“When is our next meeting?” eleven-year-old Juliette harrumphed as she slouched on the couch beside me. “Because I have a grievance to air.”
This isn’t just a melodramatic pre-teen talking; this is our family’s latest lingo. In our house, the “grievances” are real. And we air them at family meetings.
A few months ago, it came to my attention that some of our children disliked our family bedtime rules, and — worse still — they felt that their legitimate complaints were falling on deaf ears.
My husband and I are parents of eight children; deaf ears are an occasional defense mechanism. Yet still I want each of my children to know that they are loved, respected, and heard as individuals. And so it was that during one particularly heated discussion of the bedtime topic, I decided to call an impromptu family meeting.
We weren’t in the habit of holding these kinds of meetings, but we muddled our way through it and somehow managed to arrive at mutually agreed upon changes to our family rules for bedtime.
I was so pleased with the success of this meeting that I decided to make family meetings a regular part of our family life. Because it might be useful to other families, and because it will be helpful to me to have all of them listed in one place, I will share some of the basic guidelines we follow for Bean Family Meetings.
Make Them Official
We meet every two weeks. I set a date and time, add it to my Google calendar, and then send email invitations to everyone in the family. Even eight-year-old Gabby gets the date, time, and appointment confirmation for each meeting in her inbox.
Making it “professional” like this not only holds us accountable to calling our meetings regularly, it also encourages us to take the meetings seriously. When we set the schedule weeks in advance, there is no excuse for forgetting or being “too busy” to participate.
Laugh a Little
Are you familiar with Festivus? My husband and I laughed ourselves to tears over the Seinfeld episode years ago that featured the fake secular holiday and its practice of the “Airing of the Grievances.” Our kids have never watched Seinfeld, but they understand the light tone we take when we say we are meeting for an “Airing of the Grievances.”
The grievances we air at our meetings are real. They can be anything from a complaint about dinner menus or a particular conflict between children or between parents and children. Every family member is encouraged to share any kind of issue — large or small — that they would like to discuss and address as a family.
Have Some Fun
Though it’s not strictly necessary, it’s a nice idea to watch a movie, play a game, or share a fun snack during or at the end of a family meeting. We have had some meetings where no one happens to have a grievance to share. At these times, we hold the meeting anyway. These grievance-free gatherings provide an opportunity to discuss some positive family topics. You might solicit ideas for family activities, vote on vacation destinations, take turns sharing your favorite things that happened that week, or simply make a fun plan for the weekend.
From the beginning, the motivation behind our family meetings was to give everyone a voice, and we do our best to keep that in mind. That means everyone, even the smallest of family members with the smallest of grievances, has an opportunity to speak. We might find ourselves discussing when it would be reasonable for our teens to begin learning to drive, or the feasibility of keeping the freezer stocked with the four-year-old’s favorite popsicles. Anything goes. Everyone speaks.
Also, we don’t schedule an end time to our meetings. We take turns and we listen to each other’s contributions until no one has anything else to say. At some point in the discussion, though, everyone has been heard and it’s time to make a decision and move on to the next topic. Which brings me to my last point…
Mom and Dad Are Boss
The Bean family is not a democracy.
Though everyone has an opportunity to speak and “air their grievances,” Mom and Dad are still in charge. We entertain questions, listen to complaints, encourage discussion, and moderate arguments, but in the end, we determine what (if any) actions will be taken at the end of the meeting. Some grievances (the dearth of grape popsicles, for example) we might make vague promises about. Other grievances (complaints about teasing, for example) we might establish firm house rules to address.
Even with loving parents with the best of intentions, kids in a busy family might sometimes feel lost in the shuffle. Family meetings are a positive way to address this potential problem and ensure that our children are loved and recognized as the unique individuals they are.
Happy families are built on love. The kind of positive and open communication family meetings encourage is just one way of fostering that love. Every two weeks. In the living room. Reply to the invite in your inbox, and we’ll see you there!