A family meeting is a group discussion of events, feelings, changes, plans, intentions, rules, expectations, praise, support and whatever else the family can think of to discuss. The important thing is that the whole family sits down together at a set time and focuses on the meeting. You may find that pre-school children have difficulty sitting through this process, so they may have to be included only for part of the meeting. Or, it may be best to hold the meeting with children who can contribute after the little ones have gone to bed. Some teens will balk at having to spend their time with younger siblings, or having to discuss family issues that don’t directly relate to their immediate needs. But if you establish this as a routine part of your family life, the objections and obstacles will diminish with time as each child and parent realizes the advantages.
Advantages of Family Meetings
Family meetings strengthen families by helping each child and each parent learn how to appropriately express feelings and concerns. It also gives family members an opportunity to practice listening and talking skills and to learn the arts of negotiation and conflict resolution. As well, family meetings are a concrete demonstration of the importance of your family and they give each family member an opportunity to provide, or to seek, shelter with one another.
As they grow older, children and youth learn that they can broach difficult issues in a non-hostile manner. And, parents learn that their children have important issues and can offer solutions when given the opportunity to present them appropriately.
Heather told me about how family meetings affected her ability to relate to her parents.
Heather, age 21, is a student nurse about to graduate. She hopes to work in a Third World nation and wants to hold off marriage and children until she is older, “like maybe 30” (here I go feeling old again). Heather grew up in a family of two parents, an uncle who lived in a suite that was semi-detached from the house, and she has a younger sister and an older brother.
Heather told me that her family always had family meetings. She says that she can remember her mother putting crayons and paper on the table to keep her younger sister occupied while the others held their discussion and how proud she was that, at age 6, she was old enough to be a full participant, rather than an annoying observer, like her 3 year old sister.
“We had family meetings on whatever nigh us kids had nothing else going on, so it generally changed at the beginning of each school year and after Christmas since those were the times when mom signed us up for extracurricular activities. We would have them after the dinner table was cleared. We took turns taking notes, and we took turns opening the meetings. When we were little, it was mostly about mom and dad telling us what was going on in the week. I really liked that because I’m not a very spontaneous person by nature and that helped me to feel like I had a handle on the my life.”
Heather found that the tone and purpose of the meetings changed as she and her siblings got older.
“When we started to get allowances and to want to do things with our friends, we used family meetings as a place to negotiate money and curfews. My brother and I would try to unite for more money or later curfews, but it never really worked for us. Mom and dad had their rules and standards and they stuck to them. When we had problems with my uncle, we had family meetings that included him and we were able to work the problem through.” (The uncle had period of alcohol abuse that was a time of difficulty for the whole family).
I asked Heather what she got out of the family meetings.
” What I liked best was that I talked with my parents more than most of my friends did. That didn’t seem very cool at the time, but because we knew we could bring up any issues in a calm and team-like atmosphere, we just got in the habit of doing it. Now that I’m older and on my own, I feel that my family is my support team because I am used to talking to them first. I think we have informal family meetings now, mainly through email. One of us will present an issue or concern in our lives, and copy it to everyone else. We get feedback and support and ideas from each other. Most of my friends are replacing that kind of family closeness and support with friends, but my family is still my number one place to go when I need to talk.”
About a month after the interview, Heather telephoned me and told me she had been thinking about it and that she realized that there was something else she really liked about family meetings.
“We used our meetings as a sort of announcement place. So, if I got a good grade in one of my worst subjects, or my brother had something really exciting happen at school, we would tell about it and everyone would clap. I didn’t get it at the time, but when I look back, I can remember how good I felt to be appreciated by my parents and my siblings. Brothers and sisters don’t often say nice things to each other when they’re kids, but family meetings gave us a chance to do that for each other. I don’t think most of my friends got that kind of formal acknowledgement from their families.”
Looking through history, it occurred to me that the prototype for today’s family meeting was the famous, and perhaps mythological, Round Table of King Arthur’s court at Camelot. I thought it would be a good example here because basically, according to the legends, the King took a bunch of quarrelling Knights (none of which was noted for his communication skills and all of whom wanted to be first and win the most) and gave them all an equal voice in decisions that impacted the kingdom and in deciding how to allocate the resources. The Knights dialogued and used verbal problem solving skills to sort out their various problems. Arthur, as King, was the final arbitrator in conflicts in which they could not come to agreement, but that is just how it is in family meetings where the parents have to be have the final word.
Anyway, the Round Table was a great improvement on the Knight’s former style of conflict resolution, which had been drawing swords, fighting to the death, killing siblings and other rivals, and storming castles. The pay off to the ordinary citizens, was that they didn’t have to live with the Knights in charge of their area conscripting them into service when they needed to raid a neighboring Knight’s village, and the money that was formerly used for war, could be used for the minimal social services available at the time (building bridges and barges and what not).
This same process works in family meetings. Instead of family members arguing and working things out individually, most of the family rules can be negotiated at the family meeting, with everyone having some input at the same time. And, when the entire family is involved in the decision making about how to allocate family resources, then there is less likely to be argument later when individuals realize that the decision isn’t working so well in their favor.
If a bunch of rowdy Knights who were used to resolving conflict with a sword could learn to use this format for resolution, think what your children can learn in the same way.