Family meetings are a fantastic positive parenting tool for involving children in decision-making and talking through issues. They work especially well with older children and teenagers but can also be started when kids are very young. My youngest son was just three when we had our first “serious” family meeting in an attempt to tackle our fractious morning routine.
In the short term, family meetings are great at involving children in making decisions that require their co-operation and effort – that might be simple logistical issues about who is going where when or trickier discussions about family rules and behaviour. Those sorts of meetings are great for setting up reward charts and behaviour contracts.
But family meetings also help children in the longer term by giving them opportunities to practise decision-making and problem-solving and preparing them for adult life and for the workplace. We can’t expect teenagers to be able to make good independent decisions without some hands-on practice.
There is no set format that you need to stick to for family meetings to work – choose a time and place that suits you (without distractions) and just give it a go and see what works. You can set up traditions around the meetings (eg always having cake!) and personalise the format as much as you want. Start off with easy/nice issues like where to go on holiday or what to do at the weekend but don’t be afraid to tackle contentious issues. Being able to talk about difficult topics and disagree with each other in a respectful and calm way is part of the essential value and learning from family meetings.
Don’t worry if you don’t get it right every time. If things go a little awry just draw a line and use the next meeting to agree some steps to keep things on track. Here are a few tips that help make family meetings successful:
Keep family meetings short
Forget business meetings that somehow have to be an hour long (regardless of how much there is to discuss) because that’s the standard room booking. Think short and sweet. 15 minutes could do it, especially if the kids are little. Or maybe 30 minutes. Any longer than that and everyone will go off topic. If there is too much to discuss in that time frame then agree to postpone certain discussions until the next time.
Value everyone’s views
That means listening. Not jumping in to contradict or defend. Not belittling other people’s concerns or laughing at them. You may not agree with what’s being expressed but this is a precious opportunity to peek through a window into other family members’ minds. So be quiet, listen, ask clarifying questions, then summarise back what you have heard to check it is correct. Everyone should have a turn to be heard, even if the final decision is not exactly what they wanted.
Open up the agenda
The point of family meetings is that everyone gets a say. That includes deciding on what is going to be discussed. Family meetings do not work if only the adults get to decide the topics. So, find a way to let the children put things on the agenda. That might mean having a revolving system whereby agenda-setting is taken in turns. Or just putting up a blank sheet of paper titled ‘Agenda’ in advance and letting everyone right down their suggestions. (You may need to allocate all those ideas to different meetings or you could be there all day…..). Nothing should be off limits.
Family meetings are just as much about modelling good process as about reaching good outcomes. If there are lots of different views then use the problem-solving steps to reach consensus. If one person doesn’t agree then use questions to find out what might make that decision work for them. Agree a trial period if possible and review decisions at the next meeting to check they are working. Don’t impose solutions. Do be prepared to go with solutions that you hadn’t originally thought viable. The process of reaching a consensus gives everyone a stake in a decision and makes it much more likely to work.
Ignore sabotaging behaviour
If you haven’t involved your children in decision making before (or have a sulky teenager), they might not be convinced that you are really going to listen to them. At first, children might test the ground with negative behaviour to see if you are really committed to this new format. Just ignore it. If they come up with silly ideas, don’t dismiss them. Just thank them for their contribution. As they see the process in action, and discover that you really are paying attention to what they say and valuing their opinions, the behaviour will probably fade.
Make notes and summarise decisions
Family meetings can be as formal or informal as you like. If you want, you can take proper minutes. But at the very least, make sure that decisions are noted down and actions agreed. At the end of the meeting summarise what has been agreed so that everyone is clear who is going to do what and what is going to happen next. This helps avoid confusion and negativity and fills in the gaps in case anyone’s mind has wandered……
And, like most things in parenting, if at first it doesn’t succeed, tweak and try again!
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