At the Ainsfields' home in Silver Spring, toys, clothes and any other items left lying around are picked up and held for ransom by other family members.

Each person chooses two things to eat for dinner the following week, the children stay up until 9:30 in the summer and anyone who leaves a light on pays a fine.

These solutions to what Sandy Ainsfield calls "those naggy little problems that can drive everyone crazy" were created and approved by all five family members during their weekly family council meeting.

The family council, as developed by the late Viennese psychiatrist Rudolph Dreikurs, is a regularly scheduled meeting of everyone in a household. It is structured to provide an open forum for decision-making, problem-solving and information-sharing.

"Each person gets a turn to have his or her opinions heard without regard to age or status," says youth and family counselor Rob Guttenberg who will be leading a family council workshop next month at the new Takoma Park Family Education Center.

"It's a way to get parents out of the role of being the boss and help children learn to take responsibility.In a family council, all members are social equals and try to relate in a spirit of cooperation, not domination."

Family councils are particularly important today, says Guttenberg, "because the fights and problems we're seeing now in families are often the result of power plays.

"At one time, our society and our families were run autocratically -- you did something because the leader or the father said so. And that was that. But today we're concerned with everyone's rights -- blacks' rights, women's rights. And kids feel they should have rights, too.

"So instead of the parent saying, 'No you can't -- because I'm your mother that's why,' the problem would be discussed by all members of the family. A child gets a chance to express feelings -- without interruption or censure -- and hear the parent's concern, and vice versa.

"Then the result may be the child's willingness to accept the parent's solution, or the family coming up with a compromise that suits everyone."

A key to the family council's effectiveness, says Guttenberg, "is that all decisions must be unanimous. It's not majority rule -- so parents can't gang up on kids or kids on parents. If even one person doesn't agree with a solution, the issued is tabled until the next meeting."

There also is an emphasis on experimenting with solutions.

"You don't have to make a life commitment to doing something a new way," notes Guttenberg. "It's usual to try something for a week, see how it works and then discuss it at the next family council meeting."

Meetings are usually held weekly, at a time and place agreed on by all family members. The chairmanship rotates, with each member taking a turn at wielding the gavel.

While other rules of operation may vary from family to family, Guttenberg advocates:

Voluntary attendance. "Anyone who doesn't come will soon find that they are being left out of family decisions -- which may directly affect them. Reluctant members usually decide to show up."

Prohibiting interruptions. The person who has the floor may not be criticized or stopped while talking.

Permitting anyone to enter or leave the meeting at any time.

Unanimous agreement for emergency family council meetings (to discuss a problem immediately, without waiting for the regular session) or cancellations of meetings.

Meetings at times other than mealtime.

Starting on time.

Following through on agreements.

Any child who can talk should be allowed to participate, Guttenberg says. Infants and toddlers should sit and watch, or have an older sibling act as their spokesperson.

"Parents should be prepared, if they open up discussion of a problem," he warns, "to accept the group's decision. For example, they may bring up the fact that there are always dirty footprints on the carpet and want everyone to take off their shoes when the come in.

"The children may be of the opinion that white is a dumb color for a family-room carpet, and the agreement reached may be to put a piece of protective carpeting over the trouble spot."

Family councils "are not just for families with problems," stresses Guttenberg, "but are important for all families, and may be particularly important for single-parent families.

"It is not a cure-all. But it's a good way to improve family relationships."

Says Ekbal Kornrich of Takoma Park, who read about family councils in Dreikurs' book "Children the Challenge," and started theirs three months ago: "I don't feel like I'm the bad guy, always setting down rules anymore."

"At first I didn't like the idea," admits her daughter Tasnima (Rosie), 7. "But now I think it's fun -- especially when I'm chairman. We meet in my room and talk about things like chores.

"When I had trouble getting my allowance on time we talked about it. Then we have sherbert at the end."

"It's difficult for a parent to give that kind of power to a child -- to run the meetings and tell you you're out of order," admits Spanish teacher Sandy Ainsfield. "But it's a great learning experience for everyone.

"One example of how it's worked for me is that I got tired of everyone saying 'ugh' when they found out what was for dinner. So we came up with the idea of everyone picking two foods they like each week at family council."

"We talk about jobs around the house and allowance and stuff," says her son Jason, 8, who called the meetings "pretty good."

"It can be hard work," admits Jerry Ainsfield, a history teacher. "But we really get things talked out. I wasn't enthusiastic at first, but I've come around to thinking it's a very good idea. e

"Even if we don't come up with a specific solution, but just talk things over together, it's worth it."