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The Informed Parent

The Family Meeting

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on May. 03, 2004

Remember the proverb “A stitch in time saves nine”? Often parenting is a lot like the wisdom imparted through the adage. Taking time to handle situations before they get big saves time in the future.

One of the most effective strategies that families can use to problem solve, generate ideas for fun, and create genuine respect for each other is the family meeting. In past articles I have discussed using this meeting and have given general suggestions. This month I offer specifics on how to best integrate the family meeting into your family structure.

The format for family meetings that I will share is straightforward and simple. It is not always easy to implement. With commitment and practice, however, most families learn the process and recognize its value.

Unless a time for family meetings is placed on the calendar, they won’t happen. They will be discussed as a good idea without coming to fruition. Choose a convenient weekly time and put it on the calendar. Early evenings before the younger children go to bed is a good time for many. The family meeting time needs to be a commitment that is kept just as you would keep a dental or doctor appointment. Institute a time limitation. One-half hour is reasonable in most families.

Each member of the family participates in the meeting. Sitting around a table keeps everyone focused and each person can see the other. Some families keep notes of the meeting. This is a good idea because when decisions are made they can be referred to in the future. Also, it is fun to look back at meeting notes to see the progress the family has made in reaching joint decisions.

Topics for the family meeting need to be planned ahead. If a holiday is coming up, a topic might be how the family will spend holiday time. If a problem among siblings is recurring, that might be the focus for the meeting. By knowing before the meeting what the topic will be, each person has the opportunity to think about it. Most people participate more fully in discussions when they feel prepared.

While parents serve as the leaders in a strong family, the leadership of the family meeting rotates among family members. Young children will need the guidance of a parent or older sibling. By rotating the leadership role, each person in the family recognizes his or her importance to the process and learns valuable leadership skills.

The leader’s role is to introduce the topic and assist in keeping the conversation focused. For example, if the topic is handling tattling, the purpose is to discuss how to alleviate tattling in the family. It is not a time for siblings to blame each other or to repeat incidents. The meeting is a time for problem solving, not for finding fault.

Each person provides input about what he or she thinks or feels about the topic. During this time all but the speaker listen. Perhaps each member describes how he sees the problem. After this opportunity, each states a possible solution to the problem. Again, this is a time for all but the speaker to listen. Finally a discussion takes place where other ideas can be generated and a solution is reached.

Initially this may be time consuming. You may want to use a timer giving each person one or two minutes to speak. As the family meeting becomes an integrated part of your family’s structure, it becomes clear that everyone will get a chance to give input and a timer may not be necessary.

To build trust and keep interest high, honor the time limit chosen. Set a timer. When it goes off, close the meeting. Sometimes an issue may need to be tabled until the next time. If business is finished before the time has elapsed, close the meeting.

Thank each other for participating. Find something specific to acknowledge in each person. In a young child it may be for paying close attention. For an older child it could be recognizing his commitment. Each person needs to be validated for offering suggestions. A topic for the next meeting is chosen.

Initially the biggest problem is the commitment each person needs to make. This is best handled by making sure the family meeting is planned at a time each member is available. Usually children enjoy the meetings because it may be one of the few times the family sits together as a unit and listens to each other.

A second problem is that before children learn that they will be listened to, they may become silly. They make pointless suggestions or interrupt. For interruptions, the leader needs to say, “Each person will have a turn to talk. Now it’s Dad’s (or whomever’s) turn.” This is done in a kind voice. If another interruption occurs, the person speaking might say, “Now it’s my turn to talk. You will have your turn.” If interruptions continue, ignore and continue with the meeting.

When children make inappropriate suggestions and interrupt, it is for attention. If such a suggestion is made, simply say, “That’s one idea. Who has a different opinion?” By not giving attention to the idea, the child will learn that it isn’t worth it to participate inappropriately.

This may seem like a very formal process for a family. It is to the extent that there is a structured format. It is a way, though, that each member has the opportunity to participate in the working of the family. It can be a time of deep insight for the parents as they listen to their children. It is a time for children to learn leadership, listening, and conversational skill.

Most families who choose to integrate this meeting into their weekly activities find it to be a rewarding experience. Often children say, “Let’s have a family meeting,” when problems arise. You may even discover that both you and your children are listening to each other and giving each other greater respect throughout the week!

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