Solve hassles around chores and homework, teach your children problem-solving and respect, and improve family relationships all while saving the world? This is not hyperbole. At least not according to Jane Nelsen, psychologist, educator, author of Positive Discipline (and mother of seven), who writes:
It is still my dream to create peace in the world through peace in homes and classrooms. When we treat children with dignity and respect, and teach them valuable life skills for good character, they will spread peace in the world. (Nelson, 2006, p.xxiii, emphasis added).
Positive Discipline is based on the work of psychologist Alfred Adler and psychiatrist and educator Rudolf Dreikurs. Adler and Dreikurs believed all people, including children, want to feel that they belong and are special. Children who “misbehave”, they argued, are simply trying to achieve these goals.
A misbehaving child, Dreikurs contended, is a discouraged child (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1964).
Jane Nelsen adapted and expanded these ideas in her book Positive Discipline, and later created a parent education program by the same name with fellow educator Lynn Lott.
The focus of Positive Discipline is on developing mutual respect and problem solving in the family and creating relationships where everyone feels they both belong and are unique. In this and future blog posts I’ll introduce some of the key tools and strategies described in the book and taught in Positive Discipline group classes.
Positive Discipline tools foster the development of children who can think for themselves, who can handle mistakes and adversity (are resilient), and who are intrinsically motivated.
The Positive Discipline family meeting is one such tool. Its purpose is to foster responsibility and problem solving by working together to find solutions for everyday problems. There’s also a focus on fun and gratitude – two positive emotions that are proving to have significant impacts on our physical health in addition to just feeling good.
So, here we go. Ten steps to a Positive Discipline family meeting, adapted from Jane Nelsen’s book Positive Discipline (2006) – and world peace, while you’re at it.
1. Meet every week, no exceptions – model commitment
Choose a day and a time and commit to it. Everyone will be there, as present as developmentally appropriate (i.e. toddlers will need to play and move around), and it will not be an addendum to dinner, doing homework, or driving to and from soccer practice. Turn the TV and the phones off. Make it something sacred.
2. Everyone has a job – everyone is important
Chairperson, secretary, timekeeper, snack distributor – even toddlers can be assigned a role and teens will already be watching the clock.
Be flexible with teens. Keep meetings short. Ask for their input and communicate your desire for their presence, but respect their need for independence and privacy.
The point is that everyone is needed, truly and genuinely.
3. Open with compliments or gratitude – model authenticity
Begin each meeting with everyone sharing one thing they’re thankful for or giving another person in the family a compliment. Nelsen recommends alternating back and forth between compliments one week and gratitude the following week. The key is to model being authentic, particularly if this is an unfamiliar practice for you or your kids. Avoid sarcasm and speak from the heart.
4. Go over the week’s agenda (e.g. chores, issues, meal planning) – model problem-solving
During the week, keep a running agenda on a white board or piece of paper hung on the refrigerator. All family members can add concerns or issues as the week goes along. Some tasks, like meal planning, can be permanent items on the agenda.
Going over the agenda offers kids and parents an opportunity to voice concerns about chores and other family matters. It’s not a time to blame or complain. Use problem-solving to come up with solutions that will work for everyone. Ask your children for ideas and be genuinely open and curious about the solutions they come up with. Jane Nelsen (2006) recommends asking the following types of questions:
- How can we solve this?
- What can we do about this?
- What’s worked for you/us in the past?
- What would it look like if this problem were solved?
- What’s one thing you/we can do differently?
Nelsen suggests that families make decisions by coming to a consensus, instead of using a majority vote. This facilitates a feeling of cooperation. If you can’t come to a mutually agreed on solution, table the issue until the next family meeting.
6. Problem-solving with a focus on solutions (not consequences) – model not needing to be “right”
I touched on this above, but it can’t be emphasized enough. Problem-solving can be a struggle if people are feeling angry or hurt about something that happened during the week. Try to model using “I” statements to express emotions that need to be communicated (e.g. “I feel really angry that you borrowed my shirt without asking”), but then allow the focus to be on solutions for the future. If someone is experiencing intense emotions, suggest coming back to the issue later, after they’ve had a chance to cool off.
An important idea in Positive Discipline is that mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn. Model this attitude for your kids by sharing mistakes you made during the week.
Play Scrabble or Monopoly, go for a walk, make sundaes, or watch a movie. Give everyone a chance to choose. Or, let chance decide – brainstorm a list of fun things to do, assign each a number, and roll a dice to determine the activity.
What You and Your Kids Learn from Family Meetings
Here is just a partial list, adapted from Jane Nelsen’s book Positive Discipline (Nelsen, 2006):
- How to listen
- Mutual respect
- Problem-solving and creating solutions
- A sense of belonging and being needed
- Feeling capable
- The value of emotion regulation
- That mistakes are opportunities for learning
It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but our kids will soon be going out in the world creating waves of their own – how they have learned to communicate and relate will have profound impacts on how they love, how they learn, how they do their job, and how they parent their own children.
Dreikurs, R. & Soltz, V. (1964). Children: The Challenge. Hawthorn Books: New York, NY.
Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive Discipline. Ballantine Books: New York, NY.