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How do we start having family meetings with our 8-year-old?

2 days ago 17

Dear Meghan: I would like to start having family meetings, like you’ve mentioned in your columns, to get us talking and connecting. We’re a family of three, and my son is 8 years old. Can you provide a guide on how to conduct the meetings, how often to have them and what we should discuss?

— Meeting

Meeting: I love this question, thank you for writing in! Family meetings are one of my favorite tools to teach parents because, yes, they help things move more smoothly in a family, and they are truly a tool of powerful connection. The book I like and recommend here is “The Family Meeting Handbook” by Katherine Foldes. It is highly readable, practical and unfussy, which is what every parent needs as they start a new technique.

One of the primary mistakes parents make is that they use the family meeting to “get things done,” and of course! There are chores and schedules and homework and camp dates, but if we jump over a child’s basic need to feel heard, we will meet resistance … and lots of it. Never forget: The family meeting is a means of connection.

The initial step of a family meeting is to announce that you are beginning a family meeting. This may feel obvious, but you need to treat it with a bit of formality to signal to everyone that this is something that your family is committed to. “We are beginning the Turner Family Meeting. This meeting is intended to _______, as well as make sure everyone is heard and seen. We will be running this meeting daily/weekly/monthly.” Have a notebook for the notes of the meeting, but be ready for the first meeting to simply be this announcement. You can ask your child to contribute to setting the rules for the meeting. It may sound like, “no interrupting, one topic at a time and always end with fun.” Make it your own.

I recommend you start every family meeting with an icebreaker and end every meeting with a little fun. A good icebreaker for an 8-year-old could be asking what everyone is interested in these days. Yes, the parents are expected to also contribute because you are a part of the family. In our child-obsessed culture, it is good for your child to see that you are a real person with interests and a life. You can also assign the child to be “secretary” of the meeting and keep notes (or not). The moment of fun to end with can be strawberries and whipped cream, a game of Uno, a dance party — whatever you think would be easiest and most joyful for your family. The family meeting is meant to make your life easier, not harder, so don’t complicate it.

When the skeleton of the family meeting feels secure (and for some families, this can take a long time and that is perfectly fine), then you can begin to add some more topics. For instance, chores. “So, Kendrick, there are about a million things that need to be done in this house to make it run smoothly, and part of being in a family is that we all pitch in. Let’s work together to figure out how you can contribute”; and you begin the laborious and worthwhile back-and-forth until everyone in the family agrees to the plan. Of course, it would be easier to “tell” your son exactly what he is going to do and when, but I find that invites resistance and presupposes that your son doesn’t want to be useful (which humans do). Whatever you decide gets written down and revisited at the next family meeting, and everything you decide will change as your child and family mature.

Other topics for the family meeting include the schedule for the day/week/month, meal planning, homework, discussion of extracurricular activities, discussion of hard experiences (diagnoses, moves, etc.), topics for the adults and, lastly, planning fun. It may sound crazy, but fun is in short supply these days. Parents can be so busy raising their children that they can forget to actually enjoy them. The family meeting is a way to make sure that you plan your fun, whether it’s a vacation away or ice pops.

With consistency, the family meeting can be the most powerful way to connect with your entire family, it can head off disagreements and it can allow (most) needs to be heard and met. It isn’t a panacea, but it’s pretty darn close. Remain committed to running them even when you fall off the wagon. Keep going, and good luck.

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