Are you having an ongoing problem with your child? Not going to bed at night? Never picking up their room? Coming home late? Not doing their chores? Here is a way to create a format for communication that can work for ages 3 1/2 through teenagers. It’s called family meetings. Ar Running River School we teach this process to all the kids and use it as a whole school and in classrooms. We also taught it to parents to work on solutions to after school play time. We believe communication is a key foundational skill.
A family meeting is where you come together as a family and come up with solutions together for an issue that is bothering either you or your child. Pick a time where you will not be interrupted, when you’re not taking your child away from some favorite activity, and everyone is in a more relaxed mode, as opposed to being right in the middle of the conflict. Tell your child you are starting something new, and it’s called a family meeting. Be positive and upbeat about it: it’s not a disciplinary action, it’s a time to talk and really listen to each other. Create some kind of ritual to start the meeting, like lighting a candle or holding hands or sitting for one minute together before you begin, so everyone can get present. You’ll need paper and pencil too.
Start by saying you want to talk about whatever the issue is. Let’s say it’s going to bed at night. State the problem without blame, for example: “We know that you like to stay up late and be with us and that it’s difficult to stay in your room. Then ask some questions and make sure you really let the child talk about how they are feeling first and that you accept their feelings and don’t feel like you have to change them in any way. What do you think would be a good way to go to bed that would work for all of us?” Let the child talk first.
Write down all suggestions on the piece of paper. If you have big paper, that works even better. It doesn’t matter if the child can’t read. Writing it down makes it important, and shows you’re really listening. Do not interrupt or say that anything is impossible. Just listen and write. When they are all done, tell them you are going to share your ideas. Do the same thing, write down what you say, listing your ideas. It helps to have one that is funny or ridiculous. Then read them all out loud. Ask the child if they see anything that might work for everyone. Get their opinion again. Listen and don’t dominate. You are teaching your child many skills here: listening, compromise, creative solution making and respect for other’s needs. Don’t make the whole process very long or wordy, and only deal with one issue in a family meeting. With young children it can also help to ask them at the end of the meeting if there is anything else they want to ask for or talk about. I know one family who does this with their three year old and she will say things like a new doll or a toy, and they will just write it down on a piece of paper so that she feels heard. It doesn’t mean they are going to buy it, but just that they listened to her needs. She seems content with that.
Then go over each solution and see if some of them might work together. Which are solutions and which are strategies. Then, vote! Yes, vote! See which one gets the most votes. Sometimes you have to take a solution off the list because it just won’t work for the family. But try to rarely do this, and trust that kids can actually come up with good solutions and they can work.
At the end of the meeting take the written solutions (you can all sign it, like a contract) and post them on the refrigerator or someplace where they are clearly visible. It doesn’t matter if they can’t read. Then when the issue comes up you can go over and read it and remind them that they agreed to what’s written. It also helps to read it out loud every day and not wait until the conflict arises.
It’s important to let the child pick issues to talk about too. You can keep a list of things to talk about in a family meeting. A family who has been doing this with a 15 year old says the biggest benefit has just been the talking. Their son has started talking a lot more because he feels really listened to and knows there is a format where he can be heard without being interrupted. He gets to be part of the family decision making process.
If you have children that are far apart in age you can have separate meetings at times if the issues don’t involve all the children. It would be hard for young children to sit through a family meeting that had nothing to do with them, but older children can pitch in with ideas for other children’s issues. One family that has two children 12 years apart does totally different meetings.
If you can not come to a solution at a meeting, write down possibilities and areas of disagreement, and post that. Say you will come back to it at a certain time, 2-3 days and try again. In the end, you want an agreement that everyone can live with. Parents have to be very careful to listen and acknowledge feelings and needs, and to let the discussion unfold without getting reactive or controlling. However, for parents that have a harder time setting boundaries or being firm, there are issues that might not be able to be decided by a family meeting. There are some things parents just need to decide, for example not having children hit or scream at them to get their way.
Again, the main components are that these meetings are non-critical or combative, they are about listening, compromise, contribution and solutions. Keep them short, don’t use them for lecturing or just getting your way, and don’t try and do too much. I highly recommend doing them once a week. Sometimes they can just be a sharing on a certain topic. “What I am most looking forward to this summer is: _______________.” This can give you ideas of things you might want to do as a family for the summer, or for individual children, which would be a great topic for a family meeting. This is the way to get your child’s input and engage them in being an active participant in solving problems or just finding solutions or new ways of approach. We want children to think for themselves but at the same time learn to be team players. This practice is training ground.
Two good books to read along these lines are How to Talk So Kids Can Listen and Listen So Kids Can Talk, and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families.