FAMILY MEETINGS, A FIRST TASTE OF DEMOCRACY

FAMILY MEETINGS, A FIRST TASTE OF DEMOCRACY

It’s a good idea to start regular family meetings when your children are young. Even preschoolers can contribute input on planned vacations, play dates, and reasonable house rules.

If you fear you’ll have to give everyone an equal vote and the kids will demand chocolate cake at every meal, relax: you retain the right to set parameters on meetings and house rules. A family-meeting tradition does, however, follow principles to make your household more of a democracy than a dictatorship:

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Everyone has a right to say what they think and why.

That’s of course with the understanding that they do have a responsibility to think.

Everyone has to present their opinions with whats and whys everyone else can understand.

If you’re old enough to talk in full sentences, you’re old enough to accept that there are more important things than instant gratification. (That applies equally to parents; no cutting discussion short with “because I said so.”)

No child, adolescent, or adult is allowed to belittle anyone else’s ideas, call names, or lose their temper.

Use majority vote with discretion.

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This key element of democracy is an important element of family meetings, but has its dangers. First, putting something to a vote means the subject is closed once that vote is taken, no further argument allowed. As a parent, you may welcome this as a means of barring sore losers from whining “it’s not fair” for the rest of the day; but remember that if you’re the one outvoted, it also means you can’t invoke parental authority and do things your way after all. Not unless you want to teach the kids you’re an untrustworthy person and that authority means the right to go back on your word.

Second, if you’re a family of extroverts with one introvert, or otherwise have standouts from the crowd, letting everything go by majority vote is likely to leave the minority voice feeling he’s always ignored. Or, worse, that something must be wrong with her for not enjoying what “everyone” likes. Make sure every member of the real “everyone” gets regular turns at his or her favorite things, even if working out fair compromises takes some effort.

Really listen to everyone’s ideas.

Often, the kids come up with the best compromises to please everyone—or with the best solutions for problems that get on everyone’s nerves, or the best ideas for budgeting extra money. As adults, we often disregard children’s ideas because they haven’t had enough life experience to form accurate ideas of what works and what doesn’t. We forget that our own “accurate” ideas are often ingrained prejudices against possibilities we’ve never given a chance. 

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Instead of smiling and patting children on the head when they make “cute” suggestions, ask them to elaborate on how it would go—and pay attention. You may find your mind opened to better possibilities than you ever considered.

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That’s the real purpose of family meetings: to collect input from everyone that will make life better for everyone.