What’s an appropriate age for family meetings? Signed, My 3 year old daughter won’t go to bed and is driving me crazy.

Dear Crazy,

It looks like you’ve presented two issues, so let’s start with the first one about family meetings. Never underestimate your child’s ability to participate and benefit from a family meeting. I have done them with success with children 15 months old and would not hesitate to include an infant. The thing to remember is that you are creating a format so that you can come up with solutions as a family. This makes the family unit the authority instead of just you (which is a set up for power struggles). So when you begin having meetings don’t expect them to be the cure all. Instead break them down into steps to ensure success. Here are the things to remember:

Family meetings should occur once a week on the same day, at the same time.

Schedule a meeting between meals when folks are rested. I like 11 am because we have recently had snack and had some outdoor time, so we are ready to sit and listen and participate.

Sit at a cleared table, turn off the tv and phone.

Use a talking stick, only the person with the stick can talk.

Take turns leading the meeting and writing the minutes, keep a journal. It will remind you of what you did and it will be loads of fun to read years down the road.

REMEMBER: Meetings are for finding solutions, NOT FOR GRIPING OR BLAMING. (If folks need to gripe, schedule a gripe session for another time. At the gripe session set the timer for one minute and everyone gets to gripe at the same time. You’ll all end up laughing.)

For the first month follow this format:

Open the meeting by passing the stick around and inviting each person to share what they are grateful for. Thank everyone for their contributions, even the little one who says, “I like bananas.”

Pass the talking stick and have everyone make suggestions about what fun family activity you can do right after the meeting.

Vote on the suggestions. Expect the little ones to vote for each option. Don’t correct them, they’ll get it eventually. Be sure that the parents don’t always vote together.
Close the meeting by letting the leader choose a song for everyone to sing.

Go do the fun family activity.

The second month:

Introduce compliments. Pass the stick and have each person compliment themself. Alternate gratefuls and self compliments each week.

Introduce issues. Pass the stick and ask each person, “Do you have an issue that you would like help solving?”

Address the first CHILD issue that is presented. (Save adult issues for the next month.).

Pass the stick and have each person make a suggestion for a solution. If someone doesn’t have one let them “PASS”. Have two solutions yourself in case no one offers one. Make sure solutions are RELATED, RESPECTFUL AND REASONABLE!

Let the person with the issue decide: either they choose a solution or the family votes. Vote if the issue concerns the entire family.

Sing. Have dessert.

The third month:

Introduce complimenting each other. Have each person compliment the person sitting next to them (let the leader decide which direction to go) by acknowledging something that person did. Now alternate gratefuls, self acknowledgments and complimenting others, one per meeting.

Introduce the written agenda. Folks may write, draw a picture, or dictate their issue. Vote on how may issues they can write each week. Post the agenda in a central location. When someone comes to report an issue invite them to write it on the agenda. Follow the agenda in sequence. Ask each person if it is still an issue for them. Often times they have resolved it themself. Ask if they would like to share how they solved their problem.

Adults may begin to present an issue. ONLY ONE ADULT ISSUE PER MEETING FROM HERE ON OUT! I suggest that the first time one parent present an issue about the other parent to help the children realize that it’s not the adults versus the kids.

Phrase your issue this way: “I am having a problem with (the situation). Can you please help me come up with a solution?” Folks want to help us when we take responsibility for us having a problem rather than blaming others.

Strive to arrive at a consensus where everyone agrees on one solution so the family is not divided on issues that involve the family as a whole. Frame the solutions as “an experiment” that you’re going try for a week. If someone isn’t happy with the outcome, including yourself, then they can put it on the agenda for the next meeting.

If you haven’t done so already, vote on how long the meetings will last. I recommend that you keep them short, so folks will continue to want to attend. (If an older child does not want to attend, that’s fine. Once they realize that decisions are being made for them they might change their mind.)
Extras: A family member may call a mid- week meeting, if desired.

As children get older, use family meetings to schedule everyone’s events for the coming week and enter them on a calendar.

Schedule date nights: FOR A FAMILY OF FOUR: One per week.
Week 1: Dad & child A, Mom & child B
Week 2: Dad and Mom
Week 3: Dad & child B, Mom & child A
Week 4: Family Date

Everyone follows the agreed on solutions until they reappear on the agenda. NO FALLING BACK ON THE ADULT’S RETAKING CHARGE (unless of course it’s a safety issue.)

Have a meeting each week even when there are no issues. Have News Period instead.

REMEMBER: You are setting the stage for the future by creating a format that your family will be so familiar with that when you REALLY have issues you’ll be able to solve them as a family in a respectful, cooperative way.

Single parent or roommate family units can have meetings as well as larger family units. Use the same format. I know of one family of three in which the teenage son and Dad refused to participate. Mom kept an agenda, and had a meeting with herself in a locked bathroom, with the mirror. She got clear on how she felt about things and decided how SHE was going to handle things, NOT HOW SHE WAS GOING TO TRY TO MAKE OTHERS DO THINGS. Then she informed the family of her conclusions. I often wonder if son and Dad came around.

Classes can use this format too. Place chairs in a big circle. Majority rules.

PHEW! Now onto part two: My 3 year old won’t go to bed and she’s driving me crazy.
I can hardly let that go by without addressing it! Yes, certainly bring it up at a family meeting! And as you can see, it’s going to be a few months until you can bring up an issue, so let’s see what your options are in the meantime. You could try having a heart to heart chat about it in a neutral moment and try to find out what your 3 year old needs to go to bed more peacefully. Maybe the two of you can compromise on a plan that meets both your needs. Look at what you can do environmentally too. By that I mean rethink your bedtime routine and involve your child in creating a new one. Write down everything that needs to happen before bed. Estimate how long each step takes, and go backwards from the time you want lights out to figure out when you need to start. Include a bath with some soothing oils. Play the same soothing CD every night. Help your child create inner resources to help him/her feel safe. Inner resources can include: stuffed animals arranged around the bed (don’t do this with infants though—it’s a safety issue!), or imaginary creatures of his choosing that come come to his aid and offer comfort and support. If “monsters” are an issue make some magic “monster spray” to spray around. Be sure to cut back on nap time too. Maybe 1/2 hour is enough, or simply some down time with a book. Get in lots of tiring activities in the afternoon to make sure your child is ready for bed! Bear through the melt downs before dinner, consider earlier meals for a few weeks and try to keep your child up so they’ll get to bed between 7-8 pm and sleep until morning. Keep your chin up. You’ll figure out something that works. We’re all rooting for you!