How Family Meetings Look at our House

by Suzita on October 2, 2014

Summer is definitely over.  Sometimes it feels like we have four seasons in our family – winter, spring, summer, and chaos – or back to school season.  Don’t get me wrong, I love it when my kids return to school, and for the most part they do as well.  But for the last 2 years we’ve had kids in 3 separate schools – elementary, middle, and high, and it’s been a lot to manage.

Back to school time is like a wave crashing down. It knocks you over, then swirls you around under water for long enough that you’re beginning to worry, until at last the water recedes.  You plant your feet on the sandy bottom and take a deep breath, thankful that you survived, smiling at the folks at the water’s edge – when the next wave crashes down on you.

These last couple of school-year beginnings have felt this way to me.  So I did what I often do.  Rather than reinvent the wheel (or the life jacket), I sought out ways others are coping.

My sister heard about a book she thought I might like (need), The Secrets of Happy Families:  Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More, by Bruce Feiler.  With that title, how could I not read it?

Feiler searches for new ideas in various fields, and applies these to families – something I enjoy doing myself.  As I read through his book, the sentence that caught my eye most was:

“Weekly family meetings quickly became the single most impactful idea we introduced into our lives since the birth of our children.”

I’ve been meaning to put some kind of family meeting in place at our house for maybe a decade now.  This was a sign the time had come!

How To Do It

Feiler models his weekly family meetings on the business world’s movement called “agile development,” a way of running an organization from the bottom up as well as top down.  This strategy uses regular check-ins with many small teams about what is working and not working in an organization.  Feiler’s agile-style family meetings are based on 3 simple questions.

1. What things went well in our family this week?

2.  What went wrong in our family this week?

3.  What will we work on this coming week?

It sounded so straight-forward, I had to give it a try.

How It’s Worked So Far

Family meetings have been slightly less life-altering for us than Feiler, but I’m still glad we started them.  My kids are currently 11, 14 and 16 (girl, boy, boy).  While these are clearly important ages to stress communication, these are also ages when communication, especially with teenage males, begins to decelerate.

Our family meets on Sunday evenings and uses Feiler’s 3 questions as our foundation.  We often start by recapping the previous week, because honestly there are times when things are so hectic that it’s hard to remember what we’ve just come through.  Lately we pat ourselves on the backs for simply making it through the last week.

After this, we’ve had some worthwhile conversations about what’s worked well in the prior week.  Other families profiled in The Secrets of Happy Families seem to regularly have deep and meaningful conversations in their family meetings.  At this point, I wouldn’t call our conversations deep.  I hope that doesn’t mean our family is more shallow than others.  Maybe that’s why our family isn’t profiled in Feiler’s book?   Anyway, our meetings remain a work in progress.  Hopefully they’ll gain depth with time.

Feiler emphasizes the importance of focusing on your family as a unit, not how well each individual has done in the previous week.  Along these lines, our conversations have been beneficial, helping us feel we are on the same team.

My kids have been less communicative about what has gone wrong in the previous week.  It’s tricky because if the kids don’t bring the “problem” issues up, it’s just Todd and me presenting the negatives.  Our family meeting could morph into a place where kids might get in trouble from the top down.  We have emphasized to our kids that these meetings are a time when anyone can say what they feel is working or not, and that perhaps they’ll find a way to fix what’s not working.  Perhaps we need to say or do more in this area, though.

As I write this, I realize we have additionally begun to drop the ball a bit with question 3 – What will we work on this coming week?  We seem to be skipping this subject.  Hmm.  This may be because we haven’t focused as much on what’s gone wrong.

What’s Worked Well

On the other hand, many things have been going well in our weekly meetings.  We never meet for much longer than 20 minutes.  Feiler suggests this, and I second it.  It’s a way of respecting people’s time, and if you have adolescents, it’s a way of acknowledging that they will often begin to shut down (even more than usual) if you talk too long with them.

I just read another great book that suggested if you are telling an adolescent something important, you have 60 seconds of their attention.  Get in and get out.  Interesting.  In the same vein, one of my parental ulterior motives for these meetings is to teach my kids what an efficient meeting looks like – useful information when they enter the labor force some day.

At the end of our meeting each Sunday we open the calendar to clarify what’s in store for the upcoming week.  We ask the kids to let us know if there is anything significant (perhaps an audition or exam) not listed, and mention that it’s important for each of us to know when someone is facing something challenging so that we can support each other.

Our most recent family meeting followed a week when 4 out of 5 of us had been sick.  Todd made the valuable point that when someone is sick, we expect the others to step up and offer extra help either to them directly or around the house.  (When our kids were younger, they wouldn’t have needed this reminder, but it seems that older kids often forget this message.)

Unexpected Experiences

Going through the calendar together each week has somewhat surprisingly become an easy method for considering each person’s priorities.  Todd and I attempt to embrace simple living in our family and these meetings have unexpectedly become a place to highlight some important aspects of simple living.

-How to politely decline an invitation or request.

-What our top priorities are currently at a given moment.

-Whether or not each of us feels over-scheduled and what to do about this.

I think what I’ve most appreciated about our family meetings is that they are a regular time to think together about some of these crucial life issues.  I see this as a process.  As we repeatedly discuss these essential topics, our kids will slowly improve at:  saying no to some of the myriad of opportunities flooding their in-boxes, knowing their priorities, and regularly scheduling down-time in their full lives. And hopefully their parents will too.

 

What elements have led to successful family meetings at your house? What hasn’t worked?  Leave a comment!

 

 

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Sharing Vulnerability with Kids

by Suzita on February 14, 2014

To-Shin Do White BeltVulnerability.  That feeling of being completely exposed, clueless, clumsy in front of others.  Our kids may be better at vulnerability than we adults are.  Growing up requires them (forces them) to learn new skills and experience novel situations all the time.  Heck, every school year is like learning the ropes of a new job with a new boss.

Sometimes I forget that feeling vulnerable and unsure is such a regular part of my kids’ lives.  Recently I was reminded of this uncomfortable experience in my own life.

An Unexpected Gift

It started positively.  An unexpected gift.  My sons, Stephen and Daniel, train in To-Shin Do – a defense-oriented martial art that teaches awareness of one’s surroundings and ways to defend oneself if attacked.  When my boys venture out some day to travel the world, their To-Shin Do practice is going to help keep my anxiety in check.

I was watching my sons in a To-Shin Do class from the comfortable distance of an extremely poofy couch in the lobby.  After the class, the director of the dojo informed me that a student who had begun training had not been able to continue.  She had turned her prepayment into a scholarship.  The director then told me that this anonymous person had asked that the scholarship be donated to me.  Me?!

I’d been watching my kids learn this cool martial art for almost 2 years and had often been curious about training myself.  But with 3 children in our family, my own training hadn’t been in the cards financially.  My boys had periodically suggested, “You should train here too!”  Here was my chance.  I was being offered the opportunity to try something amazing, and I had an anonymous benefactor!  I didn’t know which was more remarkable.

A Sign

I was a bit hesitant about the time commitment.  And I’m reluctant to say that I was going to miss that soft couch, and the enjoyable conversations I tended to have with other parents watching the To-Shin Do classes.  Still, it was a sign of some sort.  How could I pass up a sign?

Beginner Status

Everyone begins To-Shin Do as a “white belt.”  Picture those karate uniforms.  Well, mine was all white.  Marshmallow came to mind when I looked in the mirror.  In To-Shin Do, all ages train together at each level.  The first classes were fun and pretty challenging.  My initial thought was, this is harder than it looks from the couches.  I regretted the comments I’d previously made to my kids on our rides home, “Slow your body down so you won’t hurt the other person.”  During my first week of training, I realized just how hard it is to “slow your body down.”  I apologized to my kids for coaching them on a sport I’d never done.

A Hard Class

About a month into my training, still wearing my marshmallow attire, I attended a class which included 15 other students (mostly adults), 7 assistants (students further along in the process) and 2 instructors – a large class.  As is often the case when I begin something new, the skills I need to practice are not those I initially expect.  I had realized over the first month that one of the main lessons I needed work on at To-Shin Do was acknowledging when I didn’t understand something and asking for help.  My eternal lesson.  But I was attempting to embrace it as much as I could.

On that day, I looked around me.  I’d never been in a class this large before.  Everyone else had been training longer than me.  I quickly made a deal with myself to lower the bar regarding admitting what I didn’t know, just for that day.  Additionally there were a number of adults I happened to know observing from the comfy couches.  The marshmallow was a bit nervous.

The Dreaded Rolls

Midway through the class, I was feeling pretty good about not calling too much attention to myself when one instructor requested we form 2 lines and do rolls (like partial somersaults) one at a time down the mat.  This was not good at all.  I’d never been taught to roll.  Rolling is awkward in and of itself, but I’d noticed previously that a roll gone bad was likely to end in any number of unfortunate positions.

My first strategy was to move to the end of one line in an attempt to learn by watching.  As I observed, I became more concerned.  In To-Shin Do you roll over one shoulder, not both like a typical forward roll.  My boys had warned me that rolling was hard at first.  Great.

Vulnerability in Action

For about a minute I had a mini-battle with myself between just faking it and asking for help.  I must add that I found this predicament particularly frustrating because as I’ve mentioned before, I spent my childhood doing gymnastics.  This kind of thing usually comes easily to me – or at least that was my view of myself.  Because of this I was seriously considering the faking-it route, when I recalled a message from the book I’d been reading, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown.  Brown writes that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is the route to living fully.  It’s something I’ve always wanted my kids to feel comfortable doing, so it was something I needed to practice myself.

I raised my hand and said, “Will you show me how to roll?  I haven’t been taught this roll before.”  Everyone’s head turned.  Surprisingly, a usually patient instructor responded, “Yes you have.  I’m sure you have.”  It was one of those slow motion moments when you are in the experience but are simultaneously watching yourself from a distance.  The watcher-me noticed that everyone was quiet, staring at the interaction between the instructor and me.

Once more I practiced standing up for myself.  So much fun.

“No, I’m sure I haven’t learned this roll.  I don’t even know how to start it.”

After this, a coach showed the roll (in front of everyone) and I did it, sort of.  My roll ended completely sideways, with my feet almost kicking the mirrors at the edge of the mat.  Lovely.  Then I did another which was only ever-so-slightly better, then another, etc.

You might think that when I reached the end of the mat, I’d nearly mastered the roll and was much relieved.  No.  Actually by the end of the mat I had decided that, benefactor or no benefactor, I didn’t want to do To-Shin Do anymore.  And to make matters worse, I was dizzy from all that rolling.

After Thoughts

At the end of the class, I quickly slunk out of the dojo to the privacy of my car thinking I’m glad my boys didn’t see that.  But in my car, I again contemplated Brené Brown’s words.  She actually would have been proud of me for gracelessly rolling in front of numerous strangers.  She would have reminded me that:

 Vulnerability is not a weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional.  Our only choice is a question of engagement.  Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.  When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.

Sharing Vulnerability with Others

Brené Brown also would have encouraged me to share this experience with my family.  So at the dinner table that evening, I did.

I must say that my kids and Todd were all very sweet about my embarrassing situation.  Each one gave me an example of a time they’d felt similarly, and we laughed quite a bit.  One son told me that white belt rolls are the hardest ones.  The other said that everyone goes sideways when they first try them.

After dinner, we moved to the living room rug and Stephen and Daniel (and Annie who used to take To-Shin Do and hopefully will again someday) helped me practice the over-one-shoulder rolls and even showed me a trick that allows you to roll straight.

On the Other Side

I felt much better after talking to my family.  I decided to return to classes the next week, but mostly I was reminded of the parenting message in Daring Greatly.  Like Brené Brown states, “I want our home to be a place where we can be our bravest selves and most fearful selves.  Where we practice difficult conversations and share our shaming moments from school or work.”

So thanks to an anonymous benefactor, I am not only learning To-Shin Do, but practicing speaking up, getting better at being vulnerable regularly, and connecting with my kids around a sport that we share and in which they have become some of my most helpful teachers.  And finally, by showing my kids my struggles, I hope I am reminding them that our home is a place to share theirs.

 

How do your kids respond when you share your vulnerabilities with them?  Leave a comment below!

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How a Child Gets from Boredom to Creativity

October 25, 2013

I love the concept that a bored child, if left alone, eventually finds his or her way to creativity.  Whenever I read about this, as a mom I am filled with renewed hope and energy. “I’m going to let the kids be bored!  I can do this.  By the end of today, great things will […]

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Alaska Impressions

September 5, 2013

    “Mama, I’m going to walk in front with the ranger!  I want to hear her tell which berries I can eat.  Oh, and did you see how big the bald eagle’s nest was?!  I spotted the baby birds inside,” Daniel, my 13 year-old, rapidly informed me as he ran ahead along the beach […]

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“You need to talk more in class.” Introverted Kids in Today’s Schools

April 18, 2013

Ashley is an 11 year-old who lives in our neighborhood.  She’s soft-spoken and curious.  Her big brown eyes constantly take in the world around her.  A while back I bumped into Ashley’s mother and we got to talking.  I asked how Ashley’s transition to middle school had gone this year, since our son Daniel had […]

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How to Beat Cabin Fever: The Art of Roughhousing

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When our middle child, Daniel, was 3 one of the phrases we’d regularly hear was, “Will you roughhouse me please?”  He was so desperate for this kind of play that it was the only time he consistently used the word “please.”  It worked.  Saying please usually does.  I regularly got down on the carpet with […]

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To Err is Human: 5 Ways Your Mistakes Can Make You a Better Parent

February 20, 2013

Please tell me something like this has happened at your house too.  Two weeks ago my husband Todd was sick with a flu that snuck by the flu shot mix this year.  He felt terrible for over a week, poor thing.  One weekend day I’d taken our oldest to an activity while Todd stayed home […]

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Promoting Your Child’s Passions

November 8, 2012

On our vacation to the East Coast last summer, I spent time with my childhood friend, Virginia, and her 4 kids.  Her oldest child, Micah, had just turned 15 when I saw him.  I don’t usually expect 15 year-old boys to be great conversationalists.  And for the most part Micah was succinct, though polite when […]

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During Life’s Tough Times – 6 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Uncertainty

September 27, 2012

Our middle son, Daniel, just began middle school.  A middle child in middle school.  It’s gone about as you would expect from that combination – not too well.  Daniel now attends our neighborhood middle school, but comes to it from an elementary school across town with few friends in tow. The challenge is that most […]

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Trading Intangibles: The Parenting Strategy We’ve Been Waiting For

September 6, 2012

When my daughter Annie was 8½, she began noticing people’s earrings.  “Mama, did you know so many people had earrings?  I like the dangling kind best,” Annie informed me.  Not long after she made the tentative comment, “Maybe some day I could get my ears pierced.” Instead of responding with dread, which admittedly I felt […]

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