When Ray and I were dating, our four children got along great. Our lives were filled with adventure and excitement. Then came the day when Ray and I said, "I do." Once the ink was dry on the marriage certificate, our children began drawing boundary lines: "My room." "My toys." "We always do it this way." Our families did not blend together as much as they bashed into one another.
On one especially frustrating day, Ray and I decided to hold a family meeting. A good idea, but one that quickly went awry. With no structure in place, arguments flared. Everyone walked away feeling more upset than when we started.
Even with that rocky start, we could see the value in a regularly scheduled time to give our kids a voice, a chance to actively participate in the blending of our families. So we started scheduling family meetings.
These meetings have become an important part of our family culture. While we've had some rough moments, we've learned how to make these times more productive:
Develop an agenda
Whether formal or informal, set up a general outline for the conversation. Ask each family member what he or she would like to discuss. Talk through events and schedules. Celebrate accomplishments, and share in hardships. Settle disagreements.
Keep it positive
Family meetings should be constructive and rewarding. They are not a place for put-downs or anger. Complimenting each family member is a good way to begin. Prayer is a great way to end.
Watch the time
Keep your meetings short — no longer than 30 minutes. Everyone will have a more positive attitude toward these meetings if they end on time. (Small children may get bored easily; try giving them paper and crayons.)
Keep track of the discussion
In a family notebook, jot down what is discussed and decided. At the next meeting, if an item was left unsettled, you'll be able to pick up where you left off. While brainstorming, appoint an older child to write ideas on a whiteboard.
Give everyone a voice
As parents, you'll facilitate the meeting, giving every family member an opportunity to share. Remember that, in order to accept change, children need to be able to ask questions, to talk and to share feelings.
Think of ways to keep meetings fresh. Make smoothies or hold a meeting on blankets in the backyard. To encourage orderly discussion, consider passing around a toy microphone or wooden spoon, giving each family member the "floor" to speak.
Family meetings don't have to be perfect; there will inevitably be some glitches. But by giving your children a safe forum where their voice is heard, you'll better equip them to navigate their lives together.
Debbie Alsdorf and her husband, Ray, are the authors of Beyond the Brady Bunch: Hope and Help for Blended Families.