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Family Meetings Were a Total Gamechanger for Us

published Oct 13, 2021
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Anyone who’s ever sat through a meeting that should’ve been an email knows that meetings can be tedious. And the idea of holding a weekly meeting with your partner and children can seem pretty overwhelming. With school, homework, extracurriculars, social engagements, and everything else going on, committing to family meetings can feel extremely challenging. But it’s a challenge that promises a big reward, and after a few years of making them a part of our weekly routine, my kids know that family meetings are a safe time to advocate for themselves and their many, many wants.

So, what is a family meeting?

Family meetings are regular, structured opportunities where everyone in a household comes together to discuss the issues that are important to them. At our family meetings, we’ve talked about everything from screen time to sleepovers. I can’t do my best parenting work when my daughters are fighting with each other or begging me for something (like a hamster in a pet store), so by deferring the discussion to the family meeting, I buy myself a little time and put the responsibility on my kids to advocate for what they want. By sitting down and working through our weekly issues during a time of peace, rather than when conflicts arise, we’re modeling problem-solving skills and encouraging cooperation. 

Got the idea? Now, let’s talk logistics.

Set a date that works for everyone.

The first step in making family meetings part of your weekly routine is to find a consistent time that works for everyone. I know that’s not easy, and it’s tempting to punt those meetings when schedules get sticky, but committing to regular meetings makes them part of the routine in a way that ad-hoc scheduling can’t.  

Think about your typical week, and look for times when everyone can be at home and focused. My kids love getting popcorn for a snack at our Monday night meetings. For mother of two Cortney G, it’s during dinner on Tuesday, but she leaves some flexibility for Monday meetings if the mood is right: “I really try not to schedule anything else during that time,” Cortney says. “Our Monday nights are generally pretty open too, though, so sometimes if everyone is in a good mood on Monday night, I suggest that we do the meeting early.”

Give your meeting a structure that even the littlest family member can understand.

Creating a basic framework for the meeting will help everyone know what’s going on. You may have sat through hundreds of meetings for work, but this will probably be the first meetings your kids attend, so it’s important to show them how an agenda works. Consider printing agendas to share during the meeting so your kids can follow along.

One rule of thumb I learned from parenting coach MegAnne Ford of Be Kind Coaching is to have as many items on the agenda as the number of years old of the youngest participant. For us, that’s three because we include my 3-year-old, Hazel. Three agenda items is usually just the right amount for her attention span.

Credit: Victoria Wall-Harris

Build some moments of joy at the start of each meeting.

We start out by giving compliments around the table. Each person picks one or more family members to compliment. We might compliment each other for being helpful or working hard or remembering to do jobs without being asked. My daughters’ compliments are usually more expressions of gratitude, like, “Thank you for letting me stay up late to watch a movie,” or “I like the way you let me pick my own dessert.” It’s a great way for us to feel connected before moving into the business of the meeting.

Go through the routine items, but leave space for bigger discussions.

After compliments, my family reviews the week ahead — who has a playdate, when back-to-school night is, what’s on the meal plan. We go through each day briefly to make sure we’re all on the same page. Next, we look at our notes to see what items we’ve added to the meeting notebook the week prior. This week, our notes are to discuss what everyone wants to be for Halloween and what we need to do if we want to go camping (a note Hazel asked to add). At the end of the meeting, we add the kids’ allowances to the allowance ledger in our family meeting notebook and thank everyone for a great meeting.

Follow up on last week’s focus item.

Cortney G includes what she calls The Focus of the Week. “We quickly review last week’s focus, assess how it went over the past week, and see if we need to make adjustments,” she explains. “Then we talk about this week’s focus. For example, Sam recently announced that he didn’t want to shower anymore, or maybe only once a week. I said, “That’s a good focus of the week for the family meeting, will you put it on the board?” At the meeting we used an agreement form and came up with an A-B-C pattern for showering: showering with hair, showering without hair, and skipping the shower. He had ownership over this, and decided on the pattern himself.” To end their family meetings, Cortney’s family likes to play a game, like Don’t Break the Ice, which wraps things up on a fun and positive note.

Teach taking turns with a tangible tool.

What makes family meetings so valuable is that everyone gets to contribute. Even the youngest family member has wants and needs, and validating those needs is a powerful tool for connection. Throughout the week, if there’s an issue that comes up (like, say, the kids ask for a new pet), we’ll ask, “When would be a good time to talk about this as a family?” And they’ll say, “The family meeting!” Then we get a Post-It note to put on our meeting notebook so we remember to discuss the issue at the next meeting. 

Within the meeting itself, you can use an item — like a wand, a toy microphone, or even a special stuffed animal — to designate whose turn it is to speak. Having a tangible object can help the smaller participants visually recognize that it’s someone else’s turn to talk. 

Credit: Lindsey Stewart

Keep trying even when they’re not into it.

For Dani R, a mother of two and professional sailor, family meetings are an opportunity to set intentions, just like she does during briefings before and after sailing, when she and her husband will talk about their goals and areas for improvement. 

Dani shares that her kids’ interest in family meetings began to wane after a while: “The first two or three, it was fun and exciting,” Dani says, “[But] after the newness wore off, it was like pulling teeth.” That’s totally normal! When that happens, model the behavior you want to see. You might say, “I know you don’t want to have our family meeting right now, but this is our time to talk about what’s important to us for the week, so Dad and I are going to have the meeting we’ve scheduled, and you can join us when you’re ready.” Often the idea of missing out on decision-making is a big motivator, but if it’s not, that’s OK; you can try again next week.

Stay focused on the bigger purpose of family meetings. 

Remember that hamster my kids kept asking for? We made it an agenda item at a family meeting and talked about what getting a new pet would look like. I shared that I had never had a hamster before, so I didn’t know how to take care of them properly. 

Lily (who loves all small rodents and lagomorphs) said she would research hamster care and report back at the next meeting. She signed up for an Outschool class that covered the basics, and she researched the supplies we’d need. At the next meeting, after she shared her findings, we made an agreement: Lily would feed and water the hamster daily and fully clean his cage weekly. She would also let us know if we needed to buy food and bedding before we ran out. A few days later, we brought Lego the hamster into our home, much to the delight of both girls.

When your kids are young, the big issues might be small rodents, but as the family grows, you’ll start talking about getting a phone, dating, driving, and curfew; and doing the work now to establish those lines of communication and trust will pay off when the stakes feel much higher.