Mitchell Williams teaches architecture at the high school and community college levels, maintaining a schedule that keeps him away from his family for long hours. And although his wife, Sheba, is home with their three children, the times when they are all together are hectic.
Their solution: a weekly appointment on Sundays at 6 p.m.
"Family meetings are essential for the stability of the home," said Williams of Cerritos. "It's where the family coalesces as a unit and works through problems. . . . It's a sacred time to see each other."
In simpler days, families spent time communicating over evening meals or playing together on leisurely Sunday afternoons. Now, with increasing demands on everyone's time, family members who would see each other only in passing must schedule in time.
That weekly one-hour investment, author Amy Lew said, can give children a feeling of belonging and importance, and the belief that they can handle what life dishes out. These characteristics are the keys to success, said Lew, who co-authored "Raising Kids Who Can: Using the Family Meeting to Nurture Responsible, Cooperative, Caring and Happy Children" (HarperCollins, 1992).
To make it work, parents must take the time to encourage their children to think and express themselves, Lew said. For some parents, listening, asking questions and inviting dialogue will be something new. And perhaps a struggle, at first.
An Army father once told Lew that he'd rather tell his children what to do than engage in discussion. Lew asked him: "Do you want your children to grow up to be enlisted people or officers? If you want them to be leaders, they have to practice decision-making. We live in a society where we can't afford to have children who only follow orders."
Although children's ideas are listened to and respected, it doesn't mean the kids run the house.
"Children get their say, but it doesn't mean they get their way," said Jeffrey Morrow, who teaches Active Parenting Today, a course that includes family meetings, at the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring in Studio City.
If, after negotiating, a consensus can't be reached, the parent makes a decision--leaving the topic open for later discussion.
Although there are as many variations in meetings as there are families, generally family meetings start off on a high note with thank-yous, compliments or good news.
Diane Mayotte, a single parent in Irvine, has weekly meetings with her 12-year-old son. She said the compliments help to build his self-esteem and enhance their relationship.
"I feel good that I've shown appreciation for him and that I value him as a person," she added.
Children reciprocate, said Lew, who has had family meetings since her two daughters were young. "You get to hear all kinds of wonderful things (from your children) you would just never hear otherwise."
Next, everyone pulls out their calendars to coordinate schedules: open house at nursery school, a doctor's appointment, band rehearsal, a late meeting or even next summer's vacation.
By informing each other of upcoming events, everyone feels in control of the week. When children can plan ahead for needing a ride, last-minute chaos is reduced and children learn to be responsible.
Issues that need addressing can come under old or new business and include a child not doing his or her chores, a brother breaking his sister's toys or someone feeling picked on at school. Any family member can add items for discussion to the agenda posted on the refrigerator.
"It's not so much that we resolve all the issues at family meetings," Lew said, "but that we discuss and work on them. And our kids can learn that we can keep working on things until we come up with a solution."
Chores have come up frequently in the 26 years the Wallaces of Los Angeles have been meeting weekly. With six children living at home, there are plenty of chores to be done.
"It gets better," Sherry Wallace said. "Then we have to discuss it again--always in a non-threatening atmosphere. Yelling and screaming doesn't work. I've tried that."
Children need to feel included and should be given an opportunity to make a contribution--no matter the issue. Don't shelter them from the difficult issues, said Lew, who has a private practice in Newton Center, Mass. Let them know what's ahead.
Carol Fleming of Irvine said meetings have been instrumental in easing her stepfamily through some difficult times. Carol, her husband, Eugene, and their daughters from previous marriages often discuss Eugene's inoperable liver cancer. Because of medical expenses, the family has filed for bankruptcy and will have to sell their home.
"The issues are not lightweight," Eugene, 49, said. "My health, moving, but also we discuss laundry and the cats. It gives us a forum whether light- or heavyweight."
Meetings always end on a positive note. The Fleming family puts silly questions in a hat and everyone picks one and answers it. "It was (12-year-old) Jackie's idea and it is the highlight of the meeting," Carol Fleming said.
Many families end with dessert or a game.
Responsibility for opening and closing the meeting, taking minutes and planning the treat rotates among family members and fosters responsibility. Children learn that they count.
"If someone fails to prepare, they find out what it's like not to be ready," said Sherry Wallace, a mother of nine. "I may pick up the slack, but it doesn't take away that uncomfortable feeling."
Some families also use family meetings to instill values, pray or have Bible study.
"We talk about the values in our family versus the values they see on TV and about choosing friends wisely," said Sheba Williams, adding that they've also discussed how their young children can respond if approached by a stranger.
Said Eugene Fleming: "We talk about issues that are coming up (for his 12-year-old): sexuality, dating, curfews. It's no-holds-barred with a light, humorous touch."
Although family meetings may not be the solution to everything, parents agree that they increase family harmony.
Said Mayotte: "All in all, it's definitely helped us to be clear on expectations, what's important to me, what's important to him."
Wallace agreed: "It's kept our family on track. It's not easy living in L.A. It's made us a little more solid. . . . It does wonderful things for a family."