14.1 Family Council Toolset
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FAMILY COUNCIL TOOLSET
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14 FAMILY COUNCIL TOOLSET
If we perform regular maintenance on our house, we can sometimes prevent problems or solve them before they get worse. If we don’t do regular maintenance, we are always moving from crisis to crisis. In families, we want to have regularly scheduled family councils, not just when there is a problem. If we have ongoing family councils, we can use all our effective parenting tools to prevent problems, make family decisions, teach skills, and enrich our family relationships.
IN THIS CHAPTER
When families hold regular, productive councils, children and parents look forward to them and actively participate. There are many pitfalls families can fall into when conducting family councils. That’s why it’s important to know what to do, and what not to do. The Family Council Toolset asks us to consider three important ideas:
WHEN TO USE THE FAMILY COUNCIL TOOLSET
We use the Family Council Toolset weekly, to hold regularly scheduled family councils. We can also use the ideas and tools in The Family Council Toolset to make any decision or solve any problem that affects the entire family.
THE PURPOSE OF FAMILY COUNCILS
Today, families are so busy, they sometimes stay in touch on the run, only stopping to communicate when there are problems. Listening to children’s ideas takes time and energy. It seems faster and easier for parents to make all the decisions and solve all the problems. When families do spend time together, many are often in front of the television. Parents might scold children who talk, because they are bothering others. Meeting regularly to talk to each other can seem awkward and unnatural. It’s not surprising so many parents resist regular family councils.
Healthy families spend time together regularly to share their joys, frustrations, and daily happenings. Their conversations go beyond superficial issues and scheduling activities. They get to know each other on a deeper level. Parents listen with respect to their children’s opinions and involve them in making decisions that affect them. Because they talk often, healthy families avoid many potential problems. When problems do arise, parents involve children in solving them.
A family council is a regularly scheduled time when family members get together to accomplish any or all of the following goals:
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THE BENEFITS OF FAMILY COUNCILS
Effective family councils have many positive short-term and long-term results, including the following benefits:
Single-parent households can still hold family councils although one parent will not be participating. Families can discuss the shared grief and adjustments that can result from the separation, divorce, or
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death of a parent. Increased teamwork and bonding reduces stress and provides support to each family member. In families affected by divorce, the family council is not an appropriate forum for discussing matters that relate to the children’s relationship with the absent parent. Those matters are between the children and the absent parent. If parents get involved in these issues, they need to handle them individually, using one-on-one problem solving (Child Problem Toolbox)—but only if they can be objective. (No criticizing the ex-spouse!)
Foster families find that family councils are particularly helpful when bringing new foster children into their family. Many foster children come from homes in which fear, anger, withdrawal of love, neglect, or abuse was the norm. The foster child’s family rules are usually different from the foster family’s. Most importantly, foster children usually have low self-esteem and expect rejection. The positive tone of family councils can give them the encouragement and life skills they might not have learned. The family council experience can make a great impression on a foster child’s life.
A Personal Story. When I worked at a runaway shelter, we had regular “house meetings.” Although there were some set rules, teen residents shared their ideas, concerns, and problems. We jointly planned the menu, grocery list, chore roster, and recreational activities. These teens, who were feeling rejection from their own families, gained a sense of belonging, acceptance, friendship, responsibility, and respect from the house-meeting experience.
Blended families particularly benefit from family councils. Blended families are two separate families with different expectations, personalities, and ideas who are becoming a new unified family. Rules, roles, and responsibilities need to be redefined. Children resist and rebel if the “new” parent makes these decisions for them. Involving children through family councils creates new, jointly-agreed-upon rules and roles. Just as important, family councils help new parents and step-children get to know each other, providing a safe place to share fears and hopes for the family. Family members develop a feeling of being on a new team—one where each member is important to the whole team.
School classrooms and other groups can also modify the family council ideas to fit their needs. (A terrific resource for teachers is Positive Discipline in the Classroom, by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen Glenn; Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA 1993.)
FAMILY COUNCIL ROLES ☆☆☆☆
There are four roles every family council needs, despite the format or other optional roles families can choose. (If there are less than four family members, someone can take on an additional beginning or ending role.) Have someone in the family be responsible for the following roles:
The Leader starts and ends the meeting on time, makes sure all points-of-view are heard, and helps keep members focused on the issues. The Leader models mutual respect and effective communication skills. Parents can be the Leader first, to model the skills. Then the family can rotate the responsibility between children and parents. Generally, school-aged children can serve as the Leader with adult guidance. A good way to start is by co-leading with the child. Explain the basics of the Leader’s role and the decision-making process. Let the child move through agenda items and problem-solving steps. Only step in to remind the child of procedures.
It can be tricky for the Leader to shift roles, from leadership responsibilities to a family member with personal opinions, ideas, and feelings. As family members become skilled in respectful communication, they will naturally offer comments and suggestions that a Leader might offer. Also, children who lead a family council become increasingly skilled at shifting gears and keeping the discussion on track.
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A Personal Note. Chris suggested the title of “The Big Cheese,” for this role. It doesn’t matter what you call a position, as long as someone performs the tasks. When Amber was the Leader, at age 3, she sat on my lap. I helped her read the agenda items and whispered comments in her ear to keep the discussion moving.
One way to rotate roles equally is to make a two-wheeled gadget with each person’s name on the outer wheel and roles on the inner wheel. Attach the wheels with a two-pronged brass fastener. Each week, turn the wheel one space, so everyone has a new role.
FAMILY COUNCIL ROLE ROTATION WHEEL
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If a family has only two members, a single parent and child, one can have a leadership role (Leader or Recorder) and a “fun” role (Icebreaker or Anchor-person.) Besides these four roles, there are other optional roles, based on the format you choose. Read over the following format options and select (in your first family council meeting) those features and roles which suit your family best.
If a family follows some basic guidelines, they can decide on their own the structure and details of their family council. Some family councils are formal and structured, almost like a business meeting. Others are informal and less-structured. Some structure and flow are necessary, or discussions get side-tracked and people feel frustrated. Each format has additional roles that family members can share or rotate. If young children want a role that seems too difficult, parents can help them with the task. Let the child decide what to do and how to do it. Work side-by-side, teaching skills and only helping with physical tasks that might be too difficult.
Formal Business Meeting Format
This format works well with older children who have good verbal skills, particularly teens. The focus is on communication—sharing opinions, making decisions, and setting rules. The roles and agenda are more business-like.1
FORMAL BUSINESS MEETING ROLES
FORMAL MEETING AGENDA
- Opening ice-breaker.
- The Recorder reads the minutes of the previous meeting.
- “Old business.” Discuss any issues left unresolved from last time.
- “New Business.” Discuss any issues, problems, or decisions the family has listed on an agenda that is posted throughout the week. Usually, families discuss issues in the order they are listed, which motivates children to put their issues on the agenda before the meeting. If there are no issues, the family can discuss a topic.
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|5.||After discussing as many agenda items as time allows, the Recorder summarizes the meeting by reviewing decisions, agreements, and commitments. The Leader confirms everyone’s commitment to the decisions they reached.|
|6.||Family members agree on roles for the next meeting and record any issues they didn’t get to discuss. A blank agenda is posted for issues members want to discuss at the next family council.|
Informal Family Council Format
The informal family council is more fun-oriented, but is still structured. The family talks and takes care of family business, but there are more opportunities for children to have a role in the meeting. The flow is less business-like and more easy-going. There are more optional roles.
INFORMAL FAMILY COUNCIL ROLES
INFORMAL COUNCIL AGENDA
- The Ice-breaker leads a compliment activity or other exercise to bring out positive feelings between family members.
- The Recorder lists any issues left unresolved last time. Discuss and resolve these first.
- The Leader asks if there are any issues, problems, or decisions the family would like to discuss. The family can decide whether they want preplanned or impromptu topics. (The order of the remaining items can be switched.)
- The Lesson Planner reads a book or leads an activity that teaches a positive family value. Families with older children can discuss a topic, if they choose. Some examples of lesson activities are listed at the end of this chapter.
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Choose whatever optional roles and activities your family wants. Help everyone feel involved and let each person contribute something. Make sure there is a Leader to keep things on track and a Recorder to write the decisions you make. The rest is up to the family—be creative!
A Graduate’s Example. When Paul and Carrie took my parenting class, they had four children (the oldest was six) and had conducted “Family Home Evenings2” since their oldest child was two. They introduced me to new ideas for making family councils less rigid, more fun, and just as effective as formal meetings. Here is how they structured their Family Home Evenings:
Each family member over the age of two had a role or responsibility, even if the parent helped. As children became old enough to participate, they added another role, to make sure everyone had something to contribute to the evening. Children had full responsibility for choosing and planning their activity. (They often took pride in making it a surprise.) Younger children chose an activity and a parent helped the child only as much as necessary. One child always chose the same game to play, but that was okay, because it was her turn to pick a game.
When Paul or Carrie chose the lesson, story, or game, they would sometimes incorporate an issue they were dealing with in the family. For example, they might read a book about sharing, if the kids had been getting into tug-of-wars that week. They would discuss how people feel when others don’t share, why we share, and what to do when someone (including you) doesn’t want to share. I thought this approach was a great improvement over “We have a problem with people not sharing” as a business agenda item.
This, I thought, is the kind of family council experience everyone needs to have. My kids (three and seven at the time) were bored and resistant to the restrictiveness of our formal family meeting structure. When I included some of these informal ideas, my kids started showing enthusiasm for family councils again.
Emergency meetings may occur only for decisions that absolutely can’t wait for the regular family council. During these meetings, only discuss and decide the emergency issue. Postpone other topics until the next regular meeting.
If the family can’t agree on a decision and some action is needed, parents can make a temporary decision until the family can more fully discuss the matter. If all family members are willing to abide by a majority vote, this is the only time that voting is allowed. If parents make the decision, they can prevent power struggles and resentment by saying, “It appears that we’re not ready to make a decision on this yet. Something must be done about it right away, so I will consider your opinions and make the decision. We can discuss it more next week.”
Be cautious with emergency meetings and decisions. Closely evaluate whether an issue actually needs immediate attention. If the family is pressured to make an unnecessary quick decision, they might later resent it and rebel. Parents need to reserve their “executive decision-making privilege” for critical emergency decisions that cannot wait. If parents choose this option, they need to get everyone’s agreement to abide by it until the family can resolve their differences. Often, just this suggestion alone will spur those people who have dug in their heels or are on the fence to make a commitment to a solution.
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Hold maintenance meetings periodically, to discuss how everyone feels the family council is going. Is it too negative, too long, or too structured? Is everyone encouraging equal respect for opinions and ideas? Are people listening and speaking respectfully? If the family council seems problematic, schedule a maintenance meeting. If things are going well, plan one at least once a year, just to make sure the family thinks about progress and improvements. As children mature or schedules change, you may need to review some “first meeting” decisions.
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