I want to talk about two of the things that I personally think have been hugely important in our own family and in our personal parenting of our children. The two things are regular family meetings and the creation of a family mission statement.
In our terrific opportunities to speak to families in so many cultures in the world we often begin by telling them the importance of a family “infrastructure.” We liken having family systems that your kids understand and can depend on to an infrastructure not unlike the roads and bridges that make a city workable, easy to navigate and reliable.
On a recent trip to India we felt we were taking our lives in our hands every time we stepped out the door of our hotel in Udaipur.
Small three- wheeled vehicle whizzed past us within a foot of the doorstep. There were no traffic rules that we could see and people were walking in and out between vehicles as they whizzed past them. It was sort of like being in a video game, except that if you got hit, you couldn’t start over!
Our next stop was Istanbul, where several new infrastructure elements had just been completed. Beautiful bridges span the Bosporus that divides Europe from Asia. It is a sight to behold! Things are orderly albeit fast paced. We felt safe and able to see what security a great infrastructure brings.
One of the great safety nets for kids growing up, although they may not realize it at the time, is the infrastructure that a weekly family meeting brings. We plead with parents to begin having a weekly family night because of the long-term value it brings to the security of the family.
If you aren’t currently having family meetings you will probably be relieved to hear that you are definitely in the majority. Among the myriad of families we have spoken with, those having family meetings are rare. Still, those families who are having them swear that they are what really hold their family together.
The objections are universal: We don’t have time. I’m not in town often enough to be consistent. The kids won’t do it. My husband won’t do it… the list goes on and on. But if we can persuade parents to try it, they can see the value it holds for their family.
The families we speak to are mostly businesspeople who own their own companies. When we ask them how many hold a regular weekly staff meeting at the office, most raise their hands and agree that they couldn’t do without it. If they apply that to a family, which is a vastly more important institution than the one they may be working with at the office, they agree that having a family meeting could be important.
Let us tell you a little about our own experience.
Where, when and how long should the meeting be? For the majority of time that we had kids home we had our meetings every Sunday afternoon around the dinner table. No friends were allowed. It was family only! With the complications of a large family the meeting often stretched to an hour. With pre-school children, 20 minutes may be the maximum length of time you can hold their attention. If you have older and younger children, have the preliminaries with the younger kids and a short lesson on the topic of the week and then let them go play or got to bed while you continue with your older children.
Family Meeting Format
We always started with a song chosen by one of the kids and a prayer. We know Hindu families who do the same thing with their own way of praying and singing. Others who aren’t comfortable with singing and praying just call the meeting to order.
After the kids get a feel for the routine, assign the kids to conduct the meeting and keep everybody on task on the agenda. Nothing is more delightful to most 7-year-olds than to feel empowered by being in charge. Teenagers may need a little persuasion if it’s new to them. Once you start having meetings, you may find that the kids are the ones who keep you going. Most kids will love that feeling of unity and of having some equity in the family!
After that short opening we talked about the schedule for the coming week. It makes us smile now to see our grandchildren conducting their family meetings and to say, “I’d now like to turn the time over to Mom to go over the schedule for the week.” At one time when we had so many children at home involved in so many activities we had to get our kids to 27 different lessons and sports activities every week. It was quite a process to get everybody to where they needed to be and have a little cheering section for sports activities as well. Life in those days would be mayhem without some pretty serious carpools and schedule planning.
A short value lesson followed. Go to FamilyNightLessons.com for simple lessons about values that any child who can read can prepare and present to the family in about five minutes. While you are getting started, give the “lesson” yourself about something you need to teach the kids. Once the pattern is established, put the kids in charge.
Next, we asked if there were problems or concerns that the kids wanted to talk about. The kids called it a “gripe session.” Sometimes there were none. Other times it became a long conversation which depended on the age and feistiness of the kids. It was always helpful to know what was going on in their minds and it became a great forum for healthy discussions.
Fun and Refreshments
Do your best to keep the feeling light and upbeat. Occasionally you may have kids stomp out of meetings in tears, but that’s okay. It’s part of the process. Be sure that there are “refreshments” at the end of the meeting. Our kids still claim that is the most important part. At least once a month we just went out for an activity instead of having a formal meeting. Actually spending some quality time improves the quality of family life immensely. Be consistent. Hold the meeting every week. If you or your spouse is traveling, come in by teleconference or by Skype.
The most crucial element of starting weekly family meetings is letting the kids feel that they have equity in what is happening. Before you start, reason with them by saying something like this: “Our family is the most important thing in the world to us and we want to make it run more smoothly by having a family meeting. What do you think? We are going to need your help to make it work, though. Do you think it would be important to help our family be better? After a few weeks we’d even like you to conduct the meeting so you can add what you want to say and keep us on track. Do you think that would work? What would be the best time? When should we start?”
It’s vital to have as many family members on board as possible so that they feel empowered and not overpowered when you start your meetings. Like all good infrastructures, it takes some time and effort to organize and execute a plan for success, but in the long run those “freeways and bridges” make life with a family so much easier!