More Fool-Proof Family Meeting Tips
Establish Best Practices Think of the structure of the family meeting as a happiness sandwich. Start with a layer of compliments, where each family member says something they like about the other family members. It will feel silly at first, but eventually you'll really look forward to hearing what each person says. Once everyone feels good, slide into one or, for older kids, two challenging issues that require you to work together to come to a consensus on how to handle a problem. Then sprinkle in a few housekeeping topics, like day-to-day schedules and meal planning. Top with a good-time activity that you all will enjoy, such as a game of tag or an ice-cream outing, or both.
You should also feel free to develop rituals that make your meeting run more smoothly. For instance, my friend Suzi, who has family meetings with her husband, Rob, and three children, Lucas, 8, Emily, 7, and Charlotte, 4, instituted a rule that whoever wants to speak needs to be holding a particular stuffed animal (any token will do). "The kids would talk over each other, and this was a simple trick that helped them listen, learn to wait their turn, and avoid arguments," she says.
Decide By Committee The heart of the meeting is learning how to brainstorm solutions that work for everyone. This does not mean kids call the shots and have the power to veto parents' rules, but it does encourage children to learn how to make a case for themselves. Shortly after Conrad and Dashiell received the video game Skylanders for Christmas, Conrad proposed being allowed to have two hours of screen time or getting to complete one level of the game, whichever came first. He explained that the reason he and Dash get so frustrated when we tell them to shut down is because they are usually just about to complete a level, and stopping early is like turning off a movie five minutes before it ends. If they knew they would be able to complete the level, they would be okay with waiting to play till the next weekend. It seemed reasonable to us and we agreed. The next week, however, Conrad began lobbying for two levels, claiming it was cold and there was nothing to do. We did not agree and the extra level was tabled for the next family meeting. Which brings us to another important issue: Until you reach a consensus, whatever Mom and Dad say is what goes. I'm sure he'll lobby for more screen time again; in fact, he's probably building his case right now.
Have an Agenda In the past two years, we've tackled everyday issues, like coming up with solutions to organize Conrad's Legos, as well as tough stuff like dealing with the death of David's dad. The key element to a successful meeting is to have an agenda out in the open -- say, on a whiteboard where everyone can list the things they want to talk about as they happen over the course of the week. The benefit is that just by writing an issue down, you are making it known there is something you want to change. But most important, if you are in a really heated situation, putting a problem on the family-meeting agenda allows for a cooling-off period before it is discussed. When Funday came, I told everyone what Dr. Nelsen told me, and we set up a whiteboard in the kitchen. Over the next week, the constant refrain was: "I'm putting that on the agenda!" Our agenda included an area for challenges and an area for compliments because, just as with problems, it's helpful to note down good things in the moment too. I also downloaded the Family Meeting Album at positivediscipline.com ($3) because I wanted to keep a record of all that we were going to manage together through our sit-downs.
As Dr. Nelsen predicted, half of the agenda had been solved by our next meeting: I didn't run over a single Vortex gun after it was on the board, David managed to grab some dog breath-freshening bones at CVS, and the boys heeded reminders to pick up the playroom. Crankiness and respect issues were hashed out during the meeting itself: We realized that if we moved the cereal to a lower shelf where Conrad can reach it, he can make himself breakfast when he gets up before us rather than getting hangry. Dashiell agreed to stop throwing balls near Conrad's fleet of Lego ships and to take off his cleats to avoid crushing pieces when he is in the playroom. Afterward, we played a game of Jungle Speed and enjoyed mini ice-cream sandwiches. I wiped the whiteboard down, and life felt blissfully easy. Until I heard the boys arguing upstairs. A door slammed and Dash screamed, "You're not allowed in my room either, and I'm putting it on the agenda!"
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Parents magazine.