Family meetings can solve conflicts. Here's how to do them.
Recently I was asked by someone putting together a video on parenting, "If you could give parents just one tip — just one idea that would help them be better parents — what would it be?"
The tip I decided to give was this: "Have family meetings."
Why did I pick that? Because it's one thing that can make a big difference in family life — and something that doesn't come naturally to parents.
Family meetings can make a big difference because every family experiences conflicts, but not every family deals with them effectively. Conflicts — between parents, between parents and kids, and among the kids — often lead to yelling and screaming, ratchet up the stress level, and sour the atmosphere of a home.
But handled in the right way, conflicts can make your family stronger, foster mutual respect and cooperation, and develop listening and problem-solving skills that your children can use throughout their lives.
The family meeting typically involves sitting down together around a table to try to solve a problem together — or prevent one. Why doesn't it occur to most families to do this? One reason: Most of us never had this experience when we were growing up.
But all parents can learn to do it, and with a little practice it will feel as natural as having a meal together.
I think it's a good idea to start with a half-hour meeting once a week (say, on a Sunday night) and stick to that commitment for a while in order to get better at the process. As time goes on, you might do meetings less often — or more often in an especially challenging week.
Here are 10 steps that will help you have a good family meeting:
1. A practical problem. Choose something like kids being unkind to one another, morning hassles, bedtime battles, TV or phone/iPad/computer policy, making meals more pleasant, or chores — or any problem that's been a source of tension and trouble.
2. Lay the groundwork. In the days before your first meeting, talk individually with each family member about the problem you'd like the family to discuss. How do they feel about it? Explain that the meeting will give them a chance to express their feelings and that the goal is for everyone to understand each other's feelings — and find a solution that's fair to everyone. Set an agreed-upon time to meet. (If the scheduled meeting time arrives and the family atmosphere isn't good, find another agreed-upon time.)
3. Start on a positive note. To create a flow of good feelings, do a quick round of Appreciation Time: "What's something that someone in the family did for you lately that you appreciated?" Our family also said a prayer: "Dear Lord, help show our love for each other by working together to make the next week a good one." Have popcorn or some other snack that helps make the meeting something to look forward to.
4. Set (or review) rules for discussion. Get everybody's input: "What rules will help us have good talking and good listening?" Make a list and post it. Helpful ones to include:
- One person speaks at a time.
- Look at and listen to the person who's talking.
- No interrupting, put-downs, or blaming.
- Say things in a nice way.
5. Cooperation, not blaming. Emphasize that the purpose of a family meeting is cooperative problem-solving, not blaming anyone. Ask for everybody's commitment to that goal: "Let's have a positive discussion where we all help to solve the problem, okay?"
6. Everyone shares. Go around the table, giving everybody a chance to share their thoughts and feelings about the problem at hand. After each person speaks, summarize what that person said, using their own words. ("Okay, so you feel . . . .")
7. Ask for solutions. Go around a second time, asking everyone for their ideas for solving the problem.
8. Make a plan. Discuss the proposed solutions and combine them into a plan you all agree on. DON'T VOTE (which produces "winners" and "losers"); keep talking until you have a plan everyone feels is fair.
9. Write out, sign, and post your Family Agreement. Include when you'll meet again to discuss how your plan is working — and what changes, if any, are needed to make it work better.
10. Hold a follow-up meeting. That's essential for keeping everybody accountable to the agreement. ("How are we doing with our plan? Can we do better?")
I recently spoke with a father who told me that he and his wife have been doing family meetings for just over a year. They have four kids: a 15-year-old boy, a 14-year-old girl, a 13-year-old boy, and a 10-year-old girl. He said:
After the kids learned in our family meetings how to solve conflicts by talking things out, they began doing this on their own with other conflicts. For us, this was a surprise — and one of the big benefits of doing family meetings.
Studies have found that over time, family meetings make for kinder, more respectful, more cooperative kids — and a happier home. Give them a try!
In my next post, I'll give some examples of actual family meetings.
Stanley, Sheila. (1980). "The Family and Moral Education," in Ralph L. Mosher (Ed.), Moral Education: A First Generation of Research and Development. New York: Praeger.
Thomas Lickona. "How to Have a Good Family Meeting: 10 Steps." Psychology Today blog (February 20, 2018).
Reprinted with permission from the author, Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.
Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a psychologist and educator who has been called "the father of modern character education." A professor of education emeritus at State University of New York, Cortland, he is the founding director of his university's Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and author of nine books on moral development and character education. He is the author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain, Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues and the Christopher Award-winning book Educating for Character. He has also written Raising Good Children and co-authored Sex, Love and You. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his web site here.Copyright © 2018 Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.
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