Family Meetings For First-Timers

I’ve heard about the family meeting concept a hundred times and I generally wince at the idea. I don’t think a corporate construct is going to work for my little tribe. Even so, I’ve “kinda sorta” had family meetings over the years. I’ve sat the kids down when I’m upset about something or we’ve had to make a decision, but this was different. We were at the point where old parenting tactics weren’t working anymore, the kids were growing, tension was building, and it felt like a fork in the road.

I’ve written reflections before on Henry Cloud’s brilliant statement, “you get what you create and what you allow.” The tensions were growing because I wasn’t creating a family system that was working. There wasn’t enough open dialogue, there wasn’t enough space for back and forth real listening, there wasn’t a plan of action that everyone created together and bought into that we were implementing for our problems. I was choosing the “drive-by-and-hope-it-works” family system solution.

I finally did it. “That’s it, we need a family meeting!” I said it! Those words that have made me wince when I here others describe that declarative moment. We set a time and that was that.

I spent the day of the meeting wondering how I would begin. “We have a problem, and I’m going to fix it. Kids you are going to change in the following ways…” That would work, right? Or maybe “We are instituting a new structure of consequences here, so that you start doing exactly what your mother and me say.” I would definitely win them over with that! Not exactly.

Sarah’s empathy and wisdom prevailed. We planned a very simple open conversation with 2 big empty pieces of paper taped on the kitchen windows. And the instructions were, “we are going to fill these pieces of paper with each of our thoughts, one sheet will be family strengths and one will be our family areas for improvement. Everyone gets to share and then at the end we will set another time where we will come up with an action plan for the major improvement areas. Your mom and I will meet before then to help organize the thoughts and then we can agree together.”

My son, whom hardly talks about his day, shot his hand into the air. “I have one! We are good at snuggling.” My daughter, “we are good at hugs!” My wife and I glanced at each other our eyes saying, “Wow, this might actually work!”

Another five minutes and we turned the discussion over to areas for improvement. I won’t tell you the whole conversation but at one point my son said, “Mom, when we go shopping it takes too long. I have an idea, it might be embarrassing for you but it’s a good idea. When we are at Target, will you tape a large piece of paper sticking out from each side of your head so that you can’t see anything and don’t get distracted from what is on the list?” We just cracked up!

The tone of conversation never once became tense; it was the opposite, freeing, enjoyable, light-hearted even. We had some moments where we shared the core of some problems and we now have some pretty clear next step plans. My six-year-old daughter summed it up after only ten minutes into the exercise she said, “Can we do this again? I love this.”

I’m a new convert to the family meeting concept. Here’s a suggestion of what to do if you and your family are at a fork in road too. Set a time, make popcorn (I forgot to mention that detail earlier), tape two big pieces of paper (see below) start with family strengths for the first five minutes, then open up to share either strengths or areas of improvement. Then parents come back at another time and condense the issues into 3-5 broad categories. Suggest some new action plans or agreements to improve those broad categories, let the kids tweak the suggestions a bit so they feel full ownership. Implement. Meet again to evaluate in time…with more popcorn. Give it a try! What other ideas do you have to make family meetings work?

Here’s our first chart.

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