Q: I’ve seen you mention the value of family meetings. My kids are 3 and 6. When do you advise that I start family meetings, when they’re both school-age vs. now? What should the agenda and framework be? Do you have a resource you’d recommend for more guidance?
A: I love family meetings. I learned this concept at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Md., and put it into practice when my second child was a baby. So my family has been doing it for more than 10 years.
Family meetings are useful for every developmental stage — for serious issues, for celebration and silliness, for discussing what is coming up, for vocalizing worries, for airing family concerns and for creating solutions.
You may notice I haven’t said family meetings are effective tools for getting things done, such as assigning chores, paying allowances and doling out consequences. Of course, family meetings can be used for these purposes. But for this column, I’ll stick to the connective nature of the meetings, especially for younger children. When parents skip connection in favor of assigning work or correcting behavior, things don’t go smoothly. Children don’t take kindly to having their shortcomings made public, no matter how positively you spin them. Stick to the good stuff.
The ultimate purpose of a family meeting is to listen. Young children are egocentric, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a wonderful gift to turn your full attention to your child. When children feel you are listening fully, they blossom. They feel seen, and neediness and clinginess often abate, if only for a bit. Attention is usually all that’s needed for what ails young children.
You can begin meetings at whatever age you’d like. When my first child was 3 and my second was just born, we conducted nightly meetings. My older daughter got a kick out of asking her baby sister questions, and I would answer of the side of my mouth in a funny voice. As the second moved to a highchair, she would giggle and throw peas, but soon fell into the rhythm of the meeting. She would hear our questions and babble away, and we would thank her for sharing. She has never known a time in her life without meetings.
The goal is to connect, so create the simplest agenda to accomplish that. Try the “roses and thorns” technique: Ask your children what worked in their day and what didn’t. Lots of children love to talk about their woes, perceived injustices and slights perpetrated against them, and how rotten their friends and teachers are.
You may think, “Don’t we need to model and talk about positive stuff?” No! It is emotionally healthy to let out frustration in a controlled, calm and supported way. You have to share your day, too.
If you have a child who has an attention problem or feels vulnerable, picking questions from a jar can be a safer way for them to share their feelings.
Never insist that a child participate. Most children feel coerced enough in a day, and if they aren’t in the mood, forcing it goes against the purpose of the meeting: connection. I simply say: “If you want to share, you are welcome to. Either way, no worries.” I smile, and I mean it. When they feel released from duty, many want to be part of it.
I recommend using a “talking piece.” Whoever is holding it is the only one who should be talking. Children may interrupt out of excitement or agreement, and this can be managed kindly. Although we don’t use a talking piece anymore, reminders that someone must wait seem to happen at nearly every meeting. Don’t take it personally.
Unless it is.
The child who is the most uncooperative, who is disrespectful and makes everything hard, needs something, and not necessarily discipline. If my children feel angry or resentful, I connect with them outside the meeting.
Family meetings can happen during meals. They can happen in a car. They can happen with one parent. They can happen every day or once a week. Be consistent. If you stick to meetings, you will see change. If life happens and the meetings fall apart, begin again. Never forget you are the parent. You are in charge.
You can use a family meeting to review the weekly calendar. You can use it to plan something fun. And, yes, you can use it to address chores.
But the primary goal of the family meeting is connection. Children who feel heard and seen are generally more cooperative.
I recommend Katherine Foldes’ “Family Meeting Handbook: Here for Each Other, Hearing Each Other,” a short read and a practical resource for parents who want guidance.