Bruce Feiler: Number one problem in families — our lives are chaotic. Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute asked a thousand children, “If you could be granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?” The parents predicted the kids would say spend more time with them, but they were wrong. The kids said they wanted their parents to be less tired and less stressed.
So how do we become less stressed? The number one thing that I found in looking at high-functioning families is that they adapt all the time. I thought as a parent, "I’ll make a few rules, I’ll stick to them; it’ll be easy." Turns out it doesn’t work that way. You need a system to adapt, but you can’t adapt all the time. If you’re fighting over the broccoli on Tuesday or trying to get the mittens on to go to school on Thursday morning, you don’t want to have the conflict in that actual moment.
And so we have adapted the system that many families are doing and it’s called a family meeting. And we meet 15-20 minutes every Sunday night. And we ask three questions taken from agile development, which is a system that began in the software world that has now taken over management. And the three questions are what worked well in our family this week, what didn’t work well, and what will we agree to work on in the week ahead.
And here’s the key to the whole thing. We actually allow our kids, with adult supervision, help pick their own rewards and punishments. It sounds crazy. Anybody who’s not done it thinks the kids will be incredibly lax. Anybody who’s done it knows the kids are very, very strict. In fact, our girls are like little Stalins. We constantly have to dial them back. So let’s take this week. We’re working on overreacting — a common problem that parents have. We say to our kids, “Okay, get me a reward.” And one says, “If we get five minutes of overreacting this week. If we get under that we get a sleepover. If we’re over that we have to do one pushup for every minute over five minutes.”
First of all, I would never have picked that reward and punishment. Secondly, it’s actually that thinking that I’m really after here. And then my other daughter says, “Is that one five-minute overreaction or 10 30-second overreactions?” I loved that. I could never have created that sense of involvement. The latest research is showing the kids who plan their own schedules, set their own work actually evaluate their own progress, are actually building up their brains. Their cortexes are getting bigger and they are taking more control over their lives. And this is really the point. Nothing is top-down in the world anymore — not business, not sports, not government, not religion.
You can’t just get your kids to 16 and say, “Go off and make decisions and enter your lives.” You need to give them the practice that they need in order to become independent. So here’s a way, with parental involvement mind you, we’re still setting the rules here — let your kids practice. So the key point is here to reduce stress, actually offload some of the responsibility to children. Empower them wherever possible and you’ll help prepare them to be the adults you want them to be.
So a couple questions about the family meeting. Things that might go wrong. Question number one — how old do kids need to be? Okay. Maybe a two or three year old is not old enough, but we have found by four or five kids are actually ready to engage in this conversation. And one tip to get them to the table is we put the allowance at the end to make sure that they want to stick around.
On the other end of the scale, how old can kids be and still have these meetings? How do you get a 12 or 13 or 15 year old to come to the table for one of these meetings? Sooner or later your teenager is gonna come to you and say, “Can I go to Johnny’s house on Friday night? I know I’m not supposed to.” Or, “Can I extend my curfew.”
And what you say is we’re not gonna have this conversation now when I’m flossing my teeth or where I’m trying to get breakfast on the table. We’re gonna have a time — a safe zone every week. So the point is the message to kids is there’s this safe zone where you’re gonna get to ask the questions. And the message to parents is when you want to be having that fight or when it’s so chaotic there’s not time you simply have got to get to the doctors or you simply have to get dinner on the table so that you can run off to your meeting after work. You say, “I don’t need to have every crisis in every moment.” There is a safe time at the end of the week where everyone’s gonna get to air their ideas. You’re gonna be sitting at the same level. You’re gonna be — your voices are gonna be low and you’re gonna know this is the one time of week that we’re gonna be mindful about what it means to be part of our family.