Your Guide to Family Meetings
Family Meetings. Wohoo. Or not. Those two words do not rouse most parents into excitement. In fact, they might send you into a state of anxiety. They might be on your list of “should do’s” and things all the A+ parents do.
Your kids probably hear those two words and want to yawn.
But who says family meetings have to be awful? What if you and your kids anticipated family meetings with excitement? What if they were the highlight of your week? Come on, dream with me.
All my kids are grown now, and I have the privilege of looking back at those years of family meetings. They became a part of our family culture and gave our kids the tools to problem-solve and make decisions.
The good news is I don’t think there’s some impossible formula to enjoying family meetings. A few principles and a little bit of creativity is all you need.
What is a family meeting?
A family meeting is when the family meets. Okay, it’s a little more than that, because dinner time is not a family meeting. However, it’s when your family meets to solve problems, plan events, or otherwise get on the same page.
If you’ve ever worked in the professional world, you’re probably familiar with these types of meetings. You or your boss calls a meeting, you chat about a problem or an upcoming event, you divvy up the labor, and everyone goes their merry way applying the decisions of the meeting.
A family meeting does the same thing. However, kids probably won’t get particularly excited about the boardroom approach to a family meeting. You’re going to need a more kid-friendly (or teen-friendly) variant, but more on that in a minute.
Why family meetings?
The functional goals of the family meeting:
- To coordinate the running of the household; schedule car pools and rides, chores, special events, vacations, and holiday planning.
- To get input from everybody about larger family decisions that will be made by the parents. To announce family decisions.
- To discuss serious family issues, come up with new ideas, and problem-solve.
Family meetings help busy families:
- Stay connected
- Improve communication
- Build self-esteem by recognizing and building on qualities and strengths
- Provide emotional support
- Learn to problem solve effectively
- Set out expectations, roles, rules, and rewards/consequences
- Build closeness, participation, and a sense of belonging.
Three common reasons to start family meetings
In my own family and in working with many other families, there are three reasons families decide to start holding meetings:
- Scheduling and planning has become chaotic.
- It’s time to shift ownership of certain responsibilities to kids.
- You need to build in more intentional time together.
There are other reasons for family meetings, but any of these three reasons would be reason enough to start planning meetings.
1. Family meetings offer an opportunity to plan and schedule together
Even young families today experience a lot of competing scheduling demands. There’s soccer practice, talent shows, church activities, and more. The more kids you’ve got, the crazier scheduling gets.
And then on Thursday, your daughter asks you, “Please, please, please can I ask Sally to come over tomorrow?”
You just can’t balance it all, along with the last minute planning.
Or, at least, my family couldn’t.
That’s how we initially jumped into family meetings. For us, it started off as a calendar problem. How could we reign in the craziness of family activities to be the kind of family we wanted to be?
For us family meetings were what we needed.
2. Family meetings hand responsibility to kids
Every parent experiences that moment, where you stop and ask, “Hey, why am I doing this? My kids can certainly do this for themselves.”
One day, my wife and I looked at each other and noticed ourselves doing many things for our kids that they were fully capable of doing for themselves. We also noticed that our kids would plead ignorance or inadequacy in an effort to keep us in our enabling roles.
We took a step back and asked, “Whose responsibility is this anyway?” This started our journey toward achieving a more cooperative family.
We began to pay attention to when we felt especially annoyed or angry with our kids’ lack of responsibility in a certain area. With that awareness we could ask ourselves another key question: “Who owns this problem?”
We discovered that the person who was most upset by the lack of follow-through on a particular issue was the one that cared about and therefore “owned” the problem.
When I “own” my child’s problem, I take the responsibility away from my child.
For instance, if my daughter left a mess, I might snap, “When are you going to learn to pick up these toys when you are finished playing with them?”
I clearly have a problem with the toys strewn all over — my daughter, not so much. She might clean up because I’m upset, but not because she feels responsible.
With this in mind, we began to identify age-appropriate responsibilities for our kids around our house.
At Family Meetings we started asking ownership questions:
- If someone makes a mess in the house, who do you think ought to clean it up?
- How could you help make our house run as smoothly as possible?
3. You want more intentional family time.
At first glance, maybe family meetings don’t seem to be the obvious choice for this. You’d rather go on a bike ride or watch a movie with your kids, and those are great too!
However, you’ve got to start building family time in somewhere. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
Prioritizing family time can mean regularly setting aside time for a game night, or a trip to the ice-cream shop, or some kind of special outing or date. If that’s a better fit for your family right now, get that kind of family time on the calendar and make it a priority.
But family meetings are not as scary as they sound and they are well worth the effort, because they hold unique potential for lasting benefit to your family.
Kids hear our words and watch how we spend our time. They form their own life values and priorities based on these observations. Knowing this compelled my wife, Carma, and me to start family meetings when our kids were young. It was chaotic at first! One child tried to run the meeting, another was often found standing on her head, while another was totally distracted.
We didn’t have a meeting every single week – there were times I didn’t prioritize family time and just watched that game.
But most of the time we were pretty regular and it was transforming for our family. Our family benefited in so many ways. We:
- Grew in heart-felt connection
- Problem-solved schedules and chore challenges
- Brain-stormed family rules
- Passed values on to our kids
- Grew a deep heart for ministry together
All of these were the result of intentional, weekly family meetings.
Our Fabulous Family Fun Night!
Our first family meeting started when we had two kids, ages 6 and 3. We knew fun must be a component if the kids were to willingly participate. My wife and I announced that Friday would become Fabulous Family Fun Night (or FFFN for short.) Much excitement filled the house!
On the first FFFN, we popped popcorn, had some hot cocoa and watched a Veggie Tales video. After the video we had a very short discussion about what kind of family we wanted to be.
I asked, “If we could be the best family that we could be, what kinds of things would we be doing and saying?” Of course our very verbal 6-year-old, Shelbi, had a lot of great ideas while our not-so-verbal 3-year-old bounced around the room from chair to chair.
Shelbi’s ideas included:
- Have more play-dates
- Help more people
- Eat more candy
- Be thankful
At first we weren’t sure if this was going to work. We considered that perhaps our kids were too young, but Shelbi’s ideas were mostly on the right track. So we pressed on, and family meetings became a weekly event our kids looked forward to.
Tips for scheduling and facilitating family meetings
- Set a family meeting time. Ask your kids when they would like to have it. Give them some options that you know will work, solicit their input, and then start having the meetings.
- Schedule meeting times in advance. Family meetings are for everybody, and you want everybody to have a chance to keep that calendar slot free. It helps if the meeting is at the same time every week, but if that’s not possible, make sure everyone has plenty of advanced warning. After all, the decisions apply to everybody.
- Plan the agenda ahead of time (stick up an agenda idea list in the kitchen).
You can use the agenda in the printable below to provide structure. However, also make sure to jot down some notes beforehand about the issues you want to be sure to talk about. Encourage your kids, if they’re old enough, to do the same. You can even ask your preschoolers to make a list with you (you write, they dictate) earlier in the week.
- Laundry, dishes, and rooms were the important things for Mom and Dad.
- Play dates, eating, and free-time were the important kid issues.
- NOTE: When discussing the upcoming week, we would invite our kids to think about who they wanted a playdate with and what day that might work. We would do our best to fulfill their request if they planned ahead, but we wouldn’t go out of our way to make it happen if they didn’t plan for it.
- Take turns planning and facilitating. We took turns leading the meetings between the 5 of us. This developed leadership skills in each child. Regardless of who facilitated, everybody could bring concerns or ideas to the meeting. (Note: Our kids began to practice leading meetings at about age 7.)
I think the prior response would have been my wife and me lecturing the kids about what they needed to do and how we are doing things for them that they don’t appreciate… blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!
Basic rules for family meetings
Working with many families, I’ve found family meetings need some guidelines to prevent family meeting disaster. Here are a few that may be helpful:
- Start with fun to set a positive tone. A short film and popcorn might be just the thing for younger children. For older kids you can ask a question like “What’s gone well in our family this week?”
- Keep discussion time short (i.e. 15 minutes) unless everyone agrees to extend the time.
- Everyone gets to be heard. A timer or talking stick can be helpful. Kids learn listening and to stay on topic.
- Decisions are unanimous. This promotes unity as children figure out how to compromise. It also keeps kids from voting in “Candy for every meal!…”
- Attendance is optional, but all decisions apply to all family members, present or not.
- At first, use the meetings to address only one problem area. For example, “How do we want to do the laundry?” Or, “How do we want to work together at meals?”
- It’s the parents’ job to make it clear what is or isn’t negotiable. For example: Laundry ready by 10 AM on Saturdays. Or, toys picked up before bed at 8. Of course, it’s OK for kids to challenge the expectations, and even influence changes. But the primary goal of the problem-solving discussion is to help kids feel empowered about how to meet the expectations.
How our family problem-solved together
When our kids entered elementary school, we expected them to have their dirty laundry collected and ready to wash by 10 AM. each Saturday. Everyone understood the expectations, but there seemed to be a problem with “forgetfulness.”
One week we chose laundry as the problem area to address during the family meeting.
So at the Family Meeting, we asked, “What does everyone need to meet this deadline?”
The kids predictably suggested that we all “try real hard” the next week! As parents we knew we needed more. So we gently suggested a secondary plan, just in case the “try hard” plan fell through.
The kids requested a “10 minute warning” for everyone. They then agreed that if the clothes weren’t where they were supposed to be at 10 AM on Saturday, those who were tardy would fold clothes for the rest of the family. We all agreed to the plan.
At the next family meeting, we discussed how it went for everyone. It went quite well!
Parents set the expectation; kids own how to meet the expectation
As parents, we set the expectation about the laundry. The family meeting gave the kids ownership about how to meet the expectation.
The end result was that all our kids began taking responsibility for their laundry.
This a healthy goal framework for family meetings. You (the parents) figure out what expectation you’re wanting to address. Determine your expectation before you go into the meeting. Then at the meeting talk about this expectation, and ask the kids how to meet it.
A family meeting will be far less effective if you either let the kids set the expectations or try to tell them how to meet the expectations.
A template for family meetings
Still overwhelmed? You can set the agenda for your family meeting however you’d like, but here’s a template for a family meeting to make it easier to set the agenda.
Feel free to download and print it.
On the first page of the template is a suggested family meeting agenda. Use this as much or as little as you want to keep your family on track.
On the second page, there is a space for keeping track of your notes during the meeting. If you have a child old enough, give this job to one of your children.
What if the family meeting turns into target practice?
This literally happened to friends of mine. Their first family meeting was a fiasco, and the kids actually took the papers their father had prepared advanced and made them into target practice!
I can think of few more discouraging ways to start your family meeting journey.
The good news is, they didn’t give up. In fact, they stayed calm and harnessed their kids’ strengths to make family meetings enjoyable and productive.
Here’s their story. If family meetings aren’t going the way you’d hoped, take hope from reading how they solved their problem.
A legacy of connection
When Shelbi was on her way to college, she once reflected, “Family Meetings gave everyone in our family an opportunity to participate and have a voice, while allowing our family to stay connected!”
That’s a legacy I’m proud of giving my children.
So if you don’t yet meet as a family, get started! Keep it simple and fun. (I know one family who likes to start their family meetings with funny YouTube videos.) Don’t try to do too much at first. And let us know how it goes for you, or if you have questions.