“Family Councils: Making Decisions Together,” Ensign, Dec. 1978, 18
“My dad used to counsel with me about the work we were doing together,” said President N. Eldon Tanner, “and even though I was very young I can remember the feeling of real importance it gave me to have him express his confidence in me and ask for my advice about certain things. He let me know he depended on me and that I was part of the program.” (“Fatherhood,” Ensign, June 1977, p. 4)
Everyone likes to feel “part of the program.” And a good way to communicate that feeling to children is to make them a part of family decision making.
For instance, upon informing stake members about plans for the construction of the new Jordon River Temple, President Boyd C. Bronson of the Murray Utah East Stake counseled them to sit down with their families in a family council and decide together how they could contribute to the building fund.
One father in the stake later said: “We decided as a family that we wanted to make a significant contribution. I told the family, however, that because finances were tight, we had no extra money available; we’d have to delete some category in our budget and replace it with a ‘temple fund’ category. After some discussion, we unanimously decided to contribute the money we had planned to use for our vacation this year. We’ll just have fun at home.”
They probably will have fun, too, because they all made the decision.
President Spencer W. Kimball counseled: “If there is to be a contribution to the building fund or the Red Cross or a Saturday morning spent helping the elders quorum paint a widow’s house, make sure the children are aware of it, and if it is feasible, let them have a share in the decision making and in the implementation of the decision.” (Ensign, Nov. 1974, p. 113)
Families don’t vote on God’s laws or commandments; it would be ridiculous to vote on interpretations of the laws of honesty, chastity, or the Word of Wisdom, for example—or on certain other concerns that parents may not choose to be subject to voting. But some family concerns can logically be discussed and voted upon: When is the best time to have family prayer and study the scriptures together? How should we divide up the work in the garden so everybody can help out? How can we make it financially possible for all of the boys in our family to go on a mission? What can we as a family do to quit quarreling? When decisions about these kinds of concerns are made as a group, the entire family will more likely be committed to them.
The Deane M. Gearig family of Holly, Michigan, tried it and came up with a plan that works for them. They set family goals for physical fitness and each person keeps track of his progress on a chart taped to the refrigerator. “And our project for the past three weeks has been to learn to solve problems by a means other than quarreling,” says Sister Gearig. “Our efforts have worked well so far; we’re really exerting a tremendous amount of self-control.
“We’re trying to be a ‘forever family,’” she continues, “so we set specific challenges for ourselves.”
How do the kids react to the goals and the programs for reaching them?
“Well, we’re going to have another family council to see how we’re doing,” Sister Gearig explains.
“And to see if we want to keep it up!” Brother Gearig adds. “Actually, I’ve been surprised. The kids have been quite cooperative. I never dreamed they’d be that cooperative when we suggested it.”
Why have the children been willing to go along with the plan to be more fit and to cut down on quarrels? Probably because they had a big part in formulating the rules themselves. Instead of imposing a set of rules on their children, Brother and Sister Gearig had goals in mind and then allowed the whole family to work out the details. Then everyone was more committed to make an honest effort.
Family councils are not intended to usurp the father’s authority and replace it with a totally democratic system of family government. President Joseph F. Smith said: “There must be a presiding authority in the family. The father is the head or president, or spokesman of the family. This arrangement is of divine origin.” (John A. Widtsoe, comp., Priesthood and Church Government, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, p. 81) But far from the other extreme, dictatorship, the father, according to President Tanner, should preside “with love, and in complete harmony with the righteous desires of the mother. Together they should be seeking the same goals for the family, and the children should feel the love and harmony that exists.” (“Fatherhood,” Ensign, June 1977, p. 2)
“On some matters, it’s kind of like a meeting of a stake high council,” said one father of five. “During the council meeting, everyone has an opportunity to give his suggestions. Then the president (or father) carefully weighs the input of each member and makes the final decision on those kinds of matters. Everyone supports the decision because he knows that the presiding authority made it based on the suggestions, his own experience, and inspiration.”
Brother and Sister Kay Christensen of Kansas City, Missouri, have found what they consider the right balance in their family government. For example, when the amount of time spent watching television got out of hand, they held a council to decide what chores the children had to do before they could turn on the TV, which nights they could turn it on, and how much time they could spend watching it. When the council decided on a ruling, Sister Christensen wrote the decision down and tacked it on the bulletin board so everybody could remember it.
But how much did the parents really rely on the opinions of the children?
“Everyone gave his own ideas,” Brother Christensen explains, “and then my wife and I made the final decision.”
But if, in this instance, the children didn’t actually make the decision themselves, how well did they accept the final ruling?
“They don’t seem to be rebellious about it,” says Sister Christensen. “By being able to be a part of the decision making, they realize that their ideas are important and that we really will accept their input.”
Brother Christensen remembers several times when a decision was later altered at the request of family members. Sometimes family rules need to change as the family changes, he admits, and in the relaxed, unstrained atmosphere provided by a family council, family members have been able to bring up good ideas and valid reasons for changing previously established rules. In a council, the parents are willing to listen without bias to the opinions of their children.
The Carlos M. Bowmans of Midland, Michigan, have a family council “from time to time if some difficulty arises or if something needs to be resolved. If the kids can’t get along with each other or if somebody is using something that doesn’t belong to him, we have a council.”
Specifically, how do the Bowmans make a family council work? If feelings are running high, how do they keep the meeting peaceful and still get something done?
“I don’t ever allow it to get into a bickering type of situation,” explains Brother Bowman.
“With us there with them,” Sister Bowman adds, “each child has to listen to the other one instead of fussing back and forth. It helps them see that there’s another side and another way of looking at the issue.” Usually, she admits, the children are glad dad’s there to help them solve a problem they hadn’t been able to work out on their own.
Elder Marvin J. Ashton said: “To be effective, family communication must be an exchange of feelings and information. Doors of communication will swing open in the home if members will realize time and participation on the part of all are necessary ingredients.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 52)
Family council is a good time to exchange feelings and to allow the “doors of communication [to] swing open.”
Communicating means more than just resolving differences or deciding on family rules. It also means expressing love and appreciation to one another. And family councils can provide the right atmosphere to do just that. “If you call your children together only in times of stress, or only to discipline, and never to recognize their achievements or to compliment them and show your love to them, then they will learn to dread family councils.” (When Thou Art Converted, Strengthen Thy Brethren, Melchizedek Priesthood study guide, 1974, p. 168)
Communicating also means “keeping tabs on what’s going on with the kids.” The Bowmans use family councils to “calendar” everybody’s activities so everyone knows who is going to what, and when. “If you don’t,” warns Sister Bowman, “something happens and you’ve forgotten about it.”
Some families hold a short family council every morning at the breakfast table; others hold them every fast Sunday, or whenever the need arises, or every week after home evening. But there is a difference between family home evening and family council:
“When family members gather each Monday evening to learn the gospel, to enjoy one another, and to have fun together, that is a family home evening.
“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, p. 167)
Family councils can help family members become committed to group goals they have helped to formulate. They can also help the family create an atmosphere of respect and understanding, solve differences, and become more organized.
Referring to experiences in his own home, President Ezra Taft Benson wrote: “The inspired home evening and family council program, which carries such promise, … has provided [us] many happy hours and great joy together. It has built faith, strengthened testimonies, and created a family solidarity and unity that will endure throughout all eternity.” (God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974, p. 174)