Raising Happiness

In Pursuit of Joyful Kids and Happier Parents

How to Get Your Household to Run Itself

An old standby that really works.

Having started my career in business, I now avoid formal business meetings like the plague.

But I love family meetings. In fact, I think they’re one of the most useful tools we have as parents. They’ve become a safe haven for me and my kids to voice our concerns and grievances, make big announcements, brainstorm solutions to problems we’re having at school or home, rally the support of family, and generally just have a little fun together.

If you’ve never had a family meeting, here’s my best advice.

1. Make the first meeting 100 percent positive. If you’ve never had an official family meeting before, the first one is not the time to announce the 10 new chores for which your kids are now going to be held responsible, or to tell them you are getting a divorce. The idea is to introduce the concept of family meetings in a way that will make them excited for the next one.

2. Similarly, always make sure family meetings are fun on the whole. I pack a lot into ours (you can only imagine), and most of what I’m looking to accomplish is usually not on my kids’ “fun” list. So I cleverly disguise my not-fun announcements by serving dessert during family meetings (in fact, we really only eat dessert at home on family meeting nights). I’m also very careful to start and end with fun agenda items (more on that below). Ratio is important: Positive agenda items must always outnumber negative ones—remember Barbara Fredrickson’s research suggesting that to maintain our happiness, we need three positive experiences for every negative one.

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3. Be consistent and predictable, so that family meetings start to run themselves. It would be too hard for me to have to schedule family meetings on top of everything else we have going on, but since we’re in the habit of doing our family meetings on Thursdays after dinner, they don’t require much planning. I do make an effort to keep our Thursday evenings free so that we’re actually home to do the meeting.

A few times a year, I print a dozen of these blank meeting agenda forms and put them in the kitchen drawer.* Every weekend, I tape a clean copy up on our fridge, and anyone in the family can add to the agenda throughout the week. These are the things that we always do:

  • Rotate leadership: Each week the person leading the meeting changes.
  • Appreciations: Everyone goes around the table and says something that they really appreciate about everyone else there.
  • Calendar: We review the next seven days. Who has what going on this weekend? Who’s driving carpool next week? My kids are great at anticipating glitches. Better to have them notice that they don’t have a ride home from volleyball on Tuesday when I can still do something about it, rather than when I’m on a plane, unreachable but panicking.
  • Habit trackers and goals: I’m aware that this makes me seem a bit, um, neurotic, but in our family even the youngest among us tends to have some sort of self-improvement project under way. We take a minute or two to hold each other accountable and review our progress on our Habit Trackers.
  • Family fun: We take a minute to brainstorm fun things we want to do in the coming week or month. (These aren’t things like “Go to the Bahamas”; more like, “Try baking a pear tart with all the pears from our tree.”) Sometimes I just tell them about something fun I’ve been planning—a way to build positive announcements into our meeting.
  • New business: Each person brings one item per meeting for next week’s meeting—that keeps me from dominating. These items go on the agenda that’s posted on our fridge.

Which brings me to my final point about family meetings: Everyone is happiest when I’m not micromanaging things. No one likes to be bossed around, and these meetings help me cede power, so that my children can play a larger role in running our household. For this busy mother, there is no better feeling than the one that comes from seeing our household humming alongwithout my constant direction.

Do you have family meetings? If so, what works for you? What tips do you have for readers?

* Feel free to print these for your own family, or save a copy and make it your own.

© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Christine Carter draws on psychology, sociology, and neuroscience to help families, schools, and communities produce happy children.

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