Great parenting tools: The family meeting

Do you have family meetings at your house? Tracy explains why it's important to give every family member a voice

Our hope is that family meetings will show the girls that their voices are heard, that their ideas are valuable

I wrote a story for the December 2010 issue of Today’s Parent about raising appreciative kids. I love writing an article like this because I learn an incredible amount that I can incorporate into my own life, from both the parents and the parenting authorities I interviewed. What happens all too often, though, is that great amounts of insight and advice cannot fit into the story and end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak.
 
So that is where we start today; my second installment of my Great parenting tools blog feature. For the story, I interviewed author and speaker Alyson Schafer, who gave me a small book’s worth of valuable advice. One parenting tool she is a big proponent of, that didn’t make it into the story, is the family meeting.
 
Family meetings can look however you want them to look, in any way that works for your family. But it’s best to make them a consistent part of family life, so your kids get used to having them and understand what they are — and are not — for. Alyson suggested having a notebook to keep track of what’s discussed in your meeting from week to week, a place where you and your kids can jot down things you want to discuss, and what you might table for next time.
 
The piece that was particularly relevant to my story was the “wish list.” Alyson said that parents have a tendency to hear their kids’ wants and say, “Oh, you don’t really want that,” or “You have lots of those” or “You’ll get bored of that in two days” which trivializes their child’s feelings. Alyson suggested having a section in the back of your book called a Wish List, so that whenever one of your kids wants something, they can write it down. It validates them, and their wishes, because they’ve been heard, but you’ve made no promise that they’ll receive it. Alyson said her children often look back and laugh at the things they once wanted with all their heart and never received.
 
I’ve always loved the idea of having family meetings, but thought our kids were too young. Now with the girls at age six and three-and-a-half, we’ve just had our first. We decided it was time because Sean and I were getting frustrated with fights over things like teeth brushing, or constantly having to reinforce house rules, and thought it might help to sit down and discuss it. Maybe the rules weren’t as clear to the kids as they were to us?
 
So we told the girls we were going to have a family meeting. They were rather excited. After dinner we congregated around the dining room table and explained that we were going to create a set of house rules.
 
Alyson (another parenting authority, Doone Estey, has also given me valuable info on family meetings for another story) said a key to the family meeting is that every person can have the floor to speak and be heard in a respectful manner. All ideas are recorded, nothing discarded or dismissed.
 
So we went around the table several times and everyone stated what she or he thought was a good rule for our house and I wrote them down. What we learned is that the kids are very aware of our house rules already, which is great. Avery contributed “No hurting anybody” and “Stay in your seat at meals”; Anna offered “No TV before school” and “Tidy up one thing before getting something else out.” We had to rush a bit at the end as the girls were losing focus, but now all the rules are written out, so it felt like a productive first meeting.
 
It’s important to set the right tone for your meetings — they shouldn’t be all about rules and discipline (or your kids will think family meeting = bummer), but be considered an open forum to speak about anything. While ideally you’d have a meeting at a regular time, let your children know that anyone can call a meeting if they’d like to discuss something. We told the girls that meetings could be about organizing the week ahead, what we’re going to do on the weekend, activities they’d like to sign up for, etc.
 
We still think the girls are a bit young for weekly family meetings, but we picture it down the road being a Sunday night event in our house, maybe followed by a game. Doesn’t that sound all Beaver Cleaver?
 
Here’s what we came up with as our house rules:

  1. Tidy up toys before getting something else out.
  2. No hurting anybody.
  3. No TV before school.
  4. Brush teeth before school and before bed.
  5. Stay in your seat during meals.
  6. Take your dishes to the counter after meals.
  7. No blankets downstairs (these are the girls’ lovies — and they always suck their thumbs when they have them, so we sequester them to the upstairs.)
  8. Treat everyone with respect (this is an ongoing lesson, so we used lots of specific examples).
  9. Use our inside voices when speaking to each other.
  10. Use your manners.

Do you have family meetings? I’d love to hear how they work in your house. 

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