Ask my kids, Conrad, 9, and Dashiell, 6, the days of the week, and they'll say: Sunday, Funday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. "Funday" is Monday, specifically evening, when we have our weekly family meeting. After dinner the four of us sit in the living room and hash out whatever is happening at home. It might sound hokey, like an emergency measure Mike Brady would take if Cindy lost her Kitty Karry-All doll, but bear with me.
It all started two years ago, when I was doing some research for a parenting workshop at Dashiell's school and interviewed Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of Positive Discipline. I mentioned that when it comes to discipline, things in our house tended to escalate from gentle reminders to nagging to threats to yelling -- a cycle that was ineffective and wearing everyone out. "Do you have family meetings?" she asked.
I explained that we talk to one another at dinner or in the car on the way to school: "It's not like we're in a crisis; we don't need to meet." "How's that working for you?" Dr. Nelsen asked. I had a flashback to the blowup the boys had over which toys they had to clean up -- the ones that were theirs or the ones they had played with? "We're still fine-tuning it," I mumbled to her. She gave it to me straight: "Talking at dinner is great, but family meetings give you a process that allows you to tackle the nitty-gritty business of living in the same house. What happens in families is that everyone wants to use their power, and they will use it in one way or another. By having a family meeting, you are giving everyone an opportunity to use his or her power in a useful and respectful way."
We were tired of our discipline power struggle, and in September 2010 we held our first family meeting. It took only 22 minutes, two minutes to wrangle the kids into the living room and 20 minutes to hash out everything on our minds. These meetings have become the WD-40 for our creaky family machinery, as well as an opportunity to celebrate the good stuff. Our lives are still full of missed buses, messy rooms, and allowance debates, but managing it all is a lot less noisy because the meeting gives us time every week to talk about what is happening at home. It's where we remind the kids that walking the dog after school is their responsibility, talk about what we want to do when we visit my husband David's mom on spring break, and go over the playdate and soccer-practice schedule for the week. The payoff is a collective ability to deal with change and conflict in a way that brings us closer. It doesn't solve everything; we revisit the issues of screen time and how to clean up the playroom almost every week -- but it's okay, because we are talking and not fighting about it.
Your Family-Meeting Instruction Manual
Make a Schedule Pick a day of the week when you can all sit down for half an hour. For us, it was Monday, which we renamed Funday to make it feel special. Once this day is selected, you need to stick to it and meet at the same time every week. "A set day and time lets your kids know that it's one of the most important items on your calendar and that your family is number one on your priority list," says Dr. Nelsen. If you move the date around, the meeting loses its gravitas and you'll be less likely to make it a habit.
Invite Participants When we had our first meeting Dash was only 4 -- an ideal age to start, Dr. Nelsen says, because 4-year-olds love to solve problems. If you have children under 4, it's best to have the meeting with the rest of the family after their bedtime, she advises. David and I were skeptical that either child would be able to sit through a meeting, and we put a wager on how long they would last. We sat down in the living room and let our phones ring and text messages go unanswered. Much to our surprise, the boys noticed that they had our attention and the meeting went on for about as long as an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. We were amazed, but Dr. Nelsen wasn't. "They stuck with it because having a meeting made them feel important and that they belonged," she said.
Book a "Conference Room" You may be tempted to have the meeting during dinner, especially if, like us, you don't get to eat together as often as you'd like. The problem is that it's hard to address tough topics, such as why no one is allowed to wake Mom and Dad before 7 a.m. on the weekend, while cleaning up spilled milk and telling your younger son to stop kicking his brother under the table. Choose a time that's not mealtime, and in terms of location, the living room or around the kitchen table -- free of distractions like TV and toys, if at all possible -- is ideal.