Family Meetings: Ones That Worked—and One That Didn’t
How to make yours go well—and mistakes to avoid.
Posted Mar 20, 2018
In my previous post, I recommend 10 steps for a successful family meeting. Here I’ll give some examples of productive family meetings, as well as one that didn’t go well—and how that could have been avoided.
Family meetings can be scheduled or spontaneous, and vary in length. An effective “mini-meeting” can take as little as 5 minutes—an on-the-spot response to what’s right in front of you:
“How can we get everybody off to school this morning without anybody getting upset?”
“How can we have a happy bedtime tonight?”
“How can we get the chores done by noon this Saturday so we have the rest of the day free for other things?”
If it’s been a really rough week, say that at the start—“I don’t know about you, but I’m glad this week is over!” Then brainstorm how to work together to make the next week a better one.
Whatever its focus, the family meeting can be a critically important tool for building a strong family culture on a continuing basis. It draws on the positive power of the group, something that’s often greatly underused in our individualistic culture.
Our First Family Meeting
A personal story: When we had our first family meeting, our older son Mark was 7 and our younger guy, Matthew, only 2. We sat on the living room carpet; Matthew played with a puzzle. My wife Judith, Mark, and I each had a 3 x 5” index card with two sentence starters:
“One thing I like about our family is . . . ”
“I would be happier in our family if . . . ”
Mark’s completion of the first sentence was: “that everybody in our family loves each other.” That was nice to hear. My wife wrote, “I would be happier if Tom would spend more time with the boys.”
I totally understood her feeling about that. Despite my best intentions, unfinished work from the week was creeping more and more into the weekends and creating a background tension that never really went away. We spent part of the rest of the meeting talking about how I could protect more time to play with the kids, and that did improve.
On my index card, I wrote that I’d be happier if we could get Mark off to school—he walked—without a problem getting him up.
He proposed a solution: “When you wake me up, remind me of something that’s going to happen that day that I’m really looking forward to—like one of my favorite TV shows—and that will help me be in a better mood about getting up.” So, we made a list of something for every day that we’d remind him of, and that really did help.
One Mom’s First Family Meeting
Let me share a mom’s account of her first family meeting—with her two children, James (7) and Elizabeth (5). (Dad got involved later.)
Her description nicely illustrates the three big parts of a family meeting aimed at solving a conflict: (1) achieving mutual understanding; (2) coming up with a solution everybody feels is fair; and (3) following through.
James and Elizabeth are constantly fighting. I end up yelling at them, and that upsets the whole house.
In the mother’s step-by-step account, notice how important the listening is for creating the mutual understanding need to find a fair solution.
ACHIEVE MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING
Step 1: State the goal of fairness.
Mother: James and Elizabeth, we’re having a problem with you two getting along. I’d like to talk with you about it and see if we can come up with a fair solution.
Step 2: State the goal of understanding.
Mother: First, I want you to understand how I feel about this situation, and then I want to find out how you each feel.
Step 3: State your feelings as a parent.
Mother: Kids, I get so irritated when I see the two of you fighting with each other. Then I start to yell at you, and everyone becomes upset. I would like to see the two of you try a little harder to get along.
Step 4: Ask your kids to say how they feel about the problem.
Mother: I’ve told you how I feel. Now I’d like to hear your feelings.
James: Elizabeth always wants to do everything I do. She wants to sit in the same seat that I do, and she wants to play with the same toys. Sometimes she hits me.
Elizabeth: James punches me. He makes me cry. He won’t play with me. And I don’t like it when you yell, Mommy.
Step 5: “Active listen” (paraphrase) your kids’ feelings.
Mother: James, you feel Elizabeth always wants to sit with you and play with you. Also, you don’t like it when she hits you. Elizabeth, you say that James makes you cry when he hits you and won’t play with you. And you don’t like it when I yell.
Step 6: Ask your kids to active listen to your feelings.
Mother: Can you remember what I said about the situation?
James: You want us to try not to fight because it upsets everybody.
Mother: That’s right, James. Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: What James said, Mommy.
For most parents, just getting to mutual understanding is BIG achievement. Remember, this mutual understanding is essential if you’re going to find a solution that all agree is fair.
Once they understood each other’s feelings, Mom, James, and Elizabeth were ready to try to discuss fair solutions.
SOLVE THE PROBLEM FAIRLY
Step 7: Brainstorm fair solutions.
Mother: How can we make this situation better? Let’s make a list of things we can do that are fair to everyone.
They then came up with these possible solutions:
- Don’t hit.
- James should try to teach Elizabeth some of his games.
- Mommy shouldn’t yell.
- Elizabeth should try to find things to do by herself sometimes.
- Everyone should say and do nice things.
Step 8: Make a fair plan and sign it.
The mother says, “We agreed on the following plan:
- No hitting or yelling by anyone—Mommy, James, or Elizabeth.
- James should play with Elizabeth at least once a day.
- Elizabeth should try to play by herself sometimes.
- Everyone should try to say and do nice things.
“We all signed our agreement.”
Step 9: Plan a follow-up meeting.
“We posted our solutions on the fridge. Next to that was a list for nice things said and done during the next two days. James agreed to record Elizabeth’s additions. We agreed to tell Dad about our plan and meet again in two days to see how we were doing.”
Step 10: Hold a follow-up meeting.
The mother said, “We read the list of nice things people had said and done. We decided that everyone had indeed tried to be kinder.”
Mother: James, I’m so pleased that you’ve included Elizabeth in your playing. I’ve had to speak to you only twice in two days. And Elizabeth, you are certainly trying to be nicer to everyone.
James: I’m glad you’re not yelling, Mommy. And Elizabeth hasn’t hit me.
Elizabeth: James played with me, and he let me sit in the bean bag with him.
The mother concluded:
Our home is happier now. We keep adding to the list of nice things we say and do for each other. Dad has also gotten involved. We’ll use this fairness approach to discuss other kid problems and even issues between my husband and me.
A Family Meeting That Did Not Go Well
Okay, now for what NOT to do.
In the next example, the family jumped into debating things about which family members had strong feelings—and in a way that only made things worse. The mother describes the tension in the air before the family meeting started:
Our 15-year-old daughter Carolyn had just had another altercation with her 12-year-old brother Gary. Gary was calling me unfair for my handling of the situation. Dad had just come home from work and was upset to hear Carolyn and Gary going at it again.
What were the mistakes?
- This was the wrong kind of atmosphere for attempting a first family meeting.
- The parents hadn’t done anything to lay the groundwork. They hadn’t talked to Carolyn and Gary individually ahead of time to explain the purpose of a family meeting—not blaming anyone, but working together to solve a problem—and to get them on board with that positive goal.
- They began the meeting without an absolutely essential step: establishing agreed-upon rules for respectful talking and listening.
- They began without doing anything to create good feelings, such as asking, “What’s something someone in the family did for you recently that you appreciated?”
- The mother opened the meeting by asking a well-meaning but too-general question: “How can we try to make things a little happier around here?” That didn’t focus the family on the goal of working together to solve a specific family problem, but instead opened the door to complaints and accusations:
Gary (12): I’d be happier if everybody around here would try to be a little bit nicer.
Carolyn (15): I’m always getting dumped on! I’d be happier if Mom didn’t baby Gary and didn’t yell at me about school stuff and my friends. When you don’t trust me, that gets me mad. I also don’t like it when you complain about my clothes and room.
Mom: Well, I’d be happier if I didn’t have to be a nagging mother.
Dad (to Carolyn): I think it’s only reasonable for us to expect you to care about how your room looks.
Carolyn: Every kid gets their room dirty!
Dad: I’d be happier in this family if there was a more positive atmosphere.
The mother says, “We ended the meeting in a funk, with no progress on anything.”
Before trying another family meeting, this mom and/or dad should:
- have individual conversations with Carolyn and Gary to ask them to agree to contribute in a positive way at the next meeting—to help solve an identified family problem.
- propose a problem that is truly a family issue, not just a problem between Carolyn and her parents, as the conflict about her room apparently was.
Bottom line: Do everything you can to maximize your chances of having productive family meetings (review those 10 steps from my prior post)—but don’t throw in the towel if you hit bumps in the road.
The mark of a healthy family isn’t never failing. It’s never giving up.