Consent decision-making in a family meeting

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sociocracy: effective governance

Family meetings are a wonderful and easy way of giving (your) children a voice. In family meetings (just like any other time almost), they can learn what it means to be heard and taken seriously. If you have never tried it, give it a shot! You will be surprised how much children love meetings that are all about them. Does knowing sociocracy contribute to your family meetings? We are sure it does. See this guest post on consent decision-making in a family.

People sometimes think that sociocracy is hard to do, or that it is an “artificial” format of talking. I would like to make the hypothesis that consent is not harder or more or less artificial than any other way of making a decision – it is just not something we are used to in a meeting. When you want to see if something is easy and comes naturally, just watch kids do it. The father of my kids called a meeting of our three older kids (12, 10 and 8) and me to come up with a better plan on how do go about screen time for the girls. I admit I was not thrilled to get the invite. After all, things were tense between the grown-ups, and screen time seemed like the most likely topic to get into an argument between kids and parents. So I entered the room thinking to myself, well, at least I have to try to make this a good meeting.

family_meeting_proposal-piecesI noticed, when we got into the space, that there was a huge opportunity there. Maybe it was just because it was a hot, sticky day outside and the meeting room was cool. Or maybe it was because the younger kids were with a neighbor so the older family members could have their meeting without being interrupted. But seeing my three “big” girls in a calm mood, I felt hopeful and calm myself. We appointed our 10 year old as the facilitator for the meeting. It seemed like a good idea to break up the parents against kids dynamic right away. She is the kind of kid that gravitates towards being a facilitator, bright, focused and with great clarity.

So first thing she did was to call for a round, “so let’s each say what comes to mind about screen time, like what is working right now and what is not.” I was allowed to start and said my piece. My 8 year old spoke next and passed the word on to her dad. I was impressed. I know how hard it is for grown-ups to stick to rounds. My girls had already adopted rounds as a habit. It is what we do. I was thinking about other situations in which they do rounds like it was the most normal thing to do. For instance, it is a fairly new family tradition during every meal that every person names “two things”, two highlights, of their day. It is not uncommon that the 3-year old will start or reinforce a round of “two things”, saying something like “no, it is not your turn, we are doing a round”.

family_meeting_homeworkSo there we were talking in rounds about screen time. My 10 year old blew me away with her statement that “first of all, I want to remind people that homework, friends and social time always comes first. Even when your homework is done, you can’t retreat and play on a screen when your friends are playing outside.” We went around two times and were ready for the next step. Our young facilitator started a new round with a prompt “ok, in this round say what you would actually like in a rule, for instance for timing and so on.” She got a piece a paper, and I volunteered as scribe organizing what I as a sociocracy person would call proposal pieces.

Nobody in the room cared that some of those proposal pieces contradicted each other. I as scribe just wrote down whatever people said. When we don’t judge or try to wrong other ideas, things can flow calmly. We seemed to have reached completeness with this step. I made a suggestion. I merged all proposal pieces into one coherent proposal, presented it and asked the facilitation to start a consent round (yes. we skipped the quick reaction round. Even though I never push for a specific meeting format and I would never call it “sociocracy” — because then it would be what mom wants — , my kids know what a consent round is.) So she asked “so, let’s do a round and you say whether you like the proposal”. Her dad, experienced in sociocratic decision-making himself, gently reminded her that asking “do you have any objections” is a more effective way of framing the question, and she re-stated her question, smiling when she said “objection” and mocking a grown up because it was such a grown-up word. But we continued.

Their dad spoke first and he did have an objection. He missed something in the proposal that would say something about consequences if someone had screen time before homework was done. We did a round on ideas on how to go about that. Their dad had an idea (taking away screen time the same day) but the 8 year old noticed that that did not make any sense because any child could just do half an hour of screen time before homework, and the consequence would only be losing screen time for the day which meant one could just do screen time and homework in any order. She had a point. We got side-tracked on how much more screen time one would have to lose to make up for taking screen time before it is time. Then the 10 year old made a statement that stayed with me for a while. family_meeting_proposal

“Well, A., we’re not making this rule some other random person, this is OUR rule for US, and we all know what we mean and that of course it would not make sense to just do screen time before homework and then just to skip screen time for that day.”

Talk about ownership that comes with shared decision-making! Swayed by that insightful remark, adults were moved to say they trusted that we could just see how the new agreement played out before going to other measures about consequences. We amended the proposal knowing that this vague rule would have to prove its worth.

The next consent round had no objections, and the relieved 12 year old (sitting still in meetings is hard for her) steamed out of the room. The 8 year old hugged me and stayed close to me, appreciating the good connection we all had had. She sat down. I said, “wow, we actually made a decision. Before the meeting, I did not think we’d get to any agreement on screen time.”

She cuddled up next to me and said, “you know, mom, what I noticed? We all were able to put our ideas into the rules. I think when you want people to stick to an agreement, just make sure they all get to have their ideas in it, then it is theirs and they will want to do it.”

We did not find the perfect solution. Our screen time agreement might not carry over to other families and we might have to tweak it down the road. But we did it together, and everyone in the room had equal part in it. During the entire process, we had been on the same side, trying to find a solution for our shared problem.

So, what exactly is hard about this?