Nights at theround table

Children are expected to be seen and heard at regular family get-togethers, where bonds are forged and values shared.

Almost everyone thinks they're a good idea. But few have made them a habit. Like eating your spinach, family meetings are widely considered beneficial, but sometimes difficult to swallow.

Champions of the family, such as Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families," insist, however, that this ritual, when done right, can provide structure amid chaos; a forum for speaking up, being heard, and listening to others; and perhaps, most important, a time to bond.

"In the old days when dad was home at 6, these meetings were called dinner," says Paul Coleman, author of "How to Say It to Your Kids: The Right Words to Solve Problems, Soothe Feelings, and Teach Values."

While sharing a meal, families might plan vacations, exchange news of the day, and vent frustrations about issues such as chores or allowances. But nowadays, when family suppers are often sandwiched between mom or dad's long days at the office and kids' basketball games or hockey practices, the need to schedule time is greater than ever, says Mr. Coleman.

In his household, Sunday supper is the time when Coleman, his wife, and three children - ages 10, 12, and 15 - take extra time to touch base about the week ahead, make special plans, or just chat about what's on their minds. "As long as there's some sacred family time during the week," he says, "no phone calls, no background music, and a time when all can speak freely without judgment, it doesn't really matter when that happens."

The bottom line is that families keep talking, he adds, citing a recent University of Michigan study that found household conversation had dropped nearly 100 percent between 1981 and 1997.

It's often the "meeting" label that turns people off. For some, it rings of corporate conference rooms, preprinted agendas, and pontificating facilitators - just what they want to leave behind at the office. And kids, especially teens, might respond to the "M" word with "Oh, no, what are they going to lay on me now?" says David McNamara, a family counselor in Boulder, Colo., who is working on a book about strategies for building family unity.

It's OK to keep a businesslike format with an agenda, a leader, and a note-taker, but the idea might go down less like spinach and more like hot apple pie, says Mr. McNamara, if there's also an element of fun. Sunday nights are also the time when the McNamara family drops everything to be together. For the past six years, David, his wife, Alexandra, and their two children have shared an evening of pasta and "Star Trek." No scheduling conflicts are allowed, and everyone takes a turn at the stove.

"It has nothing to do with pasta and "Star Trek," and everything to do with what we value as a family - just hanging out and spending time together," explains McNamara.

After all these years, it's now Geoffrey McNamara, a college freshman, and his sister, Erin, a 10th-grader, who insist this date can't be broken. "It seems like a silly ritual," says Geoffrey, "but it has bonded us in other ways. We all have an amazing connection."

Of course, it's taken more than a bowl of noodles and Dr. Spock to keep the McNamaras talking. Sometimes they don't get into anything meaty on those Sunday nights. But over the years, the parents have made a conscious effort to "create a climate of openness" not just on Sundays but every day.

In his practice, McNamara urges clients to also start some sort of family ritual at home that will inspire an open dialogue. "Meetings really do work," he says. "We just weren't organized enough. And it's best to start them when the kids are young. That's when they get really excited about the idea."

Some families choose to call this time a "family council session" or, in the case of the Darata family, a "family home evening." When asked about families who are successfully holding regular meetings, parenting workshop leader Jody Johnston Pawel instantly thought of the Daratas. They have taken her workshop, during which she praises the meeting concept, but their church - the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - had also familiarized them with it. Although the Mormon church helps its members get started with this tradition and incorporate religious teachings, some non-Mormons look to this church's example as a model.

Reached at their home outside Atlanta, Carrie Darata, explained that every Monday night she, her husband, and their five children, ranging in age from 13 to 3, gather for Bible readings and a discussion of schedules and other issues, followed by a game and a snack. And during this holiday month, they are meeting nightly to read a Christmas story.

This idea was second nature to Mrs. Darata, who grew up with family home evenings or FHE, as they call them. The business portion of the evening lasts only about 20 minutes, but during that time, they pack a lot in. "We plan events, talk about our schedules, vacations, and any issues such as chores that one child might consider unfair," she explains. "We're also working on a family mission statement, a slogan, and a list of our favorite books." After taking care of business, it's time to just relax together.

Darata and others interviewed for this article agree that meetings should be called every week without fail, and definitely not just when a problem arises. This is a sure way to give them a bad name. And so far, in the Darata household, they are a highly anticipated event. In an e-mail dictated to dad, the children commented effusively on these gatherings, citing songs, games, snacks, and even goal-setting as highlights. The eldest, Sarah, recalls when her parents announced that they were going to have a new baby sister, and another time when the family stayed up until midnight playing Monopoly.

Her father, Paul, says such an upbeat attitude is shared partly because of the democratic tone set at these meetings. "Everyone has a chance to contribute," he insists. To which mom Carrie adds that even three-year-old Claire takes the floor now and then.

A tone of inclusiveness is key to the success of any family meeting, say parenting pros. This can be especially effective with teenagers, says Dr. Ben Allen, who counsels children and families in Northbrook, Ill. "If they feel heard and understood, they will let their guard down," he explains. It's also important, he adds, to make the meeting optional, not mandatory, but also to make clear that by coming, each person gets to share an opinion, help bring closure and clarity to things that are getting out of hand, and navigate the fun stuff."

By letting everyone have a voice and a role in brainstorming ideas for major decisions, parents need to also make clear that they are not giving up their authority and that they have the final say.

Like Carrie Darata, Mr. Allen also grew up with this tradition, which his family playfully called "Brady Bunch meetings." He recalls them fondly. "I was a teen rebel," he says, "but I felt like I was important at these meetings. I always went. It was fun."

Allen laments that not enough families get together this way anymore. "I hear from people all the time who would love to start this ritual, but schedules are so intense that no one even has time to breathe," he says.

All the more reason, says McNamara, that these get-togethers need to be anything but heavy. No one needs more intensity in their day. "If I get at all heavy," he says with a laugh, "my kids jump all over me. What's most important is to just have fun together, and that will help create an atmosphere where kids will want to talk about all kinds of stuff."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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