The Family Meeting

Our last couple Montessori Messages have been about tools for navigating family dynamics. I knew I wanted to share about the power of family meetings, so I went to our shelf of photo albums and pulled out the blue pocket-folder we began using the year our kids were 6 and 8 years old. The four of us, mother, father, daughter and son, created a ritual of meeting weekly. We rotated the responsibilities of chairing the meeting and being secretary. We always sat at a cleared table and began with compliments for each other, then moved to problem-solving the items on the agenda. (The agenda was posted on the fridge for any of us to add items during the week, items we all needed to work on together.) We reviewed the next week’s activities as we looked at the calendar, made sure there was a fun family activity during the week ahead, and ended our time with a game or dessert.

This blue folder is now a treasure trove of memories. In the first few weeks, we grappled with how to get ready for bed in a reasonable amount of time (“Let’s try setting the timer for ten minutes, but no consequence; review next week.”), brainstorming in January about our summer vacation plans, how to respond to the (new) cat if he meowed in the middle of the night, and how to limit our water waste.

We ended up with some powerful benefits far beyond a folder of charming historical notes. It helped us carve out time to actively listen to one another. Because we were “authoritative style” parents, our children at this age understood that it was the parental job to set limits and make decisions for the family. So agenda items from the children were sometimes about changing those limits (e.g., what time to go to bed), and they could trust we would listen to their point of view. We’d all have to reach consensus on a new normal before a change was made. This certainly honed the kids’ skills of debate and persuasion, sometimes over the course of weeks. And it caused us parents to take a more objective view of our assumptions and defaults.

Other agenda items were inspired by the children's frustrations with each other, and it allowed a neutral space for everyone to share their thoughts and suggestions. (The third week, we grappled with younger brother’s habit of hitting his sister on the butt, termed “buck” by the children. Sister (secretary that week) wrote, “No one will not buck anyone without asking, and you can only ask once a day. The concequince [sic] is 3 cents for each buck.”) Some topics were a complete surprise to us, like when one child noted the need to talk about fears of the basement. And some topics were a complete surprise to the children, such as, "Papa’s going to start working outside the home full-time so how can we all pitch in more around the house?"

I don’t remember this particular conversation, but the notes say that in August, when our daughter was 9, “We discussed equality of persons and how it applies to us not buying a horse.” These kinds of topics made us parents have to think through and share our reasoning for the status quo. We opened our eyes more often to the question, “What if?”

For our children, they provided insights into family decision-making, ultimately helping them understand that something like choosing to get a horse, or deciding one’s bedtime, are not random, but are determined by careful consideration of many factors.

Our weekly meetings eventually spread to monthly meetings, and there are no notes after seven years of them. I like to think that we internalized this practice of “family meeting” and it didn’t need to be formal anymore. Perhaps this ritual sounds too formal for some families, but I wish everyone would try it for three months before deciding. At a minimum, you’ll have an entertaining set of notes to look at when you’re sitting in your empty nest a few years from now.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School