Let’s face it: it’s hard to be superwoman. We try to do everything, know everything, be everything. We juggle and we dance and we pivot and we sway. At work, we learn to delegate, to manage, to conscript the cavalry. We call in our teams, and we ask them to support us in our goals. In fact, few would doubt the veracity of the following statement: “It is vital to reaching my goals that my department at work meets regularly; it enables us to make sure everyone is on track, goals are being met, and morale is high.”
Now, what if you swapped out the words “my department at work” for “my family”?
Seems like a crazy concept to hold regular meetings in your home — I mean, don’t we all have enough meetings on our calendars, already? — but if your company can’t crush its goals without them, why would you expect the same results of the members of your household, at least a few of whom probably don’t have fully formed frontal lobes yet, without the same tools? Leadership at work sometimes means submitting yourself to your team and the process of their input – allowing them the opportunity to speak up and lead. So, why at home do you carry all of it on your own, lonely shoulders?
I’m calling upon you today to just stop that nonsense right now. Introducing: The Family Meeting.
My family has held a weekly Family Meeting for almost two years, ever since hearing about it during a parenting seminar held by the brain trust of the summer camp that my kids attend. The concept was simple: the camp avoids most of its behavioral issues by having a tent meeting at the beginning of the summer to discuss what type of environment that particular tent aspires to create, and then they check back in weekly to talk about the goals each camper has set out for themselves — learn to build a fire, swim across the lake, make endless macrame keychains — and about the community within the tent that they are crafting to foster these successes for all. It turns out that you don’t have to very often chastise campers for listening to the negative influences of their lesser devils when they have a community of friends who consistently uphold each of their higher angels.
We thought this sounded like voodoo magic; surely our tweeners wouldn’t be as influenced by their (gasp!) parents as they were by their super cool near peer young counselors, right? We couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out that the Family Meeting provided both the emotional and logistical anchor that our chaotic family didn’t even realize was missing.
I’ve mentioned this meeting to friends over the years, and each time I get wide-eyed stares, loads of questions, and demands to share this genius trick which has made me 700x better at my two most important jobs, and the two for which we all get zero training: spouse and parent. Fact is, when we focus our attention on work and fail to implement the same practices at home, a quiet dissonance grows and creates unwanted space and tension between members of your household. When the household isn’t aligned, we wind up not having the consequences and outcomes we desire as parents. As a result, our family members are shut off, less engaging and can grow dangerously unaware of issues creeping in shadows.
I implore you to use the Family Meeting. Here’s how it works (and in our family with kids 13 & 15, we operate this meeting from a super unexciting and truly butt-ugly shared agenda in Google Docs; if you adopt this meeting idea and come up with pretty alternatives, consider repaying the favor by sharing it and saving us from our sad artistic void):
1. Family Values: My guess is that you have a fantasy about the kind of family you want to have, the energy you want in your house, and the kind of children you want to raise by being the kind of adult you want to be. But, how often do you talk out loud and to each other about these values you hold dear? And, how often do you talk about then when you aren’t yelling at your kids for the things they are doing wrong, in the heat of the moment, while they are focusing more on ducking for cover than actively listening? There is so much secret genius in the Family Meeting but this is the first: it allows everyone to show each other, and themselves, who they want to be, and let the family support the entire family in getting there together, both in the struggle and the triumph. During this part of the meeting, we close our laptops, make eye contact, and pay attention to each other’s emotions, not just their logistics. We pick a value each week, going deeper into some from the past, and naming new ones as we discover them, and then highlighting times when we lived into these values.
2. Airing of Gratitudes: Here, too, the laptops stay closed. We each go around the table and thank someone in the family for going out of their way — “Thanks for driving me all over creation this week, Mom!” — or for doing something spectacularly brave — “Way to jump in and rise to the challenge and run that road race with the varsity team!” — or as a way to highlight behavior we’d like to groove as table stakes in our home — “I really appreciate how I saw you looking out for your little brother when he wasn’t sure how to solve that problem at school” or “I’d like to thank the whole family for being patience with me this week because I know I was a little stressed finishing this big project.” We all like praise, we all like to be noticed. It gives us an opportunity to catch ‘em being good. It allows us to create a culture of gratitude, and along with the underscoring family values, and it sets the tone for the family we aspire to build.
3. The Week Ahead: Then we open up our laptops and get down to the logistical business. It’s all about who is where on what day, who is picking up whom at school, sports, or friends’ houses, and who is in charge of dinner each night, and results in a grid which is printed out and hung by the car keys for reference throughout the week. This part of the meeting helps everyone get on the same page, but really, it is the ten minutes of the week that brings sanity and order to my entire week. All those drive-bys you get in the car (“Hey, Mom, I need new cleats for the game next week.”)… you know, the ones that you think, “Oh yeah, got it” but then get home and find three texts from friends and an urgent email from a client and dog poop on the rug and it somehow disappears from your brain until you get the harried “Hey, Mom, where are my cleats? The game starts in a half hour!” Yeah, that one. Now, when my kids bring up something like this, I say, “That would be a great thing to bring up in Family Meeting” and suddenly the burden of responsibility remains with them, and their little fingers which set reminders for themselves. I gracefully exit from the hub in the hub-and-spoke operation that I was failing quite regularly, and re-enter with my entire family there with me. During this part of the meeting, we go day-by-day, point out any logistical conflicts, deal with who is going to walk the dog when — that rug poop really stinks, after all — and decide what’s for dinner and who is going to make is appear on the table on which night. It is the “All in This Together” portion of the meeting when the kids have even started to volunteer to stay late at school so I don’t have to pick them up at separate times, or help prep dinner while I’m out at a client event, and while I know that this is shocking, I can also tell you that it took a year and a bit of maturity before it started to happen regularly. (Bonus: all the praise we gave them during the Airing of Gratitudes also helped remind them of the behavior we hoped to see.)
4. Long-Range Planning: So, when do the damned cleats get purchased? At this point in the meeting, we turn our attention to long-range planning. This includes vacations we want to plan (beach or mountains?), items that needs to be purchased (I swear that chorus suit fit him just last week!), or anything like restaurants we want to try, movies we’d like to see, or activities we’d like to add to a list of those elusive free afternoons. You can also add in extra credit here by keeping this list and then letting the member of your family who led the family values section or who chaired the meeting pick from it each week. Younger families can make this a “Family Fun” jar and include coupons for breakfast in bed or get-out-of-dishes-free. What’s important is that it works for your family, and for you.
5. Airing of Grievances: Remember earlier when I talked about striking while the iron is cold? This is where you really see the benefits. Never in the history of my family has anyone said, “Hey, I love that you are yelling at me, and I am able to really step back and think about what you are trying to say through your frustration and anger, and I feel in no way emotionally attached to the corner into which I’ve back myself… so, yeah, you’re right, I’ll change my behavior right away. Please accept my deeply felt apologies for my obvious transgressions.” Perhaps this happens in your house. If so, I kneel down to you; I don’t even know why you are reading this article. If it doesn’t, here’s a pro-tip that I learned after one too many times banging my head against the wall: there are no teachable moments in the heat of battle, and those who don’t learn this are destined to repeat and repeat and repeat the same frustrating fights. Instead, we let these moments pass, sometimes noting that it is something we’d like to discuss in Family Meeting, sometimes not. Sometimes my 15-year-old whips out his iPhone, gives me the Stink Eye, and sends himself a little message to remember to bring it up later. Sometimes, those incidents fade away and we realize that most of the day to day noise never rises to the level of signal. But, here’s the thing: most of us know when we are being obstinate assholes, especially towards those we love most in the world. And, either we change our own behavior in the days to come, without having to dig out of the even deeper hole of saving face, or we come to the meeting already knowing that the incident will be brought up and often have heartfelt, proactive apologies and specific plans on how to do better next time, or at least requests to help think through in the meeting how we might have approached the situation better for the others involved. These are the best conversations because they don’t start with “YOU made ME feel” but rather, “When you did this, I interpreted it this way. I felt this way. I don’t like feeling that way, so that means that I need to change my interpretation, or need to have a conversation with you about your intent.” And, from here, real conversations happen.
6. Scheduling Next Meeting: We never leave a meeting without scheduling the next. It’s considered sacred for the family. If something comes up, we schedule around it in the days to come, and ask others if they wouldn’t mind changing if something comes up. It anchors our family, and teaches us to consider, communicate, and confirm (the “Three C’s” as codified by my eldest when he was particularly frustrated about how we didn’t close loops on school pickups changing and brought up during an Airing of Grievances how to not be surprised at the end of a tiring school day.)
Now, I’m by no means saying that this Family Meeting has made me The Perfect Parent. Far from it. I still yell at my kids plenty. I still fly off the handle. I still forgot to pick them up from school one day. (Yeah, THAT was a tough Airing of Grievances… but also a lovely Airing of Gratitudes when I got a pre-grievance shout out from my youngest about how he was proud of me for how hard I’d been working. You win some, you lose some.).
The bottom line is this: it hasn’t made me the perfect parent, but it’s made me a real parent. My kids get to see how hard I work towards my personal and professional goals. They get to see my husband and I communicating about what matters to us. They get to feel like valued and important contributors to our family. It roots us in our united front, and a feeling that we are all on the same side, that mistakes can happen because there is a loving forum for forgiveness and discussion, and that agency and purpose and play can be part of all aspects of each of our lives.
Oh, and how long does it take? Never more than one hour, max. (Unless it’s a week you forget to pick up your kids.)