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Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be (Girl, Wash Your Face Series)
Three Types of Family Meetings for Three Purposes
Many contemporary parenting books extol the benefits of family meetings. This article summarizes three basic types.
The cat died last night, etc. Whenever my sisters and I were informed that a 'family meeting' was beginning in the living room 'right now' we knew that we were about to hear something we didn't want to hear. It was a forum used, pretty exclusively, for one or another of our parents to make an unpleasant announcement of some variety.
In my home, that's the only type of 'family meeting' there ever was. Imagine my surprise when I discovered, as a mental health professional who works with kids and families, that there are at least several different types of family meetings and that each has a different purpose - and that the purposes go beyond the dissemination of bad news.
I came to understand that what I had experienced were not really 'family meetings' at all. They were simply information being centrally disseminated. A family meeting can be so much more and presents a relatively simple and easy to maintain activity that can enhance family functioning and improve relationships within the home.
Helpful and productive Family Meetings will not work if they are used ONLY for one purpose all the time. As a form of group criticism and discipline, they tend to fail pretty miserably. There are lots of options. Here is a core of three seminal ones to consider.
There are three basic types of Family Meetings, each of which is most generally convened by an adult. However, any of them can be requested by a child if they feel it is needed. The basic types include meetings to 1) define and clarify rules and expectations, 2) solve problems and 3) give everyone a chance to be respectfully heard.
Sometimes the types can be mixed-and-matched and, at other times, not. As you will see, trying to go from the First type of Family Meeting directly into the Third, is not likely to work very well.
The first, referred to as a 'defining the rule(s)' meeting, bares some similarity to those uncomfortably dreaded get togethers of my youth. The agenda for this type of family meeting is clear and singular. It is to give the adult(s) the opportunity to define a rule or expectation that seems to require either clarification or a reminder.
In most home, the parents are the law givers and enforcers. When the rules and expectations go unspoken, children are sometimes expected to somehow know what is right for them to do by 'osmosis.' This doesn't work very well. Having the rules of the home clearly, not angrily but matter-of-factly defined, actually relieves rather than provokes tension in most homes. Oftentimes, children who remain unclear about what is expected of them seem to behave badly in their necessary efforts to discover what is OK and what is not.
They are not necessarily being deliberately 'bad.' They are, in all probability, trying to find out just what the rules are and what happens if a kid breaks them! This 'testing' is normal child behavior which can be greatly reduced by making the rules and expectations explicit.
Done in a meeting that includes the entire family, there is less opportunity for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Children can ask the parent(s) for clarification and once everyone seems to understand, the meeting is over. This meeting is the type in which the primary agenda s the giving and explaining of the rules. Although there may be only one 'rule' being discussed, it is important to follow up the meeting individually with each child to be certain that they really 'got' the message in a way that makes sense to them at their own age and level of development.
The second type of Family Meeting is one where the family gathers together to talk about and to try to solve a problem that is impacting everyone. A problem solving meeting.
This can be about anything. Unlike the first type, the family does not gather to hear the parent(s) define a rule. And unlike the first type, in this type of meeting, everyone gets to express both their own view of the 'problem' as well as any ideas they have about what might make things better.
Importantly, this type of Family Meeting does not need to end in a decision. Parents can hear what the children have to say (and vice-a-versa) and then end the meeting thanking the kids for their thoughts and telling them that they need to think about this issue for a while and another meeting will happen soon to talk more together about it. The meeting need not be expected to be, in every instance, a product-oriented opportunity. Sometimes (often in fact) within a family, process is the most important product.
Children can identify problems that need addressing as well as adults can. "Johnny keeps coming in my room when I don't want him to" complains the older sister. "There's not enough ice cream at desert" says Mary. "There's no quiet place and time for me to do my homework" is not an uncommon child introduced problem. Kids have problems to and, just as is the case for their parents, some of these problems can manifest themselves in the family home.
So, in this type of meeting, the problem is defined by the person who is having it and everyone else is asked to share their own thinking about this issue. Comments are NEVER judged or evaluated but carefully and respectfully listened to. Should the discussion deteriorate into an argument, the meeting is adjourned as it morphed from being a problem solving meeting to being a forum for argument. Arguments rarely, if ever, solve problems - in family meetings or anywhere else.
The third type of family meeting, and the one least familiar to many parents, is the one in which everyone gets to speak about how they think and feel their family is doing. This meeting is essentially an opportunity for each member of the family to speak and be heard, There are some parameters for such meetings that everyone needs agree to.
There are no arguments allowed - In fact, in the language of the world of 12-step recovery programs, there is no 'cross talk' allowed. That means, simply, that no one comments on what is said by anyone else. The point and main agenda of this type of family meeting to allow for each and every family member to be heard by each other member without fear of being argued or shouted down.
In this type of Family Meeting, the goal is for family members to develop and demonstrate their ability to just listen respectfully to each other, even if they disagree with what someone else is saying ... and EVERONE gets their say.
As is the case with the second type, the parent(s) may want to talk with individual family members privately after the meeting about something that may require more specific, personal or difficult understanding or explanation. Family Meetings are not to be confused, in and of themselves, with family communication.
Rather, Family Meetings of any of the three types described here are elements of family communication. Done well, each can make an important contribution to the nature of the relationships in the family and to the family's ability to solve problems, establish clear rules and expectations and listen receptively and respectfully to each other.
These three types are not intended to represent the 'be all and end all' of Family Meetings. There are many, many varieties and hybrids. What works perfectly for one family may be very different from what does the trick for another. To try - to seek - to experiment: These are all of the essence. The well being of your family may hang in the balance.
For those seeing more information about how various types of Family Meetings can be used to strengthen family relationships and functioning, there is a plethora of information available on the subject. I often advise parents to go to a big bookstore, walk over to the "Parenting" or "Family" section and browse the titles on the end bindings of the books on the shelf. When you see a title that seems to 'call out' to you, pull it off the shelf and take a browse through the index. Put it back and try another or bring it to the register and take it home.
The same essential selection strategy can be applied in a Public Library or in an online search as well. There's a lot to be learned and a lot yet to be tried - for all of us. Hopefully, this article gives parents some ideas about how to get started.