GETTING  STARTED—THE  FIRST  FEW  MEETINGS

Parents usually present the idea of having family council meetings and get the meetings started. Here are some issues parents want to consider:

  • Arrange the first meeting. Discuss the idea of having regular family councils with the children. Children must be involved in deciding whether to have family councils; parents should not force the decision. When children understand the value of family councils, they are usually enthusiastic.
  • Introduce family councils to young children. When children can talk well, they are ready for the experience of family councils. Keep the meetings brief and simple. Usually, participation in one issue per meeting is all we can expect of young children. Allow younger children to float from the meeting to a quiet activity they can do alone. Parents can briefly interact with young children when they “touch base” and involve them in the meeting. They won’t need to misbehave if they feel they belong and aren’t being rejected or ignored. As we continue to meet and children mature, we can move to longer, more formal meetings. Have each child be responsible for one aspect of the family fun time.
  • Involve both parents, if possible. Both parents must have a clear understanding of the meeting goals and be ready to function as equals with each other and the children. They must make a conscious decision to work together. If one parent doesn’t want to attend, the other can conduct meetings that focus on issues and decisions that only affect the members who are present. Do not use any decision to intentionally hurt or inconvenience the absent member—this will only create more resistance. When the spouse sees the benefits of the meetings, he or she may decide to participate.
  • Have some structure to the meetings. If children resist structured meetings, we can choose a more casual approach. We might say, “Let’s do something together this Sunday. Does anyone have ideas about where we could go?” The family can decide the time, the place, who will make preparations, and so on. Expect the children to carry out the responsibilities they chose. If they forget, do not single them out, criticize, or rescue them. (If we do, they won’t volunteer again!) Let everyone experience the consequences and brainstorm possible solutions. Our goal is to teach teamwork and reliance on each other, not to play “supervisor.”

 As family members learn to cooperate, we can informally begin to introduce problems or other family decisions. As they become used to working through problems and planning family fun, raise the idea of establishing more formal meetings so decisions can be made in one session each week.

  • Start with those who are willing to attend. Some family members may not be ready to discuss matters in a group setting, but you don’t have to abandon the idea. You can still hold family councils if most family members agree to attend. Those who do not attend the early meetings may decide to attend later, when they see the advantages.

  

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Family councils include parents, children, and anyone else who lives with the family and would be affected by decisions about the daily life of the family. Always leave the “door open” and make it clear that everyone is welcome, but not pressured, to attend family councils. 
  • Schedule the first meeting. During the first meeting, begin planning your format. The first family council needs to be a short one. It’s a good idea to have only one item of business at this meeting and plan an outing or fun activity for after the meeting. Later meetings can be longer and follow an agenda. Spend your first few meetings making the following decisions. Start with number one and try to get through number four during the first few meetings, if you can. You can discuss other decisions later.


Decisions  to  Make ☆☆☆☆

  1. When to meet. If you discuss nothing else the first meeting, try to decide this. Don’t use busy schedules as excuses not to have regular family councils. It is usually possible to find some half-hour period when everyone can come. If mealtime is the only time available, have your meal first, clear the table, and then meet.
  1. How often to meet. A family council is like any other commitment, such as a new exercise regime or going to religious services. If you make an excuse or exception even once, it’s hard to get back into the habit again. Get a commitment from everyone to schedule around this time. Schedule around children’s responsibilities and commitments that cannot be changed. 
    Hold family councils once a week, rather than once or twice a month or as needed. This helps prevent the council from seeming like a gripe session. Also, families can discuss issues before they become full-blown problems.

Some parents object to the idea of weekly or regular meetings. “We don’t need them,” they say, “We discuss things like this all the time.” It’s great if you talk regularly to your children, but councils can take these discussions to much deeper, meaningful levels.

  3.   Where to meet. Sitting at a cleared table is conducive to staying on task for formal problem solving. Sitting informally in a living room is more appropriate for an informal format. Writing, however, will be difficult. Try to find a setting where everyone is at an equal eye level. If parents sit at the head of the table or in a chair that implies an authority position, it is a nonverbal way of displaying superiority. Instead, set an atmosphere of equality.
      A Personal Story. Chris’ fifth grade class held weekly class meetings. When the class was deciding where to meet, they were concerned that Todd, who was wheelchair-bound, would feel different, because his wheelchair was higher than the classroom chairs. The class decided to find another room to hold their class meetings so Todd would feel like an equal participant. It took them several weeks of touring the school building to find just the right setting, but they did. Such consideration for Todd’s need was a beautiful illustration of being sensitive to every member’s needs during the meeting, even if only one member has a special need.
  4.   How long to meet. Plan the amount of time you will reserve for family councils. Unless you plan to spend a whole evening full of many fun activities, don’t let meetings run longer than 45–60 minutes with older children. Limit the time to about 10 minutes, but no longer than 20–30 minutes, when young children are involved. Start and end on time and stay focused. This shows respect for everyone’s time schedules.

 

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  5.   What to discuss.  People are always welcome to share news, feelings, problems, concerns, and decisions. They don’t have to request input or problem solving. Lessons, topics, finances, chores, and allowances may also be regular topics. (Don’t discuss these or other big parent issues until you’ve had a few meetings to discuss children’s issues. Otherwise, family councils will seem like forums only for parents to get what they want.) You’ll need to decide how to handle your agenda. Post it through-out the week? In what order will the family discuss issues? Use first-come-first-serve order or based it on priority and urgency? (Priority could be a sticky issue. Younger children’s issues are just as important to them as older children’s. Parents’ issues are not always more important than children’s.) 

Issues that effect the entire family are appropriate issues to discuss. Individual issues can only be brought up by the individual involved. Use one-on-one problem solving in private, first. If the two of you get stuck, you can offer the family council as a resource for additional ideas. It is the child’s decision, though, whether to bring the issue before the whole family.

Never handle individual discipline in a family council in front of other family members;  it’s humiliating. General discussions about consequences for certain rule violations are appropriate to discuss, as are setting up the rules, since this is revealing discipline.

  6.   Choose a format: informal or formal. Review the different formats and use problem solving to decide which activities you want the family council to have.
  7.   Roles. Decide which roles you will have in your meeting. Try to make sure everyone has something to contribute at each meeting. Decide whether people will volunteer for roles each week or if there will be a regular rotation schedule. If people volunteer, make sure everyone has an equal chance to have each role so they can develop a variety of skills

FAMILY  COUNCILS  USE  ALL  THE  TOOLS

To have effective family councils, we need to use all the tools we’ve learned, especially the communication and problem-solving skills. Establish basic ground rules for discussions that will model and teach others how to communicate respectfully and result in win/win solutions to problems and decisions that need to be made.

 

Prevention  Toolbox

  • Use the Self-Esteem Toolset to begin every council meeting in an encouraging way.
  • Use the balanced leadership styles in the Foundation-Building Toolset to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect.
  • Use the Universal Blueprint to identify who has a problem and use the tools and formulas we’ve learned to resolve the problem.
  • Use the Cooperation Toolset to involve everyone in decisions and the tasks to carry them out.
  • Use the Independence Toolset to teach skills, especially the communication and decision-making skills. (The other toolsets listed below are not in the PASRR order we learned them, but from least-used to most-used.)


Clear  Communication  Toolset 

The ground rules for expressing concerns in family councils: “Express yourself respectfully—no name-calling or blaming allowed. If someone has a concern, complaint, or idea, describe the problem and how you feel about it. Speak for yourself, without blaming or criticizing anyone else.”

 

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Use  “I”-messages:

  • Concerns: “I am (feeling) that I . . .” or “I’d like it if . . .” Not, “You make me feel . . .” or “You should . . .”
  • Complaints: “I’ve seen (describe the problem, with no names)” or “Sometimes (describe the problem) happens.” Not, “You always . . .”
  • Ideas: “I think we could . . .”  or “Can we . . .?” Not, “We should . . .” or “We have to . . .”

When someone violates these rules, suggest a better way to say it or summarize the statement, without the blame.

     “Could you try wording that without blaming Susan? Try saying, ‘When (describe behavior without blame) happens, I feel _____.’”
    “Can you describe how you feel, without calling names or labeling?”

This strategy prevents a discussion from becoming a heated argument and teaches family members to express themselves respectfully. You need to be careful to word your concerns respectfully, too. Don’t fall into these power play traps:

  • Nagging: “Remember, the meeting is at six o’clock.” Instead, make sure the time is clear and then show respect by not reminding.
  • Criticizing: “You didn’t . . .” or “No one does their chores on time unless I remind them.” Instead, “I feel frustrated when chores aren’t finished on time or without reminders.”
  • Threatening: “Everyone in this house needs to pull his weight or there’s going to be no social privileges!” Instead, talk less when revealing discipline and follow through with few words. “Everyone knows their responsibilities. These need to be met before we play or do something social.” Then simply follow through on the consequence if people break agreements.
  • Lecturing: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times . . .” Instead, ask open-ended questions, “What is our agreement about _____? Is there a problem with that time? Is there something you could do to help remind yourself?”
  • Probing: Listen and allow the child to initiate conversation. “Chad, how was your week? Did anything happen that you’d like to share with the family?
The ground rules for family council discussions: “When someone is speaking, everyone listens with respect without interrupting. We can summarize what the person is saying to make sure we understand, but we need to wait until the person is finished before giving our opinion.”

Everyone’s opinions and feelings are okay. When anyone expresses a feeling or complaint, model and teach the listening tools. This is especially important when children complain about parents’ actions. Here is an example of unhelpful and helpful responses to such a complaint:

Toby: “I don’t think it’s fair that you make me go to Uncle Henry’s. It’s so boring. All he does is tell war stories and watch TV. I’d have more fun getting a root canal!”

Unhelpful response: “Watch it, buddy! That’s my brother you’re talking about. He’s lucky he didn’t get killed in the war! If you weren’t such a spoiled brat, you’d appreciate all the wisdom and good things he’s given you. The least you could do is go and quit groaning about it.” A response like this will surely make Toby defensive and increase his resentment toward his parent and uncle.

 

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Helpful response: “I can understand how you would rather do something that is more interesting to you.” Wait for a response and reflect more, if needed, before you respectfully express your side of the issue. Then move into problem solving, “Visiting family is important to me. Even if I don’t have a lot in common with Uncle Henry, I still love him and want him to know we care. It’s important to me—and to him—that you visit with us. Can you think of a way that visits with Uncle Henry could be more interesting for you?”

When people complain, let them know you heard and understand them. Shift the focus to solutions, instead of rehashing complaints or the problem. Identify the issue for both parties. Toby’s issue is boredom and the parent’s issue is spending time with a valued, though admittedly difficult, relative. The F-A-X process can help parents and children reach win/win solutions.

 

Problem-Solving  Toolset

CONSENSUS  DECISION-MAKING ☆☆☆☆ 

When problems arise or decisions need to be made, the goal is to reach win/win solutions and agreements everyone agrees with. This is called consensus decision-making. The word “consensus” means “to think together.”

Never use voting as a regular form of decision-making. Every vote has winners and losers—and the losers often try to sabotage the decision.

Consensus  decision-making  involves  several  elements: Some people think consensus means “everyone states opinions and Mom and Dad decide.” If everyone agrees to abide by the parents’ decision, it’s a consensus decision. True consensus, however, considers all opinions.

  • Giving everyone an equal chance to be heard, contribute ideas, and influence decisions.
  • Working together to reach an agreement to which everyone is willing to commit (even if some members agree not to get their way).
  • Everyone understands the decision and is prepared to support it.

Consensus decision-making doesn’t mean parents have to go along with whatever the children want. Parents can present bottom-line limits for decisions and then focus the rest of the discussion on the choices within those boundaries. This can prevent families from going around in circles and splitting into “sides” of a decision.

It’s rare, but sometimes families need to discuss an issue for several meetings before they reach a consensus decision. (Each member thinks of ideas and gathers information between meetings.) While consensus decisions clearly take more time and effort than autocratic decision-making, they are much more effective and lasting. Everyone gets a say in the decision and at least part of the decision meets their needs. There is also little to no resistance or rebellion and those involved in the process usually follow through with few reminders.

To reach consensus decisions, follow the basic problem-solving steps we have learned and reviewed for different types of problems. Since the problem is a “family” problem, everyone can have the opportunity to give input at each step.

 
1. DEFINE  AND  SUMMARIZE  THE  PROBLEM
Ask the person with the complaint or issue to explain it. This step uses I-messages, reflective listening, open-ended questions, and summarizing the problem. Each person has an opportunity to voice a view

 

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of the problem and understand what others are feeling and thinking. Here are some tips to remember and pitfalls to avoid at this step:

Give everyone a chance to share feelings. Acknowledge each person’s opinion and summarize the problem after everyone has spoken. The Leader or Recorder can say, “So let me get this straight, Mom is really frustrated about (describe the problem). It bothers me a little bit. It’s not a problem at all for Joanne, and Bobby is also frustrated and would like the situation to improve. Do I have that right? Does everyone understand what the problem is and how each person feels? Okay, then let’s discuss what we can do about the problem.” This leads the family into creative brainstorming.

Limit griping. Reflect the complainer’s feelings and summarize the problem. Then shift the focus tosolutions, “So what do you think we could do about that?”

 
2. EXPLORE  ALTERNATIVES  THROUGH  BRAINSTORMING
Get children involved in coming up with solutions. Ask them for their suggestions first. Parents can add ideas only if necessary. The more involved the children are in offering solutions, the more likely they will carry them out.

Allow all ideas, no matter how silly. Silly ideas might contain the seed of a workable solution. The Recorder simply lists all the ideas until no one thinks of further ideas.

Ideas don’t “belong” to anybody. Once someone offers a suggestion, it becomes a general idea. When people take agreeing or disagreeing with an idea personally, remind them that this is just one idea, not “(name)’s idea.” Similarly, just because someone suggests an idea doesn’t mean he or she necessarily wants that idea to be the final solution.

Do not permit criticism of ideas. If someone disagrees with an idea or criticizes it, offer a reminder, “All we are doing right now is sharing any idea at all that comes to mind. We are simply listing them; we aren’t agreeing to use them. Everyone will have a chance to say how they feel about each idea when we have thought of every possibility.”

 
3. EVALUATE  THE  SUGGESTED  IDEAS
Give everyone a chance to express their opinions about each idea. Express opinions respectfully, “I am concerned about doing that because . . .” or “That idea could work if we did it this way . . .” Do not allow any comments such as “That idea’s stupid.” Ask what, specifically, they don’t like about the idea.

Emphasize the difference between details and matters of principle. If someone wants to discard an idea because of a serious concern, this opinion might carry more weight than disagreeing about a detail. You can usually work out details later, in the planning stage, if the family can agree on a general idea.

Deal with minority issues. If some people are unwilling to agree to an option most of the family wants, listen to their feelings and summarize their points of agreement and disagreement. Ask, “What would you need to hear or feel to consider this option?”

Pinpoint the real issues. Don’t get sidetracked by personal issues. If people simply want their way, encourage them to think about the entire family’s needs, “I’m sure we all would like to have our own way. It would be more helpful, though, if we can look for ways we can meet everyone’s needs. How can we resolve ___ in a way we can all agree?”

 
4. CHOOSE  AN  AGREEABLE  SOLUTION
Mix and match parts of ideas. Modify or combine ideas to reach a solution agreeable to everyone.

 

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Take a survey to see where everyone stands on a possible solution. “Could we all agree to . . .?”Although some people might have concerns about the plan, you might be surprised to find they are still willing to agree to it. Compromise by having a trial period or conditional agreement, “I’d be willing to agree if . . .” If the rest of the group agrees to the conditions, move on.

Plan the details. Decide who will do what, how it will be done, and when it needs to be completed. Get everyone’s input, ideas, and agreement on the plan. When appropriate, discuss the effect of broken agreements. Have children offer suggestions, rather than revealing discipline as the parent. If children suggest it and agree to it, they will be more likely to follow through and discipline themselves.

If you can’t reach a consensus decision, you have several options:

  • Table the discussion. Sometimes people need more time to think about ideas or their willingness to agree to the decision. Ask everyone to think of ideas or research information before the next meeting.
  • Make a decision smaller. Go with the part of the agreement everyone has agreed on and workout the rest of the details at the next meeting.
  • Make a temporary decision, until a more final decision can be reached. You can probably get people to agree to a temporary conditional decision. The decision might not be final, but it can be a starting place.
  • Agree to a trial period, with the understanding that the solution can be brought up for discussion later, if it doesn’t work.
  • If an urgent decision and action are needed, you can get a consensus decision for the parent to make an “executive decision.” (See the “Emergency Meeting” section for cautions and guidelines on this option.)

5. MAKE  A  COMMITMENT  AND  SET  A  TIME  TO  EVALUATE  IT
Get firm commitments. Summarize the agreement and ask if everyone agrees to it. If you get “I’ll try,” as a response, seek a more firm commitment. “‘I’ll try’ is not a commitment; it gives you an ‘out’ if you don’t feel like making the effort. We need a commitment from everyone. ‘Yes’ or ‘no’?”

Record the decision. Have the Recorder write down the final agreement and the details of the plan and file it in the family council notebook. If you make a schedule (e.g., for homework, chores, or allowances) or calendar, post it where everyone can see it.

Evaluate the plan. The minimum time to try out a plan is one week, until the next family council. (You might want to talk with younger children within a couple of days.) Then, ask everyone how the plan is working. Are there unexpected problems? Do you need to make adjustments? If all has gone well, agree to review the plan in several months.

The process of making decisions and solving problems is just as important as reaching a final decision. It may seem the prize we gain from problem solving is a win/win solution. The real prizes, though, are the valuable life skills everyone learns.

 

FAMILY  COUNCIL  TROUBLE-SHOOTING  GUIDE

Establishing new patterns of communicating and making decisions takes time. Developing and teaching cooperative leadership skills takes time and effort. It is natural and expected that difficulties will

 

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arise and “sour” meetings will occasionally occur. Don’t let this discourage you or cause you to give up on family councils. Instead, review your guidelines again and check this troubleshooting guide. For each suggestion, ask yourself, “Did we do this?”

Always start positively and end positively. Make a “positive sandwich,” where problems and more serious discussions are sandwiched between an uplifting beginning and a fun ending.

Keep a balanced, cooperative atmosphere.

  • Don’t use family councils as a court session or lecture forum. Resentment and resistance will only intensify.
  • Avoid an “us and them” attitude, with parents on one side and children on the other, especially when there is an only child.
  • Allow everyone to share opinions and feelings without criticism—no teasing or putdowns.
  • Make sure children’s issues get equal attention during the meetings. If they don’t offer opinions or ideas, make a point to ask them for input. When children feel their input is important, they start voluntarily participating more.

Keep out the welcome mat. Welcome everyone at your family councils, even if they have never attended or don’t feel like talking. They can simply sit and observe. If someone chooses not to attend a meeting or is unwilling to agree to a decision, they may be affected by decisions made in their absence. These are natural consequences, not intentional punishments for not attending. Make it clear that the decision isn’t written in stone and their input is valued and welcome. “We tried to consider what your feelings and opinions might be, but we couldn’t check with you first. If you’d like to come to the next family council, we’d be happy to include any ideas you have.”

Never throw a decision “in someone’s face” as a revengeful payback for not attending or participating in a decision.

Someone suggested growing a vegetable garden. I was allergic to fresh fruits and vegetables and hated weeding. Everyone else thought the garden idea was great, but I didn’t want to participate. “Why should I?” I thought, “I can’t even eat what we would grow!” The others tried to sway me to their side, but I wasn’t willing to make an honest commitment to the project. They decided to go ahead with the garden anyway, without me. I agreed to this. My parents revealed the consequence for my nonparticipation: “If you don’t help grow the garden, you can’t eat anything we grow.” That was fine with me. A Personal Story. By the time my parents learned about family meetings, my brother and I were teenagers. Our relationship was so bitter, it was difficult to sit in the same room, let alone respect each others’ ideas! Family meetings didn’t last long in our family, because not much information was available on troubleshooting. One family decision was handled so poorly I swore never to attend a meeting again.

Months passed and one night, during dinner, my mother served some juicy, red, sliced, home-grown tomatoes. I couldn’t eat raw tomatoes and didn’t plan to try these. She laid them in front of me and said, “Since you didn’t help grow these, you can’t eat any.” Her tone of voice hit me like she was rubbing the tomatoes in my face! I was hurt! Not because I couldn’t eat the tomatoes, but because they were used as revengeful punishment! I was so hurt by this incident that I withdrew from the family meetings and never attended again.

Take my advice: start family councils when your kids are young or after you learn how to do them helpfully. Keep reviewing information about constructive family councils. If someone’s feelings get hurt, deal with them. Apologize and make amends. Most of all, never use family council decisions to punish those who do not attend or participate.

 

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Focus on goals and solutions, rather than griping about why things aren’t working.

Stay on task. The Leader’s job is to see to it that everyone sticks to the point. Set time limits on discussions and refocus the discussion if it wanders from the topic. Break larger problems into smaller parts, focusing on one part at a time. A large family can break into smaller groups to discuss them.

Redirect disruptive behavior. Sometimes a child’s personality, energy level, or misbehavior goals can disrupt the family council. Handle misbehavior as you would any other time. Getting a child involved in the task at hand is the most effective way to Prevent misbehavior in a family council. When problems arise, briefly Acknowledge feelings, Set limits, and try to Redirect the behavior. We can also Reveal children’s choices; they can participate in the group in a helpful way or they can leave the meeting. They will have to abide by any decisions made in their absence, but are welcome to return to the council any time, when they are willing to conduct themselves appropriately. Only eject participants from the meeting as a last resort.

Reserve certain types of decisions for parents. Meeting together does not mean that the parents must always do whatever the children decide. Basic questions of health and well-being are parental responsibilities and the decisions are sometimes theirs alone to make. (Remember our first exercise in the “Parenting Styles” section about a father receiving a promotion that would involve moving?) If a decision has to be made without family input, discuss how everyone feels about the decision and how the decision can be made easier for the children. Involve the children in making the necessary plans to put the decision into action.

All decisions hold firm until the next family council. If people complain about decisions between meetings, simply reply, “That was a family decision, so the whole family needs to be involved in any changes. Put it on the agenda so you can bring it up again at the next family council.”

 

CONCLUSION

It may take several weeks or months to establish a comfortable, smooth family council routine. Be patient with your progress and concentrate on what is going well. Don’t expect your meetings to be thrilling every week. Expect to run into difficulties. Review the summary sheet before meetings (to prevent problems) and after sour council experiences (to rebuild trust and avoid similar mistakes in the future.) Learn from your mistakes and use what you learn to teach the whole family new skills that will prevent and resolve such pitfalls in the future.

Don’t expect solutions to last forever; that’s unrealistic. Choose an idea and try it for a week to see how it works. If it doesn’t work, put the problem back on the agenda and try again, and again. Remember the long-range benefits you are working toward. They are important enough to weather any short-term frustrations and failures, which are simply part of the growth and learning process.