Family Experiment: Do Family Meetings Work?
The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler and what a brilliant title because who doesn’t want to know the secrets to a happy family?! Please please, tell us THE SECRETS!
I was particularly interested in what Feiler had to say about Family Meetings. I love the idea of more open communication in my home but wasn’t quite sure how to make it work, especially with younger children.
Family Meeting Set-Up
Feiler suggests gathering your brood each week for a Family Meeting and asking three questions that focus not on individuals, but the family.
1. What worked well in our family this week?
2. What went wrong in our family this week?
3. What will we work on this coming week?
Our First Family Meeting
At our first family meeting (which included my husband and all four kids, ages 8, 6 and nearly 3-year-old twins), no one was quite sure what to say. Well, one of my toddlers did chime in that “singing” was going well in our family but alas I still don’t think we are the next Von Trapp family.
When I asked my 8-year-old daughter what went wrong in our family, she almost seemed reluctant to say anything. “This is hard because our family is a very good family,” she shared.
But slowly things started coming out. My 6-year-old finally said, “I don’t feel like enough people are paying attention to me.” My husband expressed his need for more time with our older girls. I talked about my frustration with everyone getting to bed too late.
Create a Safe Zone
Feiler stresses that the family meeting should be a place where kids are allowed to say whatever they want. He describes his own family meetings…. “It was a safe zone, where everybody was on equal footing, and no one could leave until a resolution was forged.”
I think it’s very empowering for younger children to be able to say what they think without any fear of punishment. After our second family meeting, my 8-year-old said, “I like family meetings because I like to express my feelings.” My 6-year-old described them as boring. Even though I was a little frustrated by her response, I felt like it was important to hear her and respect her opinion.
Come Up with a Game Plan for the Next Week
Not only did everyone get a chance to speak out at these meetings, but we came up with goals and solutions for the upcoming week. My husband helped our daughter Summer practice riding her bike without training wheels which helped fulfill her desire for more individual attention and his need for more time with our older children.
We also worked on ways to get the kids to bed earlier like doing homework right after school and cutting out TV when it simply got too late. I loved that my children were part of the solutions. As Feiler advocates, “Let the children take a role in their own upbringing.”
As a parent, I know I don’t have all the answers. (I’m just hoping I have at least a few of them!) So if my kids can help problem solve, and assist sometimes with coming up with their own punishments and rewards, that helps me and is teaching them some important life skills.
At our third family meeting, there were fewer silences. Lots of ideas came out on things that were working in our family (chores getting done!) and things not working (according to our kids – still too much yelling by the parents and not enough TV apparently!). I expressed my desire to hear “thank yous” without having to remind them and better listening. My husband wanted more hugs and “I love yous.” Who can argue with that?
Although we are still working on the listening and the “thank yous”, I have noticed one key behavioral change. Since we started the meetings, my older daughters seem more communicative about their feelings the rest of the week too. My 8-year-old recently said to me, “It embarrasses me when you get angry at me in front of people.” So we were able to talk about her feelings and why I might be getting upset in the first place. As hard as it was to hear that I’m embarrassing my daughter, I’m happy that she can speak to me so honestly. And these family meetings are also making me realize that as my kids get older, they don’t just need care-taking but I must work to build real relationships with them.
Make Family Meetings a Weekly Ritual
One of the biggest challenges of the Family Meeting was actually remembering to sit down and do it. It’s amazing how quickly days can slide by without finding 20 minutes to all come together and focus on the goals of our family. I think it’s helpful to set a specific time and day. For us, Sundays around 7:30 pm (after dinner and baths) work well. Plus, my kids are super chatty at night because they figure the longer they talk, the later they get to go to bed!
I found my toddler twins are a bit too young for the Family Meetings. Sometimes we even put them to bed first so the meeting can be a bit more productive. But I look forward to including them more as they get just a bit older.
I plan to keep holding these weekly meetings. Life is so chaotic most of the time and it’s a wonderful way to refocus on what matters. Like school, work and all our other obligations, the family unit needs attention and fine tuning to succeed. And the family meeting can be a great way to start that journey.
I recently asked my 6-year-old if she still thought the meetings were boring. She said, “They have gotten a little more interesting.” To me, that’s progress.
Have you ever tried family meetings? What worked and what didn’t? I’d love to know!