Those who parent are in the midst of the back-to-school buzz: juggling after-school activities, managing screen time, homework, dinner, and reestablishing bedtime routines. This busy pace plagues many families. Parents frequently ask how to help young kids complete homework, sit down for dinner, get along with siblings, be more respectful, get to school on time, and help with chores. With adolescents, they struggle to help teens manage increased responsibilities, get off screens, catch sleep, track schedules, socialize responsibly, and make plans beyond high school.
Routinely scheduled family dinners and meetings can shift relationships, adding sanity to the hectic pace of modern life. While the initial response might be a groan, kids often end up feeling empowered by weekly family meetings.
Families and school staff share parallel goals and hopes for students. Schools, too, try to address study habits and social/emotional skills. In fact, many school-based social-emotional learning, character education and non-violent communication programs, use community circles as a framework. The practice of sitting in a circle at school to work out problems, can be modeled at home and in most situations lead to resolutions. The earlier parents start family meetings, the better.
Sitting together and talking things out helps us learn how to stay positively connected when relationships and communication are challenging. Although most kids and adults are kind, all of us have moments when we’ve been unkind, whether at school, work or home. Most parents complain that kids do not listen. Kids complain that parents talk too much! Talking and active listening need to be practiced as skills: the art of conversation.
For family meetings to be successful, take an objective look at what is going on within your family. Make a list of your family’s strengths and growth areas. Be specific in growth areas. Initially, choose three to tackle. Be intentional and honest.
If things have been messy or tense in the family, try meeting for weekly fun activities (e.g., play a board game, take a family hike, picnic at park or go to a family museum). It’s important for kids and parents to realize that being together can be fun. Fun does not need to be expensive. And, if you are divorced or widowed, this is a great way to establish norms and heal from major life changes. If this seems impossible, or your family needs deeper healing, seek consultation from a family therapist.
Try meeting weekly for a month. (Decrease or increase as needed.) Keep meetings short for young children (10-15 minutes) and not longer than 25 minutes for older children (hint: kids love to be the time-keeper!). A great time for a family meeting is a weekend night, after family dinner.
Be positive and have an agenda. Ask everyone to share a family strength. Move on to present a growth area, such as teaching independence (i.e., picking up toys, making beds) or a communication skill (i.e., speak in respectful tones, use “I-messages,” etc.).
Together, brainstorm ideas about how to work on a growth area. Choose ideas and write them down. Post these goals, so that they are a visible reminder of what to work on throughout the week (hint: check in at supper throughout the week and practice conversations skills, asking everyone to check in on the goal).
End meetings on time and always do something fun afterwards, so that family meeting time will become associated with a positive experience (i.e., movie, board game, tickle time, reading, etc.).
Plan for progress, not perfection. If things get tense, kids can’t focus. If there is no agreement, table the topic. If the family meeting practice is challenging initially, bounce back and try again. Many families have messy starts with family meetings that eventually evolve to be an experience valued by everyone.
The best thing about family meetings is that you can use the forum to empower kids. Perhaps a child is invited to spend the night at a friend’s house. Say, “Yes, as long as you have the skills.” Then, in a family meeting, ask the child to tell you what skills she needs to go. Help her with a list (i.e., clean up, brush teeth, make bed and pack bag, etc.). Be reasonable and train if needed. A kid will feel great when an adult says, “You are ready for a sleep over and have all the skills to go!”
Family meetings result in a win-win to get teens and those who parent out of power struggles. For example, if a teen wants to go to the mall alone with friends or take the car, say, “Great idea! Sounds like you want more independence. Let’s talk about it at the next family meeting. Please be ready to present what skills you have already have to do this outing/have this privilege. Let us know what you need to learn, and we’ll support you to achieve what you want to do.” Initially, a teen may not be ready. For example, they do not have enough hours behind the wheel to borrow a car. Be supportive and set reasonable expectations that these skills are learned, before a privilege is earned.
Remember, leaving adult skills to be learned until the last few years of high school is not fair to kids. Parents limit their children’s growth by doing it all for them, instead of training them to do it.
Routinely scheduled family time, dinners and meetings, can shift relationships, adding sanity to modern life. Teaching kids to be capable builds self-esteem and enables them to understand how to live in community. Many things are possible within deep and loving relationships. Those who parent have one of the hardest jobs: raising another human being. While family meetings may not solve all family conflicts, they can provide a forum for both kids and those who parent, to feel empowered and stay connected with each other.