“Hi, dad, what are we doing for family home evening tonight?” my seven-year-old asked when I got home Monday night. “Can we go swimming?”
“No, we want to bake cookies,” contended my five-year-old daughter. “We never get to bake cookies, and mom promised.”
The twelve-year-old quickly refereed: “You’re both wrong—we’ll probably have a lesson because we had an activity last week. Right, dad?”
“Well, I don’t know. Let me talk to mom and we’ll decide.”
“Wahhhh! We never get to bake cookies.”
This wasn’t the first Monday night such a conversation had taken place. And Friday evenings at the dinner table often sounded similar:
“Mom, can I get a new pair of pants tomorrow? I really need some.”
“I don’t know. Ask dad. Why do I always have to decide these things?”
“Can I, dad?”
“I need shoes worse than you need pants,” objected another. “Dad, can I get new shoes?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We need to talk about it and decide.”
But instead of really talking about it and having control of the directions we were going, we usually waited until the pressures of the moment forced us into making spur-of-the-moment decisions. We often felt we could be more effective if we had a different approach to planning and decision-making.
About this time I read and was impressed with President Ezra Taft Benson’s comments about the council system of Church government. After discussing area, region, stake, ward, and other councils, President Benson encouraged family councils: “I mention family councils because of our persistent emphasis on family unity and family solidarity. By encouraging parents to hold family councils, we imitate in our homes a heavenly pattern.” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 88.)
President N. Eldon Tanner also spoke of the importance of family councils: “As we emphasize Church government through a system of councils, let us not forget the family council … and do all we can to protect and nourish that basic unit of the Church.” (Ensign, May 1979, p. 104.)
Family councils had been a vague concept to me prior to that time. But the idea was intriguing, and I resolved to find out more about what a family council was and how it differed from other family activities.
One of the best sources I found was a lesson on family councils in a Melchizedek Priesthood study guide: “When family members gather to make important decisions, to recognize the achievements of members of the family, to discipline, or to plan events, that is a family council.” (When Thou Art Converted, Strengthen Thy Brethren, Melchizedek Priesthood study guide, 1974–75, p. 167.) The idea of meeting as a family to make decisions and plans was especially appealing to me, so I decided to try it.
I suggested to the family that we should begin holding family councils and that maybe next fast Sunday morning would be a good time to start. (Our church meetings were scheduled for the afternoon.) Their reactions were interesting. One said, “Family council, what’s that?” Another asked, “Does it include refreshments and games like family home evening?” Another complained, “Do we have to hold it on fast Sunday? I think I’m too hungry.”
The first attempt went fairly well—mostly because it was something new and everyone was interested to see what it really was. I prepared agendas for family members who could read and write, and I had some scratch paper for “note-taking” by the preschoolers. Afterwards, I felt personally satisfied that I had succeeded in doing something important as the priesthood leader in my family.
But not all future family councils went so smoothly. After the newness wore off, it was harder to get everyone together, and during some of our subsequent meetings we heard comments like “Aren’t we finished yet?” and “This sure is boring.” I knew I was in trouble.
I decided to try involving family members more. I asked my twelve-year-old son to help me write up the agendas. I decided an opening song would help and asked my five-year-old daughter to lead it. My wife and I discussed how we could make family councils more interesting and what time limit would be reasonable. All of these helped.
To build enthusiasm and a positive attitude toward a forthcoming family council, I had my ten-year-old son help me print up signs and place them around the house. Some of the signs read, “Little sisters are welcome at the Allred family council, Sunday at 10:00 A.M.,” or “Have you submitted your secret agenda items to dad for Sunday’s family council?” or “Support your local family council—Sunday, 10:00 A.M.—where things happen and where the family gets it all together.”
I also tried posting an agenda worksheet on the refrigerator door one or two days before family council was to take place. It was fun to see the entries. Our seven-year-old son wrote, “Go fishing,” “Go swimming,” “Go bicycling.” Thereafter there was much more enthusiasm for our council meetings because everyone felt they had helped plan them.
After working with different agendas for a few months, we finally found that we needed to discuss certain items each time. Other agenda items needed to remain flexible. And most importantly, all family members needed to have the opportunity to suggest whatever agenda items they wanted. Our standard agenda evolved into something like this:
2. Opening song
3. Opening prayer
4. Plans for the coming month’s family home evenings
5. Plans for family outings and recreation
6. Plans for family service projects
7. Decisions on financial needs and family budget
8. Review of progress toward family goals (spiritual progress and improvement in family preparedness, missionary, and genealogy responsibilities)
9. Discussion of other family needs, problems, or rules
10. Coordination of the month’s calendar and individual schedules
11. Closing prayer
For us, monthly family councils have brought several valuable advantages to our family life. First, we found that our planning improved. For one thing, family councils helped us have more meaningful family home evenings. As we posted on the family bulletin board advance assignments for the lesson, refreshments, and games, preparation and quality improved.
Likewise, our family outings and recreation activities improved. They were on the family calendar early in the month and maintained an important priority. Commitments were made and plans were begun.
Planning together for family service projects became one of the most important benefits for us. Each month we talked about the principle of service and what we could do for someone else in the family, ward, or neighborhood. Some sweet experiences have resulted like when the woman down the street took our children’s hands in sacrament meeting the week after a heavy snow storm and with tears in her eyes said, “Are you the angels who shoveled our walk and driveway this week? No one has ever done such a sweet thing for us before.”
Besides learning how to plan better, we’ve also improved in our ability to make decisions—especially in the area of the family budget. The key is to discuss our financial needs together in family council and agree on our priorities. We all support decisions better when we’ve discussed them and agreed on them together.
Family councils have also helped us learn to meet our family goals. Written goals such as “obey quickly,” “put things away,” and “speak kind words” are taken from their place on the bulletin board and discussed in family council. Often the progress since the previous council isn’t measurable, but over a period of time we have made some noticeable improvements.
And family schedules are a little smoother, Ball games, school events, and church commitments are more consistently included on our large calendar, and “family taxi” needs are not so sudden and upsetting.
A brief follow-up in weekly family home evenings also helps. We update the calendar and check on current concerns that have come up since the last family council.
Of course, family councils haven’t solved all of our needs—they’re not intended to. But they have become a valuable planning and decision-making tool, as well as a spiritual forum for communicating family needs and discussing possible solutions. In fact, we now feel that we can’t get along without them.