Q: I’ve seen you mention the value of family meetings frequently in your responses. My kids are 3 and 6. When would you advise that I start family meetings (e.g., when they’re both school-age vs. now)? What should the agenda and framework be? Do you have a resource you’d recommend for more guidance?
A: I love this question because I love family meetings. I learned of this concept at the Parent Encouragement Program, or PEP, in Kensington, Md. , and really started to put it into practice when my second child was a baby. So my family has been doing it for more than 10 years. As my business and family grew, I learned more about the family meeting from Tina Feigal, a coach and mentor in Minnesota.
The beauty of family meetings is that they’re useful for every developmental stage, for serious issues, for celebration and silliness, for discussing what is coming up, for vocalizing worries, for airing family concerns and for creating solutions.
They can be dropped and revisited. Family meetings are endlessly malleable and customizable.
You may have noticed that I haven’t said family meetings are effective tools for getting things done, such as assigning chores, paying allowances and doling out consequences. Of course family meetings can be used for these purposes. But for this column, I am going to stick to the connective nature of the meetings, especially for younger children. I have found that when parents skip connection in favor of assigning work or correcting behavior, things don’t go smoothly. Children don’t take kindly to having their shortcomings made public, no matter how positively you are spinning them. Stick to the good stuff.
The ultimate purpose of a family meeting is to listen. Young children are egotistic, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a wonderful gift to turn your full attention to your child. When children feel that you are listening to them fully, they blossom. They feel seen, and you will often see neediness and clinginess abate, if only for a bit. Attention is usually all that is needed for what ails young children.
You can begin family meetings at whatever age you’d like. When my first child was 3 and my second had just been born, we conducted nightly meetings. My older daughter got a kick out of asking her baby sister questions, and I would answer them out of the side of my mouth in a funny voice. As the second moved into a highchair, she would giggle and throw peas but soon fell into the rhythm of the meeting. She would hear our questions and babble away, and we would thank her for sharing. She has never known a time in her life without a meeting.
What do you do at a family meeting? The goal is to connect, so create the simplest agenda that accomplishes that. The “roses and thorns” technique is a good start. Roses and thorns is where you ask your children what worked about their day and what didn’t. This is effective because lots of children love to complain. They love to talk about their woes, the perceived injustices and slights perpetrated against them, and how rotten their friends and teachers are. My youngest used to say, “My thorn is this spinach salad mom makes all the time.” Just remembering the story makes me laugh. You may be thinking, “Don’t we need to model and talk about positive stuff?” No! Children are as busy and distracted as ever, and it is emotionally healthy to let out frustration in a controlled, calm and supported way.
I am not saying that your children can trash everyone in the family, but a little complaining can feel great. An important detail: Parents must take a turn. You have to share your day, too.
I am also a big fan of picking questions from a jar. If you have a child with an attention problem or who is feeling vulnerable , this can be a safer way for them to share their feelings.
Never insist that a child participate in a family meeting. Most children are coerced to do enough in a day, and if they aren’t in the mood, forcing a meeting goes against its prime directive: connection. When my children have had it for the day, I simply say: “If you want to share, you are welcome to. Either way, no worries.” I smile, and I mean it. When they feel released from the sharing duty, many come around and want to be part of the meeting.
I recommend using a “talking piece,” something to hold when a family member has the floor. Whoever is holding it is the only one who should be talking — mostly. Interruption happens, even with my older kids. Many children interrupt out of excitement or agreement, and this can be managed kindly. Although we don’t use a talking piece anymore, reminders that someone needs to wait seem to happen at nearly every meeting. Don’t take the interrupting personally.
Unless it is.
Family meetings have a way of showing you what needs your parenting attention. The child who is the most uncooperative, who is disrespectful and makes everything hard, that child needs something. And it isn’t necessarily discipline. If one of my children is angry or feeling ignored or resentful, their insolence is noted, and I connect with them outside the meeting.
Family meetings can happen during meals. They can happen in a car. They can happen with one parent. They can happen every day or once a week. I recommend consistency. If you stick to the meetings, you will see change. The children will come on board when they see that you are sticking to the meetings. But what if life happens and the meetings fall apart? Begin again. Never forget that you are the parent. You are in charge.
As you hold these meetings, you will find openings to talk about challenges in the house and do some problem-solving. You can use a family meeting to review the weekly calendar. You can use it to plan something fun. And, yes, you can use it to address chores.
But again, the foremost goal of the family meeting is connection. If your children are feeling pushed around or coerced, any invitation to do chores will result in epic power struggles. Children who feel heard and seen are generally more cooperative.
If you are looking for a manual, I recommend Katherine Foldes’s “Family Meeting Handbook: Here for Each Other, Hearing Each Other,” a short read and a practical resource for parents who want more guidance.
But don’t be afraid to make the family meeting your own. Sharing food, telling family stories, making strong eye contact, laughing and simply enjoying the company of your loved ones are the goals. Commit to practicing them, and you will see results.