How to Have a Family Meeting
Has there ever been a time when something was going on at home that needed the input of the whole family, but maybe everyone was too busy to give it the attention it deserves? Or do you get the feeling that everyone is talking but nothing is ever really resolved?
That's where family meetings come in. The word "meeting" may sound a bit formal, but that's OK. It carries weight, and when someone in your family says a meeting is needed to address something, then everyone knows it's important.
The idea of having a family meeting may seem new or different, but it's a good way for us to exchange ideas and solve major conflicts or problems. Some problems can be solved with private chats between one or two people (15-year-old Trudy talking to Mom and Dad about birth control or 12-year-old Todd getting into trouble at school), but there are some that need everyone's input.
If it sounds like something you'd want to start doing in your household, then here are a few tips to get you started:
Orderly But Comfortable
Meet around the kitchen table or in the living room. Turn off the TV, phone, music and any other distractions. Allow everyone to bring a drink if they want. This shows everyone that nothing is as important as the time you're about to share with one another.
Nothing Off Limits
And they don't always have to be negative. You can discuss finances, discipline, grades, privileges, dating, schedules, health, vacations, accomplishments – anything that affects the family in a marked way.
Everyone Gets a Say
From the youngest to the oldest, everyone should have their own opportunity to say what's on their mind, uninterrupted, even if it's unpopular or different from the rest of the family. For example, Todd may want a tattoo. Let him explain why he wants one, even if you disagree. You may end up saying no, but let him express his feelings. Remember, kids are kids. They think like kids, and they behave like kids. You shouldn't expect a 12-year-old to have an adult's reasoning. Same goes for teenagers. Set a couple of ground rules that everyone must follow, like no name-calling and no put-downs. Or no company until the meeting is over.
Listening may be the hardest part of the family meeting, but it's also the most important. Listen closely to what the other person is saying. Parents tend to correct or lecture their children, and children tend to tune out. It may take a few practice runs to learn how to listen, but it's worth it. If you interrupt or correct a speaker, especially a teenager, then they may soon wonder why they should even speak at all and may stop communicating altogether. When you listen to your husband's idea of accepting a job that will keep him traveling away from home, you'll find him more willing to listen to yours about wanting to go back to night school.
Learn to Compromise
Almost every conflict has a happy middle ground. Allow everyone to have input into the final decision, with both sides giving a little. Provide lots of choices and alternatives. For example, Trudy wants to go on a camping trip with a group of girls and boys her age. The compromise: Tell her she can go as long as there is responsible adult supervision (emphasis on responsible). A compromise with Todd's tattoo may be to get a temporary one, or to allow him to do something that is less permanent, like coloring his hair if he's been asking for it, or choosing a consolation prize. (If a compromise is out of the question, then a good firm "no" is fine, but it's good to back it up with more explanation than just, "I say so because I'm your parent." The old adage may be true, and it may be a quick fix, but it doesn't allow much room for dialogue.
Whatever the issue, will it matter in five years? If it will, then maybe several family meetings are in order to work on it. If it won't, then it's not always a bad thing to let the kids win when it's appropriate. The main idea is to allow them to experience the give and take of negotiation, which will serve them well in adulthood. If they always lose a battle, they'll stop fighting for what they believe. If they always win, then they never understand the word no. But if they learn to compromise, then they learn a constructive way to communicate.
End on a Positive Note
Even if someone isn't happy with the outcome of the meeting, end by saying that just getting together and sharing ideas was productive in itself, and that the main point of the meeting was communication. Stress that a family meeting can be impromptu or scheduled. Encourage everyone to keep talking and listening. Thank everyone for their time. Talk about the good things that are going on in their lives.
Family meetings aren't meant to be as rigid as boot camp. However, they do offer a structure that can, over time, become comforting and predictable – a safe haven if you will – for everyone to open up and say what's on their minds. With the harried lifestyle of today's families, a little predictability doesn't hurt. They will know that the family is important enough to set aside time for a meeting just for them. They'll even ask for one when they need direction.
A successful family isn't an issue-free one (we all know those don't exist!), it's one that communicates and makes time for itself.