Saturday, May 29, 2010

Asking Children to Play in Traffic

I recently got an email from my friend Becca Krantz, asking for my views on a bush-full of thorny questions about how to run effective meetings. While the list is somewhat eclectic, they’re all worthy queries and I’m inspired to offer my responses as a blog series. Here’s what she asked:

1. Setting up meeting space—what are the minimally acceptable standards? [See my May 26 blog on Meeting Architecture]
2. Children in meetings—what's appropriate for the children and what’s appropriate for the adults? How might the answer vary by topic?
3. What considerations should be taken into account when determining how informally or formally to run meetings?
4. What can be done about getting input from and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings?
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I'll respond to the second question, on children in meetings. I've lived in community for 36 years (which means I've been to a lot of meetings), and 29 of those years we've had children in the group, two of them my own (which means I have a lot of familiarity with this topic).
In general, kids aren't interested in meetings—they'd rather watch Barney reruns than sit through two hours of adults wading through the nuances of membership policy or composting norms. While there are notable exceptions to this, which I'll get to below, I'm going to first address your options when the kids aren't interested. 
When It's Negative to Have Kids in the Meeting 
While it's probably fine that the kids' attention is elsewhere, you would prefer that their parents or caregivers are able to focus on the meeting, and you don't want the kids to be distracting the adults. Essentially, you have two choices: have the kids attend the meeting, or have them be elsewhere.
While having kids in the meeting is a simpler choice to arrange (no babysitter fees, and no logistical hassles around making arrangements or giving care guidance), it comes with other challenges:
o How much of the parents' attention can truly be available for the meeting (how much will they be tracking their kid instead)? Obviously, this dynamic will be substantially affected by age of the child: five-month-old babies stay where you put them; two-year-olds are completely mobile and have almost no discernment about what's appropriate or safe; five-year-olds can often be relied on to entertain themselves for substantial stretches of time and to understand safety boundaries, yet they can also be maddeningly prone to inappropriate demands for attention—uncannily just when Mom or Dad is starting to get really absorbed in the meeting.
o How much will the kids' actions be distracting to other adults, because they're cute, loud, aggressive, or semi-dangerous?
o On a subtler level, to what extent might kid presence inhibit adult conversation, perhaps because of concerns about the kids witnessing disharmony or raw emotions; perhaps because of concern about exposing kids to certain kinds of information which the adults believe they are not yet capable of digesting well, or able to use appropriate discernment about who they share it with? Notice how tricky this last one can get: the parents might not be inhibited, yet some other adults may be, and this can be an especially awkward topic to explore, as it bumps smack into the sensitive issue of parenting styles.
Going the other way—having the kids be somewhere else—brings into play the question of how will the babysitting expense be borne? Groups handle this in different ways: some cover fees as a group expense; others expect the parents to handle this themselves. There can be tension around this either way, and the most important thing is to have a way to get this out in the open and figure out how your group will handle it, so prospective members clearly understand the group policy in this regard.
Possible Undercurrents at Play
Up to this point, I've focused my comments on the nuances directly related to the question of kids attending meetings. Unfortunately, it can be more complicated than that. If the group has not yet found a way to discuss more broadly how it balances opportunities for kids with opportunities for adults with opportunities for families, then the issue of kids at meetings can become a lightning rod for unresolved tensions.
I'll illuminate this dynamic by telling a story. As someone who's been deeply involved with the Fellowship for Intentional Community for more than 20 years, I have first-hand knowledge of trends in inquiries about community living. Over the last two decades there's been a steady rise in interest in community among people over 50, and, overwhelmingly, these folks want inter-generational communities, where the membership will be a mix of all ages. That said, there has also in recent years been a surge of interest in the concept of senior cohousing—communities embracing the cohousing design model where the members are all above a certain age (typically 50).
Confused about the motivation for this (given the demand I was seeing for inter-generational community), I recall being in a conversation three years ago with Jim & Brownie Leach (Jim is the principal of Wonderland Hill Development, the leading developer of cohousing communities in the US) where I asked their opinion on what was driving this trend. Brownie leaned into me without hesitation and said, "Think dinner table conversation."
The third rail that Brownie was touching was push back from the segment of seniors who have been disgruntled by how "regular" inter-generational cohousing groups have handled the balance between kid-focused and adult-focused culture. In particular, Brownie was speaking to a longing for mealtime discourse that was not dominated by fussy eaters, fart jokes, or temper tantrums triggered by the peas having commingled with the mashed potatoes without permission.
While there's no doubt that some seniors truly are happier if kids and families only have visiting privileges in their communities, I've been wondering how much of the motivation for senior cohousing is actually a multi-million dollar design solution to unresolved (and perhaps unaddressed) social challenges that have proven too daunting.
While this story was focused on mealtimes, there's a direct parallel with meeting times, and I caution groups that are grappling with the kids-in-meetings issue to step back and consider whether the conversation might be distorted by people in your group who are generally dissatisfied with the amount of adult-focused opportunities in their community life, and are using this dialog as a place to take a stand, protecting meeting time as a precious island of adult-focused social intercourse. To the extent that this dynamic obtains, what's at stake in the conversation may be much more than meets the eye.
When It's Positive to Have Kids in the Meeting
There are two angles on this:

A. When the meeting topic is about the children or policies affecting them
Depending on their age, it may be entirely appropriate to have the input of children on matters affecting them. (Note that I didn't say, "The kids get to decide"; I said, "The kids opinions are taken into account.") While it makes no sense to ask two-year-olds for their take on how adults should discipline kids acting out, it probably does make sense to get responses from 12-year-olds on this topic.
As children negotiate the semi-tortuous journey toward maturity, there needs to be a sequence of opportunities for them to try on increasing levels of responsibility.

B. When kids are curious about what adults do in meetings
When I was a child, I always wondered what my Dad did when he "went to work," and it's natural for children to go through a period of being interested in learning more about what their parents do at meetings. (For my kids, this happened most in years 5-10, yet it will vary considerably by child. I still recall fondly my son sitting patiently on my lap as I participated in a two-hour meeting of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities Assembly when he was only three years. At the end the meeting, to my amazement, he'd drawn pictures to capture the notes of what people had said. He explained it was the best he could do, because he couldn't write.)

For my money it's a great opportunity to teach by example, riding the wave of child curiosity as far as it will go. They can learn a lot of important cultural lessons by watching how adults work to solve problems cooperatively, and I think it's smart to give them every chance to explore this rich territory.

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