Every Monday evening we clear our dishes and sit around our rough barn wood table to dish with each other. The four of us have been having family meetings (almost) weekly for 9 years. We have stuck with the schedule Danny Devito style on trains, planes and automobiles. We have skyped and face-timed. We have cried tears of joy and frustration. Despite wriggling and whining (mine), somber promises (Oliver), threats of incarceration (Steve), and a monotone mutter (Leo) we make it to the table. And everyone benefits.
Like so many of our family rituals this one has strong roots in the classes we took with Vicki Hoefle. Like all of them we have put our own spin on it. Before we begin we clear the table to eliminate distractions. We keep the meeting to 20 minutes or less. We have a notebook and pen for brainstorming solutions for problems. We lay out the money the boys will receive ($1 per year of life as a reminder of the privilege they will unlock if they fulfill their responsibility of participating in the meeting.
Then we follow 4 (almost) easy steps.
Appreciations– We each appreciate every other family members, and ourselves. These often take the form of memories from the week. “Dada, I appreciated when you played kickball with me, I love it when we spend time outside together.” “Oliver, I appreciate the creativity you used making the guest bed with every pillow in the house.” “Mama, I appreciate how you snuggled me even when you are tired.” “Steve, I appreciate how you recognized that I was feeling down even before I did and helped me talk through my stress.”
Challenges: The hardest appreciations are the ones we offer ourselves. After chirping out compliments for family members there is a lot of muttering…the boys chime in to help…but this is something we all need to practice.
Benefits: The ease with which we all express gratitude grows with practice. I hear the boys appreciating each other, the cat, and the way a stranger smiles at them at many times throughout the week. As someone who spent most of my life with my vodka more than half empty I have found myself noticing and remarking on the positives all around me.
Problem Solving– For many years we had a white board where family members could write their problems. In all but the most critical situation this allowed us to move on from small transgressions without the “wronged” party feeling ignored. All problems matter…they just don’t all matter RIGHT NOW. When it is time for problem solving we select one from the list. We present our problems with no name and no blame. A common problem sounds like: “I have a problem when our time at the computer isn’t divided fairly.” It seems that between the time the grievance was aired and our meeting Monday evening many things have solved themselves. That in itself is a valuable lesson, and a major time saver. Next we brainstorm solutions. If parents participate they are restricted to ridiculous ideas. “I think it would solve the problem if we cut each boy in half, stitched you together and sat you in front of the computer. We might need to prop you up but you will have the EXACT number of minutes.” Generally the boys laugh, roll their eyes or tell us that we are slowing things down and get on with their own iterations. If we can’t get through the meeting in 20 minutes no one gets paid…this is incentive enough for them to both get on board for a solution. In the case of the computer cluster bleep the boys discovered that it wasn’t total time that mattered…instead they really just wanted a more accurate idea of when they would get a turn. So now they answer each other in exact terms. “It will be your turn in 12 minutes when this video is over.”
Challenges: It is INCREDIBLY difficult as a parent not to offer reasonable solutions. A timer for the computer perhaps? Its important to remember that the goal isn’t simply to solve the problem…but to encourage their skill at thinking of solutions and compromising with one another. I always fall back on the same reminder. I would kick ass at third grade…but the homework is not mine to do. I have a lifetime of practice at practical solutions. It’s not me that needs to learn how to generate and test these theories. At least most of the time. Benefits: We get to ignore lots of little squabbles at the time that they arise. Sometimes the kids work things out on their own because they’d rather not involve us and our wacky ways at all.
It is expected that every family member contribute to the way the household runs. You might call these chores but as a writer I value the power of words so this C is more pleasing. Plus its what I learned from Vicki. You can divide this however you want. After many different version we have it down to two people on Laundry and two people on Kitchen. When the boys were little we had other contributions, garbage, bathroom, floors. We would go through training where we each cleaned a toilet with someone watching. Little kids love scrubbing toilets and counters. They like folding towels. They even like sweeping. As our boys got older we chained together tasks until they could manage an entire room.
Challenges: Sometimes the laundry sits in the washer and gets moldy. This happens infrequently because no one likes that smell…not even smelly little boys. Also, I am better than them at this. It would be quicker and shinier for me to clean. But but but. They need to learn, they can learn, they have learned…and now it is easier for me to be lazy. Benefits: This is a great party trick. Once we were hosting a large gather on a Saturday night. Leo passed by 20 or so of our friends heading with basket of laundry. A chorus followed him “What are you doing?” He furrowed his brow. The answer was obvious. “Laundry” Duh.
Calendar. We read over the schedule for the week. Sometimes the kids ask to add things. Mostly they ask to erase things. We have a policy that for a kids to engage in an enrichment activity they have to do the research, present it to us, and get as far into the enrollment process as they can. I figure if they can search the internet on how to use a credit card to open a locked door they sure as hell can find a rec soccer league. If they don’t have enough interest to find the fun there is no reason I should pay and schlep. That said each boy has only motivated for one activity each. Out calendar is relatively empty. Monday is family meeting, Tuesday tennis, Wednesday game night, Thursday Destination Imagination, Friday free day. (Our family’s current favorite game if you want to give it a try.)
Challenges: Despite its relative lightness the kids often whine about the activities they themselves set up. To Steve’s mixed response I encourage them to quit. They need to fulfill whatever 6 week session is current and after that they can let it lapse. Again, it is their time and interest that matters. That said we worry that our kids won’t be bi-lingual, play an instrument, or learn to back flip. Benefits: Our weekends are free of sporting events. The boys spend time entertaining themselves…and each other. I only heard the phrase “I’m bored” once in my entire parenting tenure. They are used to making their own fun…and when they asked for an entertainment idea I brought out the mop. That cleaned the problem up quickly.
Money- This one is quick. Almost as quick as their spending. The cash the boys receive ($1/ year of life) is not tied to contributions. Those are expected. The money is for the meeting. Not a bad hourly rate…that said it is important to give kids enough money so they actually learn to manage their cash. Spending, saving, and donating are all things we model. So far the kids seem to have the spending nailed…the rest is a little slower, but there are signs that that is a skill that is growing as well.
Challenges: Leaving it up to the kids to pay for things. Particularly birthday presents. We match what they contribute…so if they have no money that have to make a gift or skip the party. It is so tempting to bail them out with a loan…but then we are undoing all the learning. Benefits: “cani get a candy, I wanna lego, getme these chips!” You have a ready response. “Of course you can have that candy…did you bring your money?” When Leo was two years old we stopped at a gas station. I went inside for an iced tea and he asked for candy. I used my line for the first time and he immediately stopped whining and shook his head somberly. His 2 dollars was long gone. The gas station attendant almost passed out. “I have never seen anything like that.” Now he is 9 and he puts up a bit of a fight. “Wait,” he tells me “I know what you are going to say….and I don’t have my money and I am sick of you trying to teach me to save it.” It isn’t ever easy to learn.
Do you have a family meeting? Are you interested in giving it a try? Vicki’s book is a good starting point.