Picture this: Instead of arguing and fighting over every problem your family has and every decision you have to make, you and your kids sit down and calmly work out your issues together.
Sounds like a hopeless dream? Absolutely not -- all it takes is a little skill, some power sharing and what has become the staple of the new, democratic approach to parenting: The Family Meeting.
The family meeting is a way to teach your kids how to solve problems, resolve conflicts and compromise with others in order to plan your family’s life. These are all very important life skills that were often ignored in the old autocratic “just-do-what- I-say” parenting style of the past. In fact, the family meeting is the where the rubber meets the road if you want a democratic parenting style that is based on mutual respect and consensus.
If you are going to have a family meeting, the approach is very important. First of all, it must be very… well, democratic. Don’t march in one day and announce: “We have decided to have family meetings. They will be held every Friday promptly at 7:30. Those not attending can’t watch TV anymore.”
If you do that, these become your meetings, and what kid wants to cooperate with that?
Instead, tell your kids the truth: “We have just heard about a great new way we can plan our family schedule and solve our problems together. You guys have great ideas and we really need your help running the family. Would you like to try it?”
If they say yes, you are off to the races. If there is resistance, tell them you understand they are not sure about the meetings but would they be willing to try just one. Most kids will be willing to do that. If they still don’t want to, don’t get upset. Allow them the right to disagree but announce your plans to have the meeting anyway. And have them, even if only mom and dad attend the first few meetings. As soon as your kids learn that the meetings are now the place where things are decided – things that greatly affect their life – they will soon start showing up. And once they learn that they have an equal say in these family decisions – because there is no decision unless everyone agrees – they will start to see them as their meetings too.
To make the meetings run well, there should be some ground rules.
- Have regular meetings (once a week) and don’t let them go on too long, especially with young children (20 - 30 min.).
- No put downs (this is, after all, based on mutual respect).
- Revolve the chairperson, recording secretary etc. Once your kids have learned how to run and act at a meeting, let them run the show sometimes.
- No talking unless recognized by the chair.
What you don’t want to do is call a meeting every time your kids do something you don’t like. This fosters the idea that meetings mean: “Oh oh. I’m in trouble again”. Instead, have them at regular times and write problems or other issues on an agenda that is posted in a prominent place. To keep it positive, only talk about the first three agenda items (which are positive or at least neutral) for the first for or five meetings, until the kids see how it all works and start to have fun with it. Here are the recommended agenda items:
1. What’s going well? This is a place for encouragement, for telling each other what is going right. This begins the meeting on a positive note.
2. Planning (family fun, schedules etc.). “Your birthday is coming up, where do you want to have it?” is a fool-proof way to get the kids onside. Use this agenda item to also plan the weekly schedule, meals, homework and bedtime routines etc.
3. Jobs. Kids should help out around the house, but if you ask them what jobs they want to do instead of demanding it, you have a much better chance of compliance. If they don’t do their jobs for some reason, use the next agenda item to address the problem.
4. What’s not going well? Every family has problems, but in the democratic approach it is every family member’s responsibility to help solve them, not just the parents. Bring problems up in a non-critical way: “I notice the garbage wasn’t taken out last night.” Then brainstorm solutions and work at it until everyone agrees to a try a particular solution. Review the solution at the next meeting to make sure it’s working.
5. Personal problems. This is an opportunity for any family member to talk about their own problems within the supportive atmosphere of the family.
It takes a little effort to establish, but the time saved and the stress avoided by solving problems at a family meeting are well worth it.
For more on having family meetings, see our bestselling book, Practical Parenting: A Common Sense Guide to Raising Cooperative, Self-Reliant and Loving Children.