When Fred was growing up, they had family meetings where the kids would vote on decisions. Sometimes he and his two siblings were able to “stack the vote” against their parents, so they’d be sure to get what they wanted.
Other times, there were emotionally-charged arguments, losing votes, and then the losers sabotaged the decisions.
His older brother finally refused to attend, so his parents punished him by leaving him out of the activities they planned in the meetings.
Tammy also has bad memories of the “family meetings” she had growing up. Now and then, her dad would call a family meeting, usually when there was a problem.
He’d sit at his desk or the head of the kitchen table and then lecture them about the problem and reveal his decision or solution, along with any related punishment.
It got to the point that every time she and her siblings heard the term “family meeting” they’d roll their eyes, cringe and wonder, “What’s wrong now?,” “Who’s going to get in trouble?,” and “I wonder how long this lecture will last?”
Family councils can be one of the most meaningful times families spend together, deepening their relationships in ways that just can’t be done “on the run” or during typical daily life.
There are so many times and reasons you can use family councils: to plan a vacation or party or to make a decision or solve a problem that affects the whole family. The two main times you don’t want to use family councils are to lecture children or impose discipline and to make decisions or solve problems that don’t affect the entire family. (Imagine the shame of the entire family finding out a teenager is pregnant and deciding for her what to do, or the rest of the family deciding one child’s bedtime.)
Experiences like Fred and Tammy’s, however, are all too common. So here are some suggestions to help you get started off on the right foot.
Before You Start
Before having regular family councils, your family will want to decide what will work best for you. So hold a family council to discuss how and why the family could benefit from meeting regularly. ONLY discuss/decide the following (no problems or other decisions, yet):
- When to meet.
- How often to meet.
- Where to meet.
- How long to meet.
- What to discuss.
- How to decide what is discussed first. How will the “agenda” be decided and handled?
- Choose a format: informal (fun-oriented, usually for younger children) or formal (discussion-oriented, usually older children.
- What roles to have and how they will rotate.
Guidelines for Using Family Councils
Establishing new patterns of communicating and making decisions takes time and effort. It is natural and expected that difficulties will arise and “sour” meetings will occasionally occur. Don’t let this discourage you or cause you to give up on family councils. Instead, review the following ten suggestions:
- Meet regularly, preferably weekly. If too much time passes, problems can develop. If you break the routine, it will be harder to re-establish it later.
- Give everyone a role and rotate roles. The main roles you want to have are:
- The Leader starts and ends the meeting on time, makes sure all points-of-view are heard and helps keep members focused on the issues.
- The Recorder takes notes during the meeting of ideas generated in problem-solving sessions, issues discussed, and decisions or plans the family makes.
- The Icebreaker decides what positive opening activity to use. This starts every family council with people talking, feeling, and thinking positively.
- The Anchor selects a positive closing activity. This ensures that the family council will always end on a positive note.
- If there are fewer than four people, each person can take more than one role. If there are more than four people, have co-leaders or add roles, like Topic Discussion Leader, Snack Planner, Game Planner, Entertainment Leader, or Lesson Planner.
- Always start positive and end positive, sandwiching problems and more serious discussions in the middle.
- Keep a balanced, cooperative atmosphere.
- Family councils that are trial courts or lecture forums cause resentment and rebellion.
- Avoid a parents-against-children attitude, especially when there is an only child.
- Let everyone share opinions and feelings without criticism — no teasing or putdowns.
- Make sure children’s issues get equal attention during the meetings.
- Welcome everyone to your family councils, even if they have never attended or don’t want to talk. Never use a decision to punish someone for not attending a meeting or participating in a decision. Instead, invite them to offer their input next time.
- Focus on goals and solutions, rather than griping about why things aren’t working.
- Stay on task. Set time limits on discussions and refocus the discussion if it wanders from the topic. Break larger problems into smaller parts, focusing on one part at a time.
- Reserve certain types of decisions for parents. Basic questions of health and well-being are parental responsibilities and the decisions are sometimes theirs alone to make.
- Seek consensus decisions, where all agree. Avoid voting, because it causes sore losers, taking sides and parents always being outvoted when they are outnumbered. Consensus decision-making also teaches valuable negotiation and decision-making skills.
- All decisions hold firm until the next family council. If people complain about decisions between meetings, suggest they put it on the agenda for the next family council.
When you regularly hold family councils you can:
- Promote deeper relationships. When families spend time together regularly, their conversations go beyond superficial issues and scheduling activities.
- Avoid potential problems by involving children in making decisions that affect them and addressing issues before they become problems.
- Get better follow through with agreements, because children help plan the solution.
- Build teamwork because family members feel they have a unique contribution to make.
- Increase self-esteem because family members feel important, respected, and needed.
- Decrease sibling rivalry and competition because there are rules of conduct, they give and get compliments, build on the strengths of their relationships, and develop close teamwork.
- Improves behavior because children feel they belong, are heard and respected.
- Develops life skills that are useful in the family, the business world and other relationships.
If you’d like more information about HOW to start and conduct positive, productive, FUN family councils, including which skills to use, what to say, how to say it, , other step-by-step directions and a trouble-shooting guide, you can attend a one hour online course from The Parents Toolshop®. At least check out the registration page where you can download several freebies.
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30+ years’ experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop® and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds and needs, and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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