Veteran educator Linda Inlay spoke to Molly Takagi – Punahou’s K – 8 social, emotional and ethical learning coordinator – about the importance of family meetings and how they can improve family relationships and children’s well-being.
Molly Takagi: Thank you for joining us for Team Up, a parenting podcast produced by Punahou School. I’m Molly Takagi, the K – 8, social, emotional and ethical learning coordinator. We’re so happy to have a wonderful guest with us today. Linda Inlay is an educator for the past 41 years, starting at Our Lady of Sorrows School, a small Catholic school here in Hawai‘i. There, she learned a new educational approach. That was the result of a collaboration between sister Joan Madden, the principal and Dr. Raymond Corsini, an Algerian psychologist. Sister Joan once told Linda you don’t just teach subjects, you teach who you are. This bit of wisdom guided Linda in her own development over the next several decades of teaching. While serving as the principal at River School in California, Linda shaped what she learned about students’ social, emotional learning needs and character development into an approach called Awakening Wisdom, which includes many family components. Linda, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about family meetings, and how parents and families can support their children’s development at home with the structure.
Linda Inlay: Thank you very much, Molly. I’m really pleased to share what I’ve learned. It’s a pleasure to be here.
MT: What got you thinking about, and interested in the idea of family meetings?
LI: Since retiring as principal of River School, I was seeing so much more about stress, anxiety, depression and unfortunately, suicide among teens. On reflecting on what was the difference between what I was doing through Awakening Wisdom. I realized that Awakening Wisdom was based on what allows children to thrive. The two aspects of it, there are social, emotional needs. One, the sense of belonging, relationships and trust. And the other one, the sense of identity – who am I? Especially important as kids began their adolescent years in middle school.
I believe that that is nurtured through autonomy. Having and inviting, and encouraging children’s voice and choice, which supports self motivation, agency, resilience in this age and feeling empowered. I recalled how, when my children were probably 8 and 10, maybe a little younger, we started family meetings, and I saw how that was a very important part of encouraging their voice and their choice. When I began to offer parenting classes last year in the middle of the pandemic with the stress that parents are feeling, I offered this idea of family meetings and after the four session parenting was done, I had a follow-up a month later, and heard about the family meetings, and how it was going, and I was really pleased to see it really working for the families that I talked with.
MT: I really liked what you said about family meetings, providing a space for kids and particularly adolescents to start to develop that autonomy, and see that their voice matters within their community, within their family community. Given that families are spending so much time together this year, given the pandemic, I could see some parents wondering if it’s necessary to have a structured meeting time. Our families are spending more time together this year, maybe than ever before. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why it’s even more crucial to have a formalized sort of a routine for family meetings.
LI: Even before the pandemic, parents are really busy. I remember doing parenting classes probably 20 years ago, and I was struck by how busy parents in the class were describing what it looked like when the day was over, and everybody was home. With the pandemic, it’s even worse. The point of family meetings is that kids feel heard and understood, and that kind of listening cannot happen. There’s nothing wrong with parents listening and washing dishes, that’s one kind of listening. But if you’re going to listen really truly deeply to the concerns that children have, then you can’t be looking at your phone, doing dishes, doing the laundry. It has to be focused intentional listening, and a space where the child feels like, I matter, in the sense that you’re willing to take the time, and the energy and the focus to listen.
For children to really feel heard and listen, you can’t do all those other things. It doesn’t have to be long. It’s the quality of listening that counts. I remember reading this when describing this quality of listening, as you’re listening, beneath the words, and you’re listening to the essence of the person. Children don’t often communicate truly what’s going on with them through their words. It’s the whole of communication, 85%, not the words it’s the intonation, it’s the facial features, it’s the body language. It’s important to have this time, and I know it’s crazy time to, with everything else going on, parents are working from home, you’re trying to manage kids, doing their distance learning, et cetera. But having a discrete time and again, it doesn’t to be long, is really important.
MT: We are talking a lot within our faculty community about empathetic listening. Many of us have even attended a training at the Stanley King Counseling Institute to learn all about empathetic listening, the different features of it. We’re trying to transfer those skills to our students now, starting by practicing the skills ourselves. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more. You describe some of the elements of empathetic listening, questioning, digging into what a child has shared. But I wonder if you could also describe what does empathetic listening look like to you?
LI: You Google empathic listening or active listening, or we call it topic. It says you have to face the child or the person you have to look into their eyes, and all of that. Now, one should becomes a recipient, and not the real intent. People can tell when you are not listening. You may have the appearance of listening, but what I try to teach in my classes, the trainings we do with educators is the most important thing is the intent to understand. What happens is your body then conveys that. If you have that in your mind, I want to understand this person in front of me, then the rest of your body is going to demonstrate that. But if you focus on the exterior elements, and you don’t have a heart for that, people can tell.
I remember when my mentor Sister Joan would listen to me. At that point, I didn’t know anything about active listening, but she would do this simple thing of just asking me, “What else?” I would share the kind of the easy stuff to share about. Then she would say, “What else?” And then I pause, and thinking what else, and then I would discover another aspect. Oh, and then she would continue to say, “What else?” Because she provided that safe space where she wasn’t interjecting and all that, it gave me the space to really look deeply within myself and to learn more about myself. That is really important to help ground our young people and who they are, because into adulthood, you need that grounding, especially as they get into high school where peer pressure becomes really important.
Where do the boundary between what others say you should do, you should be, and who you are wanting to be. Years ago, there was a program called Parent Effectiveness Training – PET. I’m not sure that my husband used to be a trainer, and Thomas Gordon who created the program, had a list of 20 behaviors. He called it The Dirty Dozen. I don’t particularly like that name, but he said all these behaviors that adults do with children, like lecture and admonish and give advice and solutions, all of that. Some of those are appropriate. I mean, it’s sometimes appropriate to give solutions and advice, etcetera. But it should be first the listening to understand, because once you understand, and you may have missed something and made an assumption that is wrong. Once you understand, then your solutions, advice and whatever else would shift based on what you are understanding is, having invited your child to speak.
MT: I really appreciate what you said about the sort of recipe or Googling. What are the 10 steps for attentive listening versus going in to listen with the intention of not judging, not solving problems for your children, but really to listen? People can tell when you’re just following a recipe, that’s really true for even young children. They can tell when we’re being disingenuous. I wonder if we could get into talking about the structure of family meetings. How should families and parents start this process, and create a structure or set up the family meetings and get started?
LI: In terms of families and parents setting up family meetings, setting up the date and time, asking them when is a good time, not just based on what the parents’ needs are, but what time would work for you, and letting them know ahead of time, that the first meeting is going to be very short, it’s not going to be long, but we’re going to really talk about what are the agreements. We do when in the work we’re doing with schools. One of the first things we do is have the group co-create trust agreements. We have them go through a reflective process of where do they feel depressed? Where have they felt depressed in a class, in a club, whatever other jobs and where have they not, and then having them… Well, what do you think would be a really good agreement that we can co-create?
Children have experiences of places where they felt depressed. Though they can come to the meeting with those ideas, with the PUC parents, there were two professors, they had a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old and mom was, she wasn’t sure how this was going to work, but she was blown away when they started their first meeting, and her 4- and 6-year-old, don’t interrupt, pay attention, don’t put people down for their ideas. There was wisdom in kids. But we have to invite them to share what that was in family meetings. Make your kids show up. Again, it’s honoring their autonomy, their ability, or to choose whether to attend or not. Having an invocation, talking to your children, maybe one-on-one, or as a group, and telling them what this is and why, is really important.
So that they’re understanding why they’re there. A lot of times, and then being in a school, we were doing focus groups, and the kids were scheduled to come in, and they didn’t know why they were there. The animosity with these high schoolers was very palpable until I explained, we wanted to hear about how they felt about the discipline system. Once they understood why they were there, and we were really, truly interested in what they had to say, they opened up, animosity and all those barriers went away. In writing your children, giving them a reason why it’s going to be beneficial for them. I think it’s really important. We want to hear what you have to say, and we want your opinions about these. I really do think that helps with their own critical thinking.
When you say, well, tell me more about that. What happens is that they have to examine the way they’re conveying their ideas. I think that helps also with their sense of self. That would be one thing. Those would be the things, and then really being clear for the first meeting, you’d have the agenda, but subsequent meetings, anybody can add something. If they know the meeting is going to happen, they’re not nagging at you in the middle of the week. They know it will be discussed. You have a place to add it to the agenda on the refrigerator door. That’s the way to start. I want to share it a little bit more about the agreements. Really give them an opportunity to co-create the agreements. Now you may have some on the charter that they missed, and then you can suggest that.
But again, it’s getting their ideas first, and then having a conversation to add their ideas. You want to make sure the agreement is no phones are binding to be answered, all devices are put away. I would suggest the first meeting being no more than 30 minutes. But if you put in there things like, well, we could discuss things like where we would go on vacation, you might want to participate. If you don’t participate, whatever decisions we make, are going to be the decisions. Those kinds of things, so that they feel like their voice does matter. That’s what the point of the whole family meeting.
MT: I was reminded of a tool that we’re experimenting with here at Punahou, then our faculty groups and staff groups as well. We’re beginning to introduce this tool to students and families. It’s called the charter. It’s a tool from the RULER approach to social, emotional learning that provides a structure for creating family agreements based on feeling words. Every member of the community, whether it’s a classroom or in this case a family, comes together to talk about how do we want to feel while we’re spending time together during these meetings, but also additional family time that’s spent together, and the members of that family or community brainstorm, feeling words, and then behaviors that support everyone in the group having those positive emotions.
It promotes a positive climate within the group. It promotes voice of every member of the community. It’s a process that really values all voices, including those of children. Just one thing that we’ve noticed is by promoting the positive feeling words, the behaviors tend to come from a positive vantage point as well. Show respect to one another by listening, and encouraging young kids and adolescents to reframe those kinds of behaviors in that positive way can also be really powerful. I’d love to encourage our families who are listening to the podcast to explore some of the resources we’ve provided on the Team Up website about the charter, and consider that as part of their family meeting process.
LI: Great. That sounds wonderful.
MT: Linda, I wonder if you could speak a little bit about how this structure could be adjusted for families who have experienced divorce, or perhaps have children away in college, or other family members who are not living with the family unit. What suggestions do you have about using family meetings in those cases?
LI: With divorced parents, the relationship they have in co-parenting, even though they’re divorced. Some of my friends, I know they have a great relationship. They work really well together. That would be great if both parents were willing to do that, because there is a coordination that happens between divorced parents. That could be the time that they bring up concerns. How’s it working at this, the schedule we have of shifting from one household to another, which can be really hard on kids. Regarding kids who are away in college and so forth, I think it’s important to have them participate when it involves their lives. I don’t know that they would be interested in, discuss chores for the week in the house or things like that, but where it involves the entire family, I think it’s appropriate again, to invite them and to ask their support because they are older. They may have some wisdom that they can share. I was thinking about that in my own family right now.
MT: Yeah. Well, it’s a good thing. We’re all getting so used to talking on FaceTime and Zoom. It doesn’t feel so foreign to stick a laptop in the circle with you, and have your college age child join in on the conversation.
LI: Absolutely. That would be wonderful.
MT: You’ve already described, mentioned several topics that it sounds like you’d suggest families could consider adding to agendas for family meetings. I heard you mentioned household chores, family trips, or maybe outings. I wonder are there more topics that you would suggest families include on their agendas?
LI: Other topics for family meetings could be what’s happening in the week, everybody knows what’s going on. When kids don’t know what’s going on, they don’t have power. To let them know, we had our family meetings on Saturday morning after breakfast. Part of it was making a decision as to what we would do as far as Sunday outing. But we also talked about what the week look like, like that, I think that’s really helpful. If there are siblings, there’s going to be conflict. Conflict is a part of learning how to live with other people. Now, what I’ve heard from the kids, is that when parents get involved early on in the conflict, that doesn’t help. It robs the opportunity for the siblings to learn how to work it out together, because I’m sorry, but that is a skill into adults, that how do you deal with conflict with other people?
The family meeting could be allowing the kids to work it out. Then if it bothers you, you can ask them to go into another room and close the door, so that they can work it out. You can say in our view, can’t work it out, then put it on the agenda. Okay. And then the norms, or the agreements for the family meeting will be in place. I’m sure it’ll be one person speaking at a time. The other person really listening and understanding what they’re trying to say. Ask, is there anything else? And then there’s more active listening, and then are you finished? And then switching. It’s so powerful. I’ve done it so many times with conflicts, discipline conflicts at my school. It’s amazing how the shifts happen. I used to, as a principal of the school, you’d have a two kids in front of you and one would speak and it would be like, I would be the go-between to the other students.
I changed that, and I said, no, you have to face each other and you’ll have to talk to each other. Well, there’s something about facing the other person and really having to talk to them, that that talking about and saying they’re jokes and all that stuff disappears. That process could be really powerful in the family meetings. That would be a way to have kids use that and depend on that as a way to resolve conflicts, because they know they have a time, parents have committed to this. I would suggest that be weekly at the beginning, just so that you can get into the rhythm of it. Anything that’s really related to a particular child that really doesn’t impact the rest of the kids and the family, then I don’t think she’ll be part of that.
Any conflicts within parents should not be discussed in front of the kids. Now kids do bring up. They do sense when there’s tension between parents. I would not just dismiss them. If a child brings it up in the meeting, not to discuss it, but say, we really appreciate it, and when I’m sorry that you were feeling us, but it’s something that we have to work out together, just like we allow you to work it out with your siblings. We have to learn how to work it out, but giving them space to share their concerns about it, but not really discussing the actual conflict between parents. Items of money, anything related to money, is a decision made by the parents, even allowance. It’s not a consensual decision making, but you can invite them to plead their case. Come with a reasonable explanation as why you think your allowance should be increased. But it’s still the decision of the parents to make that.
MT: I’m already envisioning doing this with my 2-year-old, but I wonder how young children could be to begin the process of participating in a family meeting.
LI: I think definitely by 4. This experience of the two professors and their 4-year-old. Once they begin to speak fluently, they have opinions. A 4-year-old has opinions. As long as they are being able to convey their feelings and their needs and so forth, what you’re going to discuss, of course, is very limited. But there’s still a beginning, and it’s still honoring their beliefs. That’s really important.
MT: Is there one particular person who should be presiding and leading the meeting? How does that part of it work?
LI: The first time, the parents should run the meeting and maybe the first and second time, but by the second time, you would invite them. Now we can rotate leadership, and that’s what we did in our family. It really is a very powerful for them to learn how to lead a meeting, and how to make sure that people are following the agreements for the meeting. That experience of being on the other end of that is really powerful thing.
MT: I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about what families should anticipate or keep in mind, if a concern arises in a family meeting, maybe that they weren’t anticipating.
LI: The first thing would be to convey a sense of calm, that energy you put out, even though inside you maybe a little bit ah, ah, ah. But the calmness coming out really helps calm whatever activity is going on. If there’s a concern, the listening is then really important. The setting of the family meeting might hamper one’s child, really sharing a lot more than I say. “Can we talk about this later? I’d like to do this with you one-on-one.” You don’t need to be the perfect parent and have all the answers. If there is something that comes up in the family meeting that you don’t know or have some concerns about, you can share that. Because if you have a concern, it’s going to show up in your face. Your children are going to see it. You might as well own it and say, “I’m concerned. I’m not sure how to respond to that. I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to get back to you. I’m going to think about this and get back to you.”
The only thing we can do is be open to podcasts like this, do a lot of reflecting, do a lot of reflecting together, parents together. Well, how did that go? How did I come across? I would like to suggest one more thing. Anything new you try, you’re going to, like walking, you’re going to get up and you’re going to fall … It’s practice. I don’t know how to do this, but parents are going to try it.
MT: I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what are some of the overall benefits of incorporating this kind of practice within your family? How does it impact the family unit or the individuals in a family?
LI: As I said at the beginning, that sense of self is so critical for natural health and mental health into adulthood. Creating a how we do that is their autonomy and acknowledging their autonomy and making sure that that is part of your family’s culture. The other piece of it, this growing up, we all do as adults, as you got into high school, you don’t tell your parents. You got a little less communicative about what you’re doing and what you’re up to. That’s really important to keep those doors open for kids to come to you and communicate.
The value of family meetings and the benefits of it is like I said, the autonomy of kids is being nurtured. That helps them with their own search for identity that grounds them in who they are, that helps with their critical thinking. Because they have to explore what do I mean by that? We kids feel things. They don’t know how always to express those. By providing a safe place for them to explore, what did I mean by that? Why am I gaining? It does help with their mental health, their awareness and their social emotional skills, like self-awareness, is really critical to their mental health. It’s important to do that early, especially in the middle of a pandemic where kids are nurturing and growing that aspect of themselves is critical for their development into healthy human beings.
MT: I could see this family meeting structure, just leading to better communication overall within the family and better conflict resolution, like you mentioned. I’m really excited to see if some of our Punahou families decide to try out this structure and experiment with it. There’s so much value here. I just thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us.
LI: I am so committed to the well-being of our young people. Families and parents are the primary educators. I really appreciate this opportunity to share what I learned from Sister Joan with you all so that you were students there at one whole wealth flourish.
MT: Thank you. If you want more information about family meetings, the chartered pool, or Linda’s work, please visit our Team Up website at punahou.edu/teamup. We also want to thank you for listening to this Team Up podcast. We’re really thrilled about finding new ways for parents to gain information about issues that matter to them. Please check back soon for more episodes.
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