This article comes from the Understanding Montessori column by Maren Schmidt.

As parent leaders, we have many tools we can learn to help us create an atmosphere of trust in our families. One tool is using family meetings. Family meetings can help our families learn how to problem solve together, as well as learn important communication tools, cooperation, creativity, respect, appropriate expression of emotions, and how to have fun as a family. Children as young as three-years-old can participate.

“You want us to have family meetings with our three-year-olds?” you might ask. Can a weekly meeting with children under the age of six be productive? My experience tells me, “yes.”

The first step is to establish a predictable time each week to have the meetings. Get rid of all the distractions-television and phone calls. The first meeting of course should be short, ten to fifteen minutes. At family meetings there are two alternating leadership roles, chairperson and secretary. The chairperson makes sure the meeting runs smoothly and that everyone is heard. The secretary takes the minutes and reads them at the next meeting.

The meeting agenda consists of a compliment time, reading of the minutes, old business, finances, new business, and then ends with a treat. The treat can be a snack, an outing or a game.

Compliment time involves a few basic rules. First, the compliment must be truthful and kind regarding someone’s actions. No silly faces. The compliment may not be about personal appearance or clothes. You must look the person directly in the eye while giving a compliment.

Here’s how our first family meeting went:
We didn’t have any minutes to read or old business to discuss at the first meeting. For finances we decided to discuss how we were saving for a summer trip. How much can you discuss with a four and five-year-old?

On our first agenda, we discussed bedtime routine, how to treat guests in the house, and how to include or not include your sister if a friend came over. This took ten minutes. Then we were off to the Farmer’s Market, which became our routine for a couple of years.

By the third meeting, our almost six-year-old wanted to have a turn as chairperson and run the meeting. Much to my surprise, she did an admirable job. We kept our weekly agenda on our refrigerator and kept minutes in a spiral notebook. Minutes of the meetings can be very simple, for example:

FAMILY MEETING: January 6, 1995
Chair: Dana Secretary: Maren
Decisions made:
1. Plan family vacation.
2. Save money for ski trip.
3. Remember to ask permission to use other people’s things.
In the beginning our meetings felt a little stiff and formal. In a few weeks they became more natural and relaxed.

Here are some recommended ground rules for your family meetings:
1. Every person has an equal voice.
Let everyone’s opinions be heard.
2. Everyone may share what he or she thinks and feels about each issue.
Ask quiet children for their opinions and avoid expressing disapproval if children share unpleasant feelings.
3. Decisions are made by consensus.
Votes are not taken and majority doesn’t rule. Matters are discussed until all are in agreement.
4. All decisions are adhered to until the next meeting.
Any complaints about a decision should receive the comment, “Put in on the agenda for the next meeting.”
5. Some decision are reserved for parents.
Not everything is up for discussion and a decision. Parents have decisions to make that are theirs alone, for example a job change or move. Family meetings can help the family express thoughts, concerns and feelings about changes made by parents’ decisions.

Over the years our family meetings grew less frequent and formal as we learned, as a family, how to handle our problems effectively.