Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Family Meetings and Computer Use

We've been having family meetings for about a year now. Not always every week, but usually. We have a "standing agenda" of items we always touch on, and anyone is free to add items to the agenda at any point. The Standing Agenda includes
  1. Health issues: nutrition, meal planning, exercise and sleep
  2. Balance of at-home down-time vs. outside activities
  3. Housekeeping division of labour
  4. Practising
What I want is for the kids to see that monitoring these items is worth doing so that we can intercept difficulties before they really settle in, and to recognize when things are working well and learn from them. There's a magic to our family meetings. The kids love them -- they're generally lured to them with steamed almond milk or something similar, but there's more to it than that, because they linger long after the drinks are done, suggesting new things to talk about. Family Meetings have proved quite magical in problem-solving. They occur after the heat of the moment has passed, so we're calmer, more rational and more gracious in dealing iwth each other. When we brainstorm a solution, our practice is to agree to try it for a week. That gives us a chance to work past the inevitable bumps at the outset, while allowing that this may not be the ultimate correct solution to the problem.
For the past month or so we've had "Computer Use" on the agenda. We had recognized in our discussion of health issues that we were not balancing active and inactive play and that the computer was the main culprit. Poor weather was certainly playing a role too, as was my poor modeling, and the addition of high-speed internet and some swanky new software to the roster. The computer seemed to be forming an increasingly seductive presence in our family life. I was feeling very close to imposing some sort of coercive top-down parental regime. But I decided to put it on the agenda of our Family Meetings and try that first.

We toyed with a number of possible solutions. I had little hope, because we'd discussed these sorts of issues before with little improvement. We tried "no computer until after supper" and "no computer until after supper unless you've done your music practising sooner" and "2 hours of computer a day." These were all met with intense resentment when it came time for me to enforce the co-operatively agreed-upon rules.

Then, just over three weeks ago, Noah, who usually has the most ambitious schemes (and the least ability to follow through) suggested creating a contingency between music practising one day and computer privileges the next day. Much to my amazement, it's worked and we've renewed the rule on a weekly basis with everyone's blessing. I don't need to nag or step in to enforce anything. Procrastination is always an option, but sooner or later fatigue provides a natural deadline as the kids slink off to bed. They wake up knowing they've chosen a computer-free day. We've discussed it as a matter of balance, not punishment -- if your life has been overbalanced towards sedentary & recreational pursuits, it makes sense to compensate the next day by leaning towards active play and responsibilities.

There's a built-in payback system, though ... if you've missed a day of practising and wake up to a computer-free day, you can do yesterday's practising, and then today's too, and then go outside for some physical activity, and you can then have computer time.

So far every time a child has missed a day of practising, they've chosen payback over a totally computer-free day. But the principle of compensatory balance is being honoured, the computer is being used somewhat less, the practising is getting done without nagging, and the kids are seeing computer use as an ongoing "healthy mind issue." This is progress.

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