After an early dinner, same time and day each week, we have a Family Meeting. This is not a Parent Meeting which is a separate weekly appointment. Also, Date Night is another weekly, necessary event, but I digress. Family Meetings – We take this time seriously, so the children will. The message is our family, our connection and our well-being – is our top priority. Or, of course, make up your family motto. When we are motivated towards self-improvement, growth and development, children follow. They may be sceptical initially and need time to see if we mean it, but they will get on board when we consistently stick with the commitment to family meetings, and we progress. We are firm in our expectation everyone attends, and no phones at the table or other interruptions are permitted. Our family meeting happens after we eat dinner, and everyone has helped clear away the items on the table, but before we have dessert. We do not always follow the family meeting with dessert, though we make a point of remaining gathered and doing something sweet. Examples include going for a nature walk, playing a Cooperative Game, relaxing together on the porch or all three. The meetings teach family values and life skills such as cooperation, connection, and productive communication. These meetings are in addition to daily conversation with children about family, faith and freedom. Family meetings provide an arena for honesty, compassion, and interdependence. We create a warm atmosphere, welcoming discussions about personal limitations, seeing mistakes as opportunities to learn, and being vulnerable. Self-compassion is modelled and encouraged. The implication is Family Meetings are a meaningful time together.
We open with a prayer. This ritual has varied through the years. We began by reading the family-made poster of our family mission after we were inspired to have weekly family meetings. The poster hung in the foyer for the remainder of the week. After a while, we made a family motto and read that at the opening of each Family Meeting. While still, other times included a reading of a value-based scripture, gratitude prayers, compliments, and precious memories. While our opening rituals varied, the meetings followed the same formula.
The Designated Chairperson and the Minutes Keeper rotate. The leader reads the notes; sometimes, the younger child requires assistance to read words or an adult to read what the child illustrated from the previous week. This review is essential as it holds reminders and agreements. Then the Chairperson reads the first item on the agenda for discussion; items are read in the order listed. We brainstorm, solution solve and come to unanimous agreements, not majority rules. The children ‘buy in’ and cooperate because they contribute to the process, agree to the solution, and, when necessary, are involved in the re-evaluation process. If we cannot agree, we will table the concern until next week, allowing time for new solutions to arise.
Write it on the agenda is a tremendous in-the-moment solution until we work on it together at the next family meeting. Hitting and unkindness are handled in the moment, and, of course, tantrums immediately, according to the Steps outlined in this manual. The agenda used to be a list of gripes and grievances: Who’s taking the hairbrushes?; There’s no more jam. Over time the solutions became the complaint: Return hairbrushes to the bathroom drawer; When you finish something, put it on the grocery list. Our agenda on the side of the refrigerator is easily accessible while respectfully out of company’s view.
We have been through many agreements about how to keep our family room tidy and organised: Mom will put post-it’s on all items; everything left behind will go in a pile; in a box; in the garage; we can’t have it back until the next meeting. Ideas are reworked, new rules posted, lessons learned, the kids help each other, we all bond – the benefits go on… and the living room is in better shape, daily nags dissolve into every several weeks or so return to the agenda.
Then there is the life skill for children to work out their challenges together. One of my favourite examples happened when our daughter (J) was five and her older brother (A) was 15. Through imitation, striving to fit in with the older household members and probably a whole lot of inherited emotional IQ – our five-year-old already had some family meeting experiences before this:
Next on the agenda… my husband (Dad), the Designated Chairperson, shows the agenda to our daughter. What’s this? He enquires about the illustration. He’s gentle, respectful and asks her in a whisper.
Dad: He looks again at the drawing and recognizes the movement of the fingers, and nods with recognition.
J turns to her brother. A, I don’t like it when you tickle me.
By the way, I don’t like this either, though ‘mum’s the word’ in this moment.
A: But you’re so cute, and I love to tickle you. A wiggles his fingers at J.
J: Well, you don’t like pickles, so if you tickle, you have to eat a pickle.
A: Agreed. A, our Minutes Keeper that week, documented the plan. Instead of writing, he playfully drew a pickle on top of his traced hand and underneath wrote If I tickle, I eat zee pickle.
It worked! And let’s be honest, we adults would have never come up with that precious, effective solution. And while I did not think it would work, I kept my mouth shut and respected the process and its solution to be theirs. During the review the following week, the item was checked off, resolved, done. Next!
Shortly after that, I shared this story at a lecture, and then a few years later, when I returned to that same lecture hall, a teacher asked me to retell the Pickle story. Given its success, I had forgotten the details. My daughter’s upset was expressed, respected and handled, and I, too, had moved on. I requested the audience member tell the story. I was delighted to be reminded of the story. Thank you, Liz.
We do not have family meetings weekly anymore. The children have built the skills to independently handle issues, be flexible, cooperate, and creatively manage challenges. Though… every now and then, someone/anyone of us, anytime, calls a family meeting, one time I think my husband called it because he wanted dessert:)
Family meetings are not a time for adults to disagree or argue. Research tells us when children hear any part of an argument between two adults, according to saliva tests, stress levels go up. If the child hears any of a dispute before the adults ideally agree to disagree, arrange to discuss later, or take the argument out of the child’s earshot, we return to the child and explain the resolution in brief, positive terms, and the stress in the saliva normalises.
On a side, morning school meetings are recommended through grade 12.