by Dr. Jane Nelsen
It is difficult for me to choose a favorite Positive Discipline parenting tool, but family meetings are at the top. Children learn so much during family meetings, such as listening, respecting differences, verbalizing appreciation, problem-solving, focusing on solutions, and experiencing that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. I have a much longer list, but you get the idea. Family meetings also create a family tradition and will create many memories.
One of my favorite stories is about a time my teenagers started complaining about family meetings and saying that they were stupid and lame. My children loved family meetings when they were four to twelve or so. Then they started complaining, as typical teens do. I asked them to humor me, and that we could shorten the time from 30 minutes to 15.
One day Mary, one of the complainers, spent the night at a friend’s house. The next day she announced, “That family is so screwed up. They should be having family meetings.” When Mary went off to college, she initiated regular “family meetings” with her roommates and said they would not have survived without them.
Why are family meetings so difficult?
Since family meetings are so important, why do so many families avoid taking the time to implement them? And, when they do, why do they have so many challenges?
One parent wrote about her frustrations with trying to implement family meetings sharing that her eight-year-old son constantly displayed his new talent for burping during the meetings, and her five-year-old freaks out when anyone brainstorms a suggestion she doesn't like.
Part of the problems could be that parents don't take enough time for training. They may expect their children to have all the necessary skills for family meetings. When you think about it, this makes as much sense as expecting children to have the vocabulary of a college student the first year they start speaking.
Children under the age of four may not be developmentally ready to learn the skills for family meetings. If they are interrupting during family meetings (instead of being willing to play quietly), wait until they are asleep to have your family meeting with older children. These first few meetings should take about 15 minutes.
A Family Meeting Training Plan
Week One: The Agenda
Introduce the five components of family meetings. Let your family know you will be spending as many weeks as it takes to learn each component.
1.) The Agenda
3.) Brainstorming for Solutions
4.) A family fun activity such as a game, cooking, or popcorn and a movie.
5.) Calendar for family fun event
The first week you can spend more time on the Agenda. Let your kids know this is where they can write problems. (Younger children can ask parents to write on the agenda for them.) Ask if anyone can think of any problems they would like help with. If they can't think of anything you could say, "What about ____________ (whatever problem you have noticed during the day between or with the kids). You could then say, "I would like to add burping." Let them know that the agenda will be put on the fridge and anyone can add anything they want during the week. You won't try to solve any of the problems until after the kids learn about brainstorming. Let your kids know that next week, they'll learn about compliments so they might want to be thinking of what they appreciate about everyone in the family so they'll be ready. Then put the agenda on the fridge and end the meeting.
During the week, when you notice the kids having a problem you might say, "That sounds like a good one to add to the agenda." Don't insist. Just notice if they do or not. If you see kids fighting you might say, "Would one of you like to put this on the agenda?" They may or they may not. You are just making a suggestion that increases awareness of the agenda. When you have a problem, such as kids not picking up their toys, you could say, "This is a problem. Would you like to put it on the agenda, or should I?" If they don't, you can.
Week Two: Compliments
Bring the agenda to the family meeting and say something such as, "We have quite a few things on our agenda (even if you are the one who has put most of them on there). It will be interesting to see how we solve these problems after we learn about brainstorming. Tonight we are going to do compliments. Who knows what a compliment is?
If your kids don't come up with any of the following you can teach the following:
1.) Thank you for something someone has done for you.
2.) "Atta boy," or "atta girl" (acknowledgment of something someone has accomplished.)
3.) Appreciation for something you like about a family member.
During compliments you can go around the circle and allow everyone to give a thank you for _____, an atta boy/girl for ________, or an appreciation for ____. If they struggle with this, say, "We'll practice again next week." If everyone does well, say, "Next week we'll learn about brainstorming."
During the week, when you see something "good," you can comment, "That would make a good compliment during our next family meeting." Don't write it down or tell them to remember. You are just creating awareness. Continue to make suggestions when you see something that could go on the agenda—and/or add things yourself.
Week Three: Brainstorming
Move on to brainstorming only when your kids are doing well (not perfect) putting things on the agenda and giving and receiving compliments.
Bring the agenda. Comment on how much is on it and that you can't wait to talk about brainstorming. Then do compliments. If they are proficient, go on to teach about brainstorming.
Brainstorming is when we think of as many ideas as we can to solve a problem. They can be practical or wild and crazy. After we have had fun brainstorming (with no discussion), we will choose one solution that we all agree on and try it for a week.
Choose a problem from the agenda and practice brainstorming. Be sure to teach about the wild and crazy part by suggesting some ridiculous suggestions at first such as, No talking for a full day. Everyone will just burp.
If someone starts complaining about an idea, remind the kids, "During brainstorming any idea is okay. When we are finished brainstorming we can discuss some of the ideas before choosing one that works for everyone."
You might want to introduce a timer and set it for two minutes and challenge the family to see how many ideas they can think of in two minutes. This may help them stick to brainstorming for ideas instead of getting off-track into discussions.
After brainstorming say, "Now let's look at our list and cross out anything that isn't practical, respectful, or helpful." From what is left, choose one that everyone can agree to. If everyone can't agree say, "Okay. We are doing great at learning this process. Let's table this item and try again next week to see if we can find something we can all agree on."
Family Fun Activity and Calendar for Family Fun Events
These two components can be added anytime after your family is doing well with the agenda and compliments. You may want to add one or both the same week that you add brainstorming. Or you may want to use the family fun activity to brainstorm for a list of things kids would like to do at the end of the family meeting.
The calendar for family fun events means taking the time to make sure things you would like to do as a family get put on the calendar.
As you read all of this I hope you understand that the process is even more important than an immediate result. You are teaching skills that can last a lifetime. You are being patient. You are being respectful and encouraging. Whenever something doesn't go well, you may want to stop and say, We'll try again next time.
Progress, Not Perfection
Several years ago some Adlerians recorded a bunch of family meetings in different families. For two years they looked for the perfect family meeting. Finally they gave up because they couldn't find a perfect family meeting. However, they were delighted with the positive results in families (more effective communication, focusing on solutions, having more fun together) even though their meetings were not perfect.
Keeping in mind that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn, the biggest mistake parents made that kept the meetings from coming closer to perfection was talking too much. Children are not thrilled about family meetings that provide another platform for parents to lecture. Parents need to talk less and listen more. Yes, I know how difficult this is—I’m still working on it. Somehow we parents think we aren’t doing our jobs unless we are talking, talking, talking.
It is most effective to have family meetings once a week and to stick to the allotted time of 15 to 30 minutes—even if everything on the agenda has not been covered. This will help your children learn "delayed gratification." Also, it gives them time to absorb what was discussed during the meeting, to try the agreed upon solution, and to practice working things out for themselves in between meetings.
For more help organizing your family meetings, check out the Family Meeting Album. This album is designed so you can print out many of the pages over and over to use each week.