anything nice to say” about another child? That’s a red flag that you’ve got some work to do to help that child past the chip on his shoulder. At that moment, you might say, “Hmm . . . I know sometimes you get pretty annoyed at your sister. If you were to think of one time this week when you didn’t feel annoyed, what was she doing?”

Even if he answers, “She was asleep, so you could play with me!” you have a place to begin. You can smile and say, “I hear Dylan saying that he really appreciates that Madison gave him a long Special Time today with me . . . Thank you, Madison, for being so generous!” Madison will smile and feel appreciated, and Dylan will see Madison as having given him something of value.

Of course, you’ll use this incident as motivation for yourself, to create positive interactions between your children during the coming week. That way, next week when Dylan can’t think of anything to appreciate about his sister, you can say, “Hmm . . . sometimes it’s hard to remember all the things that happened in a week . . . what about that time when you two were laughing so hard in the bathtub?”

6. Next, Likes and Improvements.

This is the main content of the meeting. Everyone goes around the table and shares one thing they like about the family, and one thing they would like to see improve. 

This lets everyone bring up their issues, but in a positive way, instead of just complaining. But all issues are fair game: Kids fighting, sharing household work, screen time struggles, Dad working late a lot, how to plan the family trip coming up, kids dragging their feet on the bedtime routine.

The scribe or secretary records the Likes each week, and adds the Improvement topics to the agenda, along with anything that from the agenda that has been posted on the refrigerator. Limit agenda items to one per person per meeting.

7. Agree on ground rules for discussions.

Children are still developing the skills to work out conflicts and engage in a meeting like this, so set ground rules for discussions and remember that you'll have to teach and remind every week.

  • Everyone gets a chance to talk.
  • One person talks at a time without interruption while everyone listens.
  • Say what you need and want without attacking anyone.
  • Be kind. Only constructive feedback is allowed. 

Use your coaching skills to interpret and reflect each person’s needs, so no one is made to feel wrong. Use brainstorming -- writing down everyone's ideas -- to find possible solutions. Hammer out compromises: “Hmm . . . sounds like that idea works for Isabel, but not Marco. Let’s find something that works for everyone.” Once there's an agreement, help your kids write it out in your family notebook. Review agreements at the next meeting to see how they're working; revise if necessary. 

Keep this section of the meeting short and upbeat. If you can’t finish the topic and need to defer it, do so. Sometimes, to keep a child from getting defensive, it works best to refer an issue to "the parents' committee," but try not to undermine the process of the group.

8. Write down agreements in your Family Notebook.

This is an important step so you can refer back and revise if your new agreement isn't working. I also recommend a page at the front of your Family Notebook for your Family Rules and Family Motto or even a Vision Statement. The Family Vision Statement, popularized by Stephen Covey, simply articulates the values that you want to guide your lives. With young children, both Rules and Vision Statement should be very simple, but you'll want to develop them over time, with your children's input. 

9. Finish with "Looking forward to's,”

Finish with "Looking forward to's,” in which each person describes something they are looking forward to in the coming week. This is the time to focus on all the positive things going on in your family's life, though it often segues into "announcements."

10. Announcements

Announcements at the very end are a good way to re-enter life as usual, to remind everyone of upcoming appointments, trips, and rides needed, and to keep the household running smoothly. But don't let this overwhelm all the good feelings you've created; defer logistical discussions that require real work.

10. Close on a positive.

Close the meeting with a big group hug and your family motto. For the under- five set, resist the impulse to do much business at family meetings; you want them to be short and rewarding. For elementary schoolers, it helps to add an incentive for them to do the hard work of problem- solving: a special dessert, a special game afterward. And don’t be surprised if they appropriate the meeting to explain that you’re embarrassing them in front of their friends, or that they need a raise in their allowance!


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