How do we hold family meetings?

Consistent communication is an important part of successful family life. Families feel connected when they know members are free to talk and are willing to listen. Since children become more private as they grow older, families should establish a habit of open communication when kids are young. One way to do this is by holding formal family meetings.

These are discussions held regularly or spontaneously to talk about family issues. Meetings offer each member a chance to speak in a respectful atmosphere and allow parents and children to be together without distractions.

At a meeting, families can make mutual decisions or take votes on specific questions—where to go for dinner, what to do on vacation, how to spend a weekend. They can decide on new household rules or the division of chores.

Family meetings can be used to discuss problems. Parents and children frequently argue about watching TV and playing video games, how allowance is spent, when homework should be done, how family members treat each other, and how much help each member contributes. Instead of yelling, “Turn off that show and do something useful!” parents can say, “Let’s have a family meeting tonight to talk about TV.” They’ll have a chance to cool down, discuss the problem, and come up with solutions or compromises.

Sometimes kids have complaints about parents: “You work too much.” “You never play games with me.” A child should feel free to air such issues at a family meeting, with the understanding that her parents will listen, offer their opinions, and consider appropriate changes.

Sometimes families meet just to talk about interesting events and affirm their love for each other. They may take turns discussing recent activities or talk about such specific topics as friendship or school. Although family members certainly talk outside of meetings, they often do so only while involved in something else: making dinner, getting ready to go out, cleaning up, reading the newspaper, and watching TV. It’s difficult to listen carefully while engaged in another activity. That’s why undivided attention at family meeting time can be so valuable.

If family meetings are to work successfully, parents must establish rules and a tone of respect and equality. Each member must be allowed to speak without fear of being put down, each should listen to the others, and each should accept majority decisions. In a non-threatening atmosphere, children look forward to sharing: “Can we have a family meeting tonight?”

It’s important that family meetings not focus only on discipline or complaints about one child. Discussions about persistent misbehavior should be handled in private. Otherwise, a child will become angry and defensive during meetings (“No, I don’t do that!”) and will eventually resist participating: “I hate these meetings.” She’ll make excuses: “I’m too tired.” “I don’t feel like talking.” If forced to participate, she may frequently interrupt: “Can I go play now?”

If parents must use part of the meeting to talk about misbehavior, they should counter that with a discussion of the child’s accomplishments. And parents should balance what they say if they have several children. Praising one child and not the other will lead to competition and resentment, just as blaming only one will. Kids will participate in family meetings only if they feel they’re being treated equally.

It may take time for your family to get used to coming together formally for meetings. At times you may be frustrated because you can’t accomplish what you’d hoped to: “I wish she’d understand that, even if she doesn’t make a mess, we all have to chip in and clean up.” You may be disappointed if your child doesn’t cooperate during meetings. Rather than give up on family meetings, adjust the format to your family’s needs. Even if you can’t resolve difficulties, you can use meeting time to share happy experiences: “Your soccer team did so well on Saturday.” “I’m glad you showed us your school journal.” Short, positive meetings will increase communication and help create a climate of acceptance in your family.

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