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.)
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!