Two of the biggest obstacles parents face as their children grow older center on maintaining parental power and encouraging communication between family members. One of the most effective ways to maintain control of your household, while at the same time promoting a strong line of communication between parent and child, is to hold periodic family meetings.
Children as young as 3 years old can understand the simple workings of a family meeting as long as you choose your words and the subject matter appropriately. The beauty of family meetings is that they can change with your family as your children mature and as you gain confidence in your parenting style.
How Often Should We Have Family Meetings?
Hold meetings as often as is comfortable and necessary. Some families like them once a week, others once per month, and some – like mine – prefer a more flexible schedule. I found that scheduling family meetings too frequently placed a heavy burden on me to organize, perform and follow through. So, I geared the meetings to fit my personality and schedule.
We have meetings on Jan. 1 (a good time to make resolutions), at the beginning of the summer and at the beginning of the new school year, as well as whenever schedules or needs change. These periodic meetings are somewhat longer than they would be if we held them more frequently, but we seem to like long ones less often. You, however, may prefer short ones more often.
How Do I Hold a Family Meeting?
If you’ve never had a meeting before, casually discuss the idea with your children. Don’t ask their permission (remember you are the parent), but explain why you think it’s a good idea to organize one. Keep it positive. Don’t say, “I’m tired of doing everything around here, so we’re going to have a family meeting to divvy up the chores!” I guarantee no one will be enthusiastic to attend.
Instead, say, “I’d like us to sit down and talk about how we can work better together as a family. I have some exciting ideas and I know you will too.” Then prepare an actual written agenda. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. If your children are young, just tell them about it the night before and keep the subjects to a minimum. If your children are 7 years old or older, you can be a little more professional and specific. The agenda might be typed or just on a piece of notebook paper posted on the refrigerator.
Start the agenda with a fun subject (vacation ideas or possible family activities for the weekends) and end it with something light. Don’t start the meeting off with your pet peeves or complaints about toothpaste in the sink. Save those subjects for somewhere in the middle. It’s important everyone gets off to a positive, and respectful, start.
The first meeting will be a little awkward, but don’t let it discourage you. If you continually reinforce the importance of their participation, your children will eventually appreciate the opportunity to say how they feel in a constructive setting. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
- Keep attitudes light before the meeting. If you or one of the children have had a particularly rough day and don’t think you can keep composure during the meeting, it’s better to postpone it than to lose your cool. Irritable kids will invariably try to turn family meetings into fighting matches. You MUST be in the frame of mind to control the situation calmly and positively.
- Have a quiet atmosphere. Turn off televisions and radios. Unplug the telephone. Ask neighbors or friends to leave. Don’t let anything be a distraction. Sit around the kitchen table or more informally in the den or family room.
- Make sure everyone has a piece of paper and a pencil to write down what is discussed. Your job is to facilitate the meeting, not to be the secretary. Ideally, make up notebooks for everyone before the meeting starts, so they can keep their notes of all meetings in the same place. Children are more likely to remember and adhere to ideas and concepts when they’ve taken the time to write them down. Encourage this as much as possible during the meeting.
- Listen to everyone. Make sure each person participates without feeling ignored or belittled. Give everyone time to initiate ideas, actions and solutions. Bite your tongue when listening to complaints. It’s important that children get their feelings out – even if they seem totally off the wall or disrespectful. After they are done venting, respond calmly and reasonably. Eventually, by your example, they will learn to give the same kind of respect you give to them.
- Make sure everyone understands what has been agreed upon before the meeting ends. If everyone has decided Amanda will take out the garbage this month and Ryan will do the vacuuming, reconfirm that before the meeting ends to make sure there are no misunderstandings.
- Set a time for the next meeting to take place.
Getting your children used to the concept of family meetings at a young age won’t guarantee you will pass by communication or control problems later on, but they can give both parents and children a forum in which to express themselves – a safety net when life gets complicated. Try it. You’ll be delighted and surprised at what you can learn from the mouths of babes!
Diane Chambers Shearer is a divorce mediator and parent educator. She is author of Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families (Fairview Press). Visit her website at www.nofight.com.