In my work as a parent educator, I often hear parents’ frustration over getting their children’s cooperation in negotiating family problems.

One of the most effective ways to improve communication and cooperation is through family meetings. Aletha Solter, an internationally acclaimed developmental psychologist and author of The Aware Baby and Tears and Tantrums, writes:

I highly recommend family meetings for those parents who want to become less authoritarian with their children without becoming too permissive. Weekly meetings provide a forum in which family members can resolve conflicts in a truly democratic way. Anyone can bring up a problem, and everyone participates in finding solutions and making rules. Family meetings can work well with children as young as four.

Parenting Magazine, May/June, 2003

Family meetings are appropriate with children ages 3 and up and offer many benefits. They enhance children’s self-esteem and make families stronger because they include appreciations and examples of “catching” each other doing things right, as well as discussion about problems and frustrations.

Typically, family meetings result in less fighting among siblings and relieve parents of feeling they have no choice but to impose punishments, resort to bribing, and wear everyone down with nagging. If issues persist, they simply get put back on the agenda.

Family meetings are also a great way to get together to plan fun things. In addition, the democratic nature of family meetings provides a strong model to children for future problem-solving and gives parents an opportunity to practice sensitivity to their children’s feelings and needs.

Here are some guidelines for family meetings:

  • Before the Meeting:
    • Prepare a written agenda. This could be a paper on the fridge titled “Family Meeting.” Any family member can put down his/her name and indicate an agenda item. about on the agenda. Children too young to write can draw a picture or get help from another family member.
    • Decide on a note-taker and chair. The note-taker writes down all ideas and the decisions that are ultimately made. The chair makes sure everyone follows the ground rules and summarizes the discussion. Let each family member take a turn in both roles. This builds confidence in leadership. Even young children can have a turn with the help of an older family member.
  • Ground Rules:
    • Let each person speak without interruption.
    • Express yourself using “I” words.
    • Use a respectful voice and respectful words.
    • Everyone stays for the whole meeting.
  • Structure:
    • Choose a regular convenient time.
    • Even if there’s nothing on the agenda, have a meeting anyway to go over the calendar to let family members know about upcoming activities and events.
    • Some families prefer to have a definite end time for the meeting while others like to leave it flexible.
    • Start with time for appreciating each other and telling stories about “catching” each other doing things right.
    • Review decisions and actions from the last meeting.
    • Let each person speak about his/her issue or problem and their feelings. Make sure parents’ Concerns don’t dominate the discussion.
    • Talk about immediate as well as chronic problems.
    • Take all agenda items seriously.
    • Use the meetings for fun and neutral topics as well as problems.
    • Invite everyone to brainstorm for solutions.
    • The family reaches consensus about the decisions/actions and each person’s part.
    • Plan the next meeting. The first item on the agenda should be to review the results of the previous decisions/actions.
    • If there’s time, do something fun together after the meeting: a dessert, a game, reading aloud.
  • Examples of Appreciation:
    • “Mom helped me with my spelling homework on Tuesday.”
    • “My husband came home early so I could go out to dinner with my friend.”
    • “My son did some extra chores without being asked.”
    • “Dad didn’t yell at me when I broke the window.”
  • Examples of Agenda Items:
    • Use of the bathroom.
    • Chores and other responsibilities.
    • Television and computer time.
    • Clutter, picking up after yourself.
    • Putting things back after use.
    • Leaving lights on.
    • Privacy issues in bedrooms and bathrooms.
    • Curfews.
    • Planning vacations and outings.
    • Planning celebrations.
    • Planning meals.

It’s best to use consensus rather than voting to reach decisions. Voting can leave resentment and grudges while consensus encourages creative solutions and compromise, since everyone must agree. Sometimes, consensus can’t be reached. In such cases, you can agree to put an issue on hold and talk about it at the next meeting.

Solter points out that sometimes a family problem is “a conflict of values rather than a conflict of needs.” She writes:

“If you think that your son’s hair is too long, or you don’t like your daughter’s choice of friends, it’s important to realize that those are conflicts of values, and that your child’s behavior does not interfere with any of your own needs. When your children’s behavior has no tangible effect on you, it will be very difficult to gain their cooperation.”

She recommends keeping these kinds of issues out of family meetings.

Betty Lou Bettner and Amy Lew’s book Raising Kids who Can is an excellent detailed guide for family meetings. They write

“This is the time we spend fostering the qualities we would like to see developing in our children; qualities such as honesty, responsibility, courage, respect, confidence, productivity, self-esteem, self-discipline and cooperativeness. These are qualities which are valued by most parents, needed by society, and necessary for becoming an independent, contributing adult.”

© 2005, Claire Marie Beery, All Rights Reserved