While I’ve heard the term “family meeting” all my life, it was often in relation to someone being in trouble or there being a problem that parents had deemed out of hand and the meeting was called so that parents could voice their concerns and set expectations, or even scold. Such family meetings don’t sound fun at all. When I was trained in Positive Discipline, family meetings took on a whole new meaning. Instead of an experience reserved for the most pressing of problems, they became a way to connect, bond, give voice to all family members, teach problem solving skills, and have fun. Still, for over a year I thought, “we’ll start family meetings when our son is old enough to participate…they’re called family meetings after all.” But then, between figuring out how to parent a toddler and with little free time to connect as a couple or problem solve, I decided that it was time to implement regular family meetings. My husband and I picked a weeknight after our son goes to bed when we can talk without distraction, and we roughly follow the “9 Steps for Effective Family Meetings” included below. Here are some of the things that I found most helpful.
Building a culture of appreciation.
Family meetings are a great way to build a culture of appreciation in your relationship. When life gets hectic and tensions are high, it is often easy to notice what your partner is doing “wrong” or those personality traits that get under your skin. However, when we focus on those we can get caught in a loop of frustration, criticism, and defensiveness. That’s why it’s important to begin each meeting by sharing the things we appreciate in our partner. Giving and receiving appreciation helps us relax and move from a place of vigilance to a place of openness. You can work appreciations into your daily rituals as well, maybe right before bed or during dinner each night.
Consistent, dedicated time for relationship and/or parenting concerns.
Every relationship (parenting, romantic, etc.) has its challenges. Sometimes these challenges are predictable and other times they seem to pop up out of nowhere. Family meetings provide an opportunity to really listen and respond to each other’s concerns. This dedicated time has been great for our relationship too. Instead of feeling like our only options are to address a concern in the moment or just let it go, we know we have a time when we are committed to listening to each other. Knowing that we will have an opportunity to be heard allows us to pause when needed without feeling dismissed. If one of us is busy when the other wants to talk, we can ask that the conversation be tabled until our meeting.
Planning something fun.
The last part of any family meeting should be to plan a fun activity for the week. For a couple, this could be a date night (or during COVID times a treat and a movie, a backyard fire, or a weekend walk). Again, this is all about connection. I encourage you to plan something as a couple, but you can also think of something to do with your whole family.
While I look forward to the day when our son can participate in family meetings, I hope that my husband and I continue to have our own. We have always talked things through, but there’s something comforting about knowing we have that specific time. I’m also glad that we’re practicing now so that when our son does join us we’ll be better able to model connection, communication, and problem solving skills.
It is the most difficult children who often need us the most. We hear from people working in schools that consequences and suspensions do not seem to change their behavior. Core curriculum, testing and other requirements are putting an incredible burden on teachers. These challenging students are often the tipping point for a class.
What these misbehaving children are really looking for is to feel like they belong in the class, and that they are cared about.
Many of the misbehaving children have had things happen in their young lives that cause them to distrust others. They may not have been fed or had their physical needs taken care of as babies, so they do not understand “if-then” thinking – if I cry, I get fed. If I act out in class, then there are consequences. Some may be dealing with abuse or neglect of them or a parent, drugs or alcohol in the home, or violence. They may feel they always have to be “on guard”, to protect themselves.
All it takes is one adult to make a difference a child’s life.
So what can be done to help? Here are some ways to build relationships with these most difficult children:
Get to where you can speak face to face with them. Speak calmly and slowly. If you remain calm, it will help them to calm down.
Express an understanding of how they are feeling, saying “It seems like you are really angry. Tell me more.” And then listen.
Ask them what you can do to help them. They may need a break from being in the class, so asking if they would like to bring something to the office or another class may help.
Focus on building the relationship. As trust is built, they may question it, as they may not have had a trusting relationship with an adult before.
It is important to have patience and give it time. These children likely have had years of bad relationships with adults. As the relationship builds, the whole class benefits. There will be less disruptions, and more teachable time. You can be that “one adult” for this child!
Carol is a Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. She has worked with educators and staff of preschoolers through high school, as well as hundreds of parents of all aged children (prenatal to adult). She co-founded Positive Discipline of Connecticut, and served as Co-Chair of the international Board of Directors of the Positive Discipline Association. Carol has worked with schools in bringing Positive Discipline to whole school settings. She has two adult sons and a husband of over 35 years. Their relationships continue to grow and benefit from Positive Discipline.
It started with just a few questions. “Why do I have to go to preschool? Why do you have to go to work? Why can’t I have a babysitter stay home with me?” To these, as I was bustling about the kitchen getting dinner pulled together, I answered in a matter of fact and validating way. “Preschool gets you ready for kindergarten and allows you to play with friends and grow your brain. I also miss you and wish I could be home with you. And, I love teaching my students and I feel passionate about the work I am doing.”
She wasn’t buying it.
The insisting got more intense until she was so worked up I started to wonder (and worry) especially when she said she did NOT want to go… at all. For a child that generally loved her school, this was the final sign so I asked,
“Did something happen?” From there it spilled out: during the quiet nap time, the teachers didn’t allow students to use the bathroom, and if they asked, the whole classroom was punished.
In her four year old way, she described this rule, and how conflicted and uncomfortable she was with a) not being able to go to the bathroom and b) the social repercussions of any action on her part during this time. Obvi. So, clearly the solution was just to never go back.
At this point I had a few options. First, I could tell her I am SURE that is not the rule, and that with a swift (curt) email to the teacher I would have it cleared up by tomorrow and her bladder would be free. Or…
I could use this as an empowering learning opportunity.
Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott, from Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way, give this definition of empowering: “Turning control over to young people as soon as possible so they have power over their own lives.”
We all want our kids to grow up to have a long list of life skills that will help them be successful as adults. We make this list together in my Positive Discipline classes and each time, the list looks so similar. Skills like responsible, independent, passionate, assertive, happy…these help to guide our teaching when we are trying to solve challenges with our kids. So in this moment, if I used the magic wand to make it all go away, I would have missed an opportunity to add to that skill building.
Enabling = “getting between young people and life experiences to minimize the consequences of their actions.” – Lott, Nelsen
Rescuing, fixing, bailing them out, doing too much for them, it all falls under that enabling category. The 10pm email to the teacher also falls in that category. You know the one, where you are so exhausted by how upset your child was and what a nightmare evening you had dealing with whatever issue happened at school that day (per your kiddo), so you take it all out on the teacher in an email to feel like you have some control.
By choosing instead to empower, I wasn’t going to abandon her, but I was going to show up with confidence in her capability. It was also going to take a little more time.
We discussed it as a family more at dinner, using curiosity questions to dig deeper. I still could not believe that it was actually the rule, (what preschool teacher does NOT want kids to use the bathroom?) yet I knew in HER mind it was her perspective and interpretation, so there really was no arguing that point. We were going to have to really play it out.
“Can’t you just talk to the teacher?” she begged me. “It’s not my problem,” I replied, “I can go to the bathroom whenever I want.” She looked at me horrified. I went on, “This feels like such a big problem to you. It feels unfair. It would feel unfair to me too! We are here to help you. Let’s practice what you can say to your teacher tomorrow.”
We called all hands on deck and she started to relax surrounded by her cheering section. She took turns being the teacher and herself in the role play, practicing how to start with a greeting and request to discuss the problem and then how to assertively state “I feel confused by this rule and it feels unfair.” Her confidence grew and by tuck in time I thought we were really in the clear. Then the panic set in.
“Mama, what if this problem is never solved? What if it doesn’t work?”
Here, too, I wanted to just ease her mind, ensure her that everything would be ok. I also wanted to make all that time we had spent building up capability worth it. So instead I took her hand and said, “Here’s the deal. It might not be solved tomorrow. It might not work right away. And that is ok. Because when you come home, we will brainstorm another solution and practice and try something else until it is solved. I won’t give up and neither will you.”
Fortunately, I did not do the drop off in the morning. I might have caved. Instead, I watched the clock and winced right around naptime, then braced myself when I went into the classroom to pick her up after work.
Unexpectedly, she came running around the corner. Her face was beaming. “Mama mama! I solved my problem!” It was THAT moment that made it allllll worth it. The pride, independence, confidence and capability shone. Priceless. Her teacher immediately joined her, falling over herself to tell me that OF COURSE they are allowed to go to the bathroom and what a misunderstanding, but how brave of my daughter to bring it up. The teachers hadn’t realized the confusion from all the students. This led to a class meeting and greater discussion. She ended with explicitly thanking me for allowing this learning opportunity.
Six years later, I think of that day often. It gave me the courage and mindset to put in the intention and energy on days I didn’t think I had it. When it would have been easier to overprotect or rescue. When I see the payoff, in my responsible, independent, happy, confident ten year old, I know it is worth it.
Empowering can and should look different in families, depending on the age, stage of development and your own values. What makes YOUR little one beam with confidence? And what kind of practice do they need to get there? Is there a small step they need to learn first?
Lott and Nelsen describe these empowering responses:
Listening and giving emotional support and validation without fixing or discounting.
Teaching life skills.
Working on agreements through family meetings or the joint problem-solving process.
Sharing what you think, how you feel, and what you want (without lecturing, moralizing, insisting on agreement, or demanding that anyone give you what you want).
Sticking to the issues with dignity and respect.
Learn how to be solution focused, teach important life skills and find the joy in everyday moments. Purchase your How To Grow Remarkable Kids online series today, and experience Positive Discipline through videos of real families practicing the tools.
Julietta is a Certified Positive Discipline Advanced Trainer with an Ed.S Degree in School Psychology and a Masters Degree in School Counseling from Seattle University. She is the co-founder of Sproutable, science backed online parenting insights for pregnancy to preschool, helping multitasking and sleep deprived parents everywhere.
Her trauma informed expertise includes early child development, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety, behavior disorders, Positive Discipline, Social Thinking and mindfulness. Her popular keynote speeches, classes and workshops in Seattle have been described as rejuvenating, motivating and inspiring. Julietta has learned the most from her own three daughters.