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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Secret of Successful Families: The Family Meeting

Bruce Feiler sums up his research on happy families by offering a “nonlist list of things that happy families do.” This list consists of the following three nonrule rules:
  1. Adapt all the time. 
  2. Talk. A lot. 
  3. Go Out and Play.

Feiler offers multitudes of ways to follow each of these nonrules. One of them is the family meeting. The family meeting appeals to me for several reasons.

  • First of all, there is so much in a minute. You don’t even have to have relatives who are psychoanalysts to know this. Nor do you have to be a mindfulness meditation expert. Just think about how (surprisingly) much it hurts if a driver passes you and gives you the finger, for example. And that’s someone you don’t even know, and a situation that’s not even personal. Now think about all the casual remarks that pass among family members rushing around to ballet and soccer and work that affect you. A stray snap on a day when you have a short fuse can have its own sort of a butterfly effect on your mood and life. Yes, it’s true, I do have relatives who are psychoanalysts, AND I practice mindfulness meditation, so I may be a bit more invested in what’s going on under the surface in a moment than most. In fact, this may be the secret to my failure more than anything else – all that time parsing and analyzing can get you into a thoroughly tangled state of conflict and make it hard to move forward with your goals. But since that last sentence completely undermines what I’m getting at, let’s pretend that I’m 100% in favor of trying to understand your emotions in a situation, so that you can make an informed decision, or can react intentionally instead of instinctively. This takes time, and conversation. A meeting provides a forum to catch some of those moments that could use a little dissecting: To address some of those moments that result in decisions on the fly – decisions and their effects that never get fully explained.

  • Second of all, a family meeting sounds like a reasonable idea when it’s hard to find regular nights to eat together because this one’s got an extra rehearsal and that one’s soccer game time changed and that one forgot he had to teach his medical students and the other one has a book club, because all of those ones have book clubs; you’re not actually a suburban mommy if you don’t - but that’s another story. These meetings don’t have to be long. They shouldn’t be long. Sunday night, which Bruce uses, seems like a good time to me. Usually everyone is home then, and there’s an opportunity to look at the calendar. This doesn’t guarantee that we won’t be scrambling for forgotten appointments, but it does help us become aware of our commitments, at least for a moment, together. This group moment might well improve the chances that we’ll get where we need to be on time. I make no promises, nor do I have any proof, since as of this writing, our family has had only one family meeting.

  • Third of all, the family meeting, as Bruce describes it, is child-centered. Or to be more precise, while parents may set the agenda, the children should be vocal participants. This gives them practice explaining themselves, exploring and expressing their opinions, and listening to others’, which I defy anyone to deny is good life training. Since the message in my family of origin was “Children should be seen and not heard,” this idea appeals to my rebellious inner child. Let the children be heard and seen. Then let the parents make final decisions.

  • And last of all, the family meeting is a way to solidify or otherwise emphasize the idea of the family unit as a unit. I like this idea of emphasizing the family as a unit. It’s one of Bruce’s ideas that’s so fundamental you don’t even see it: To be a successful family involves focusing on the family itself, and seeing it as a working group, not just as a staging ground for “real life.”

The Meeting

Now, I’d been mulling this idea for a while. I was intrigued and wanted to do it, despite the hoke factor. So when the 5th grader came home, I think it was the very day I behaved so admirably at the DARE assembly, with a letter announcing that she’d won a leadership award, and that there would be a ceremony at an arena at a community college to recognize her and the other recipients, I had my entrée.

Readers, if you would kindly lower your bayonets, I will continue. After feeling my moment of pride in my offspring – a moment immediately followed by one of complete amazement: I have never won thing one for leadership – I realized that this ceremony would conflict with the 9th grader’s ballet schedule. Frankly, that went without saying, since the 9th grader spends less time not dancing than she does dancing. So the question was, should she miss the classes, which were in rehearsals for her end of the year performance, to attend her sister’s ceremony? Perfect for a family meeting.

I’d like to tell you that each participant met the announcement with equal enthusiasm; but that would be a lie. The husband was on board – surprising to me, considering the aforementioned hoke factor.  He was even willing to commit to weekly meetings. However, when we told the children we were having a meeting,  the 9th grader’s reaction was, “Oh no,” and the 5th grader’s was, “Are we in trouble?”

But it went well. Or at least, it didn’t go badly. When I brought up the awards ceremony - ballet schedule conflict, I tried to remember Bruce’s advice to let the children do a lot of the talking. The 5th grader immediately announced that she wanted her sister to attend her award ceremony. The 9th grader countered immediately with acquiescence. Conflict resolved? More like conflict swept underground. I suddenly saw how good an idea a family meeting was. I think it’s the kind of thing that might just help keep people close. If you’re the kind of person who acquiesces because your sister states a strong preference, despite your own mixed feelings, then eventually, you may avoid your sister, to avoid hearing her state her preferences. But if your sister can start to understand that her preference acts like a command, then she may begin to be a little more careful and less categorical – more empathetic – in stating it.

Since their conversation had apparently ended, it was up to me and the husband to stir the pot. How did the 9th grader feel about missing the ballet class to go to the ceremony? For that matter, how would the 9th grader feel about having her sister at her upcoming recital? And how would the 5th grader feel about the looming conflict over missing a soccer tournament to go to (another) dance recital? I wanted the conversation to be both concrete (about this particular conflict) and hypothetical (attending each others’ awards and recitals, etc.) Okay, I know, this may be slightly nauseating, as if I envision a golden-paved road of award upon award for my children, stretching into the future. However, even the most curmudgenly reader must admit there are many milestones ahead (God willing), with attendant ceremonies. It seems worthwhile to figure out who needs to go to what when.  But mostly, I wanted the big sister to express her preferences and feelings about attending her sister’s award ceremony, and to see how important her presence was to her younger sister. Also, I wanted the little sister to realize that her big sister would be sacrificing something very important to her (dance class) at a difficult time (rehearsing for upcoming recital).

The upshot was that we, the parental units, listened to the children, and then we told them we would make a decision. Meeting adjourned. Not exactly an unqualified success, but not terrible, either. Later, the 9th grader came to us privately and said she didn’t want to miss her class. We told her we had wanted her to say that at the meeting so that the 5th grader would know, but of course she hadn’t wanted to hurt her sister’s feelings. I suppose immediate openness was too much to expect from one meeting.

In the end, we decided the 9th grader should go to the ceremony. In private, I told the 5th grader that her sister was making a sacrifice by missing her rehearsal. The 5th grader said, “Now you are making me feel guilty.” I told her I wasn’t trying to make her feel guilty as much as I was trying to make her appreciate that her sister was doing something nice for her – and that she ought to thank her.

So the 9th grader came to the ceremony. On the way, the 5th grader thanked her for missing rehearsal. Afterwards, the 9th grader hugged the 5th grader.

Overall, I thought it was good for the 9th grader to hear her sister characterized as a leader, and good for the 5th grader to know her sister heard that characterization.

We haven’t had a family meeting since; but I stand by the process.


  1. I'm impressed. You were able to address conquer the scheduling monster with a win-win, and a beautiful moment for the kids. I also like the concept of a family meeting, but cannot imagine how we would implement one, for the very reason that we're all going so many directions at once. Which speaks to the need for one.

    1. just saw someone quote some Zen priest: everyone should meditate for 20 minutes a day, except for those who are too busy. They should meditate for an hour.

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