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.
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.
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.