Thursday, April 03, 2008

Family meetings

The following was written on a message board as advice to someone who wanted to institute family meetings as a way of getting her family to co-operate more on household work, and who was looking for advice on what sort of approach to use:

Our family meetings are not a situation where I'm trying to get the kids to do more of what I want them to. That doesn't produce the long-term result I want from a family meeting. Instead it produces a lawyerly sort of stance amongst all the participants, where they say the right things and appear to be negotiating in good faith, but are really trying to find ways to concede as little as possible. Any commitment to change is made under some sort of mild duress, as a concession rather than a gift. I found that if meetings are about "how to get kids to do more of what parent think they should", any gains are hard-won and short-lived.

Our family meetings put relationships first and are built on the assumption that we are all on the same side and can solve anything. Anyone can bring anything to the table -- except negativity directed at each other. "I statements" are encouraged (like "I feel discouraged by the never-ending housework load") but "you statements" are discouraged (like "you aren't pulling your weight around here -- you expect me to pick up after you").

The idea is that we are there to discuss our feelings and to help our family "work" better, to increase the general goodwill and efficiency and to make our family a happy place. We discuss whatever issues have been brought to the table, and brainstorm solutions collaboratively (often with humour). We try to reach a consensus on one or two smallish changes that we agree to try for a week. If we try to reach the ultimate solution for now and forever we inevitably end up discouraged when we encounter the first little implementation glitch and then we abandon the plan. By making small changes and agreeing to a week's trial, we give ourselves time to encounter glitches and persist through them, knowing that if at the end of a week we're still not happy, everything is on the table again. More often than not those little challenges have faded from relevance by the time the next meeting rolls by and we agree "yeah, sometimes I don't feel like doing it that way, but overall it's been an improvement." And we work from there.

I would be very careful with the first few meetings to bend over backwards to make it clear that the meetings are not about mom getting a chance to air her grievances. Try to be extremely positive and encouraging, and try to focus the meetings around your children's needs much more than around dealing with your complaints. So even if your kids haven't put anything on the [informal or formal] agenda, you might raise things on their behalf.

eg. "I know you guys don't like a lot of what I buy for groceries and you think our suppers are really boring. I do tend to buy and cook what I'm used to because that way I don't have to think as much. Do you have any suggestions for changes to our food habits and organization that would make suppers more interesting?"

or "You three wish you had more computer time in the evenings. Any ideas what we could do to deal with that?"

Brainstorming should be fun, funny, outside-the-box and engagingly co-operative. This is the time to pour on the creativity. As you work through all the suggestions, keep an open mind and remember that whatever you agree to try it's just for a week. Often my kids surprise me by making unexpected things work very well, or by making me question my assumptions and expectations in ways that didn't feel comfortable at first -- much to the good.

If your kids feel happily engaged in a creative, co-operative process, they will enjoy meetings as an opportunity to truly be heard. They will enjoy the little rituals that surround your meetings (a special snack, a little talisman you pass from person to person as you take turns communicating, whatever). They will relish the opportunity to participate in change and to work creatively on the same side as their parent and siblings for a common goal -- that of greater family harmony and efficiency. Meetings should not be about grievances and guilt but about empathy, creativity and hope.

Get there gradually. Three or four meetings where you make an effort to be fun, humble, self-deprecating and upbeat will encourage them to buy in to the process. Only then should you begin ever so gently air your grievances -- again, with "I statements" rather than judgements and demands.

Good luck! We started holding family meetings about five years ago and I am thrilled with the effect they've had on the entire atmosphere of family relationships. We've gone from being a family of parents trying to get children to do what they want to a family of six people who are all trying to work together to honour each other's needs and feelings. I credit our meetings as the driving force behind that shift.

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