Family meetings always seem like a good idea on the surface, but when it comes down to it, it can seem like the early stages of democracy in an emerging country. Think about it. Alliances are formed between usually warring factions (i.e. the kids), and civil discussions break down into protests as authority figures (i.e. the parents) call out for more contributions from the family’s citizens.
Reviving the idea of holding family meetings means doing some preparation and planning, just like we would do for any meeting. First, think about an approach that draws family members out. Unless you are in the habit of talking openly as a family about serious and significant issues, open sharing of thoughts and feelings can be a threatening proposition. Instead, have each family member write a topic or concern on a slip of paper and place them in a hat (younger children can whisper a topic to a parent to write down). Parent concerns should include reason behind the concern that would make sense to a child or teen. For example, “I’m worried homework isn’t getting done quickly” should include, “because that takes away play time from the kids.”
At the start of the meeting, someone pulls a paper randomly out of the hat and reads. The next step either makes or breaks communication in the meeting. When the slip of paper is read, family members will want to do one of three things: 1) the kids will defensively cross their arms, 2) one kid will blurt out a flurry of excuses and justifications and another one will jump in with support, 3) parents will shift the discussion toward reasons why the complaint is legitimate.
What will keep the meeting from breaking down at this point? The key is to recognize that all of these responses represent a rush to control the situation. The kids want to control either by becoming silently resistant or by giving excuses and reasons, and parents want to control how kids are thinking about the problem.
As an alternative to this power grab, each person should be encouraged to write down one solution on a slip of paper and put that in the hat. All the solutions are read and the one that makes the most sense is chosen. With this method, parents actually have more control simply by avoiding the temptation to take control over how people are reacting to the meeting and instead staying focused on the solution.
Did I mention the “talking stick?” The two to three foot stick that each member passes and holds that says it is their turn and their turn only to talk? Either bought as a craft project or made out of materials you have in the yard or on hand, creating the talking stick might be a good idea as the subject for the first family meeting.