Before we start, it's important to point out that a family meeting isn’t a legislative body. That’s because a family isn’t a democracy. Although parents should encourage participation and respect the opinion of all members of the family, they should ultimately make the final decisions – unless they decide that a discussion will be put to a binding vote.
That is, after all, the way the real world works, too. Work isn’t democratic. With luck, you can be part of an organization that encourages employee input, or have a boss who’ll solicit your opinion, but ultimately a business is hierarchical.
Family meetings should be held on a set schedule, in a special place that feels at least a little ceremonial. Once a month is a good schedule to aim for, and the dining room is a good location if you have one. The kitchen table is just fine, too. You can make it look a little more official with little notepads and pencils at every seat.
You might also need to consider holding emergency family meetings. If the emergency meeting concerns the family - for example, someone not doing their chores – that person has to be present. Your preschoolers should be encouraged to attend family meetings, but you should understand that they will not always be able to focus on the discussion.
By the time children are in school; however, they should be required to attend and participate. A family meeting should begin with a written agenda, and all the discussions that take place at the meeting should be recorded in a family journal, which becomes a permanent record for your family. The journal should be kept where everyone can have access to it, perhaps in the family room, kitchen, or on the computer.
At each meeting, a Group Leader should preside and a Recording Secretary should take notes. Use your judgment on who in the family is old enough to handle these positions. Most 8-year-olds to 10-year-olds should be able to start taking on these responsibilities. It doesn’t matter how big or small your family is. If you’re a single parent, it’s every bit as important for you to treat family functions with the ceremony they deserve. Topics for family meetings may include major purchases, vacation planning, gifts, and charities to select.
On major purchases, you’re not going to take a vote. Whether or not to buy a new car is a discussion where the children can be part of a decision-making process. Children can help answer many questions. What do you need in a new car? How much room for passengers or cargo do you need? How safe or reliable a car do you want? What extras would you like - GPS, DVD, leather upholstery? How much can the family afford to spend for extras?
Have your children make a list of what you need and what you’d like in a new car. Take them to a car dealer and price all the options you’re considering. An alternative might be to do this on the Internet since most automobile manufacturers give prices online.
Still, remember that even if your children want a car with fire-ball racing stripes, and your budget allows for it, you get the last word. Decide what can and cannot be debated. Perhaps the children can help decide the car’s color, or whether you have two or four doors. But, in the case of a major purchase, it must be made very clear that the children will have input and consideration, but they will not have a vote on the final decision.
Deciding the family vacation is a marvelous research project. Using reference books, visiting the library, surfing the Internet and preparing budgets will challenge your children’s creativity as well as their math skills. A vacation is another area where you’ll be discussing how to balance the bottom line with priceless rewards. Will there be educational benefits to one vacation spot over another? How important is it to see Grandma? You’ll have to decide.
Some gifts, such as wedding or graduation presents, may be from the whole family, so the family should discuss them. You can then talk about appropriate gifts for different occasions and about spending different amounts of money on different people. This is a good time to discuss if the family wants to set dollar limits on gifts. To cut down on holiday gift-giving, you may also want to draw names from a hat and give a gift only to the person whose name you chose. A discussion on what method to use is another good decision making learning experience.
The family meeting is a celebration of the family. By joining together, you are emphasizing how lucky you are to have each other, to have a home and food on your table, to communicate with one another on issues if importance to all of you. Recognizing that others are less fortunate, and doing something to help, is a key element in this celebration. If you already support a charity, your child is probably already familiar with it. If not, a family meeting is a good time to discuss supporting one.
The family meeting will become an empowering experience for your children. They will see that the privilege of participating carries responsibilities. The experience will help them to become aware of the fact that they are a participating member of the family and a participating member of the community.