This six-letter word represents one of the most important and captivating organizational structures that exists. For many of us, nothing could be more important. When we’re asked what we value, this is the first word on our lips. Yet, we often overlook opportunities to improve the way our family operates.
Unspoken tensions can boil over into problems within ourselves and each other. When considering the recent Disney hit, Encanto, did you notice there was no villain in the movie? That’s because it didn’t need one. Family dynamics don’t need sinister green lighting and a catchy evil song to thicken the plot. For better or worse, the way our family runs largely dictates how healthy it is, and in many cases, how healthy we are. And that is determined by how effectively we are truly seeing each other.
The connection between organizational structure and family life may hold the missing link. That’s where our star player comes in: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion.
Our modern world is heavily focused on Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) in the workforce (rightfully so), but it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a lot of noise on this topic as it applies to the family unit. This is especially relevant in a time when mental health disorders and illnesses, substance abuse, and suicidal ideations are on the rise across all populations and demographics.
In children alone, the worsening crisis in mental wellness has escalated so significantly that the nation’s leading experts in pediatric health (the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) recently issued an urgent warning declaring the mental health crisis affecting children a national emergency. In December 2021, even the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory calling for the “urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.” According to researchers at Boston College, who analyzed data from the 2020 U.S. Household Pulse Survey of nearly 1.5 million adults with information collected from April through November 2020, anxiety and depression among adults increased sixfold as compared to the early 2019 (i.e., pre-pandemic) norms, with the greatest disparities among women and people of color.
We Don’t Talk About Bruno, I know, but we should talk about him, and things that affect mental health. We should talk about money and finances, our overall health, and, quite frankly, anything that concerns us. This includes our hopes, goals, dreams, and plans for the future– these things contribute tremendously to our mental wellness, too, right? Enter DEI at the family meeting.
According to the eXtension Organizing Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion:
Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective. It also includes the presence of populations that have been (and remain) underrepresented among practitioners in the field and marginalized in the broader society.
Equity is promoting justice, impartiality and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems. Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the root cause of outcome disparities within our society.
Inclusion is an outcome to ensure those that are diverse actually feel and/or are welcomed. Inclusion outcomes are met when you, your institution and your program are truly inviting to all. Diverse individuals are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes and development opportunities within an organization or group.
Your family may not be a professional organization, but it is (at times) a well-oiled machine, right? We all strive to contribute to a happy, healthy household. As women, our motivating force behind all that we do is more often than not, our family. Even when we focus on ourselves, nurturing our own happiness allows us to show up better for those around us. So why not apply the basic tenets of DEI to how we nurture, strengthen, and grow our own families? Think about it for a second.
How can the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion help your family dynamic?
Regardless of the type of family unit we have, we are all diverse in our own ways. We all have different wants, needs, and perspectives – shouldn’t they be acknowledged, validated, and even celebrated?
Doesn’t it follow naturally that each individual in a household be made to feel that their voice is heard? That they have a say in major decisions affecting the family unit? That they are treated fairly and equitably?
And doesn’t it make sense that we include all members of the family to participate in major decision-making, as well as in tough conversations that play a role in affecting the overall mental health of the family unit?
Yes! Yes! and Yes!
While we make up a “family,” we are all individuals. Understanding and applying DEI can be quite a powerful tool and lead to a healthier, happier and more connected family. But how can we do this on a practical level?
This is where the family meeting comes into play.
Family meetings should include everyone in the family– even the kids. How else can we prepare our children to make well-informed decisions and empower them to face the hardships of life if we don’t talk about Bruno?
Remember diversity, equity and inclusion? Each member of the family can (and should) bring their own diverse perspective on a matter, should be respected and treated fairly in the process, and should be included in the discussion or decision making. Rather than shielding our children, allowing them to participate empowers them to develop the skills necessary to succeed in life.
Many people may cringe at the thought of a family meeting, thinking they are only for addressing heavy issues affecting the family or are akin to interventions. While these heavy topics are inevitable from time to time, family meetings needn’t be reserved solely for this purpose. They can be utilized for uplifting conversations, too.
You’re probably already doing it-- think pillow talk or dinner table discussions. These types of conversations happen every day. Many of you may have heard of “Highs, Lows and Buffaloes,” where each person has an uninterrupted turn to talk about the high and low points of their day, and then share anything else that’s on their mind (i.e., the buffalo).
For my family, dinner time is sacred. We use this time to unwind, be present, and just talk. Oftentimes we “play” our own version of “Highs, Lows and Buffaloes” that we have coined as “Smiles, Frowns, Let’s Go Around.” We each take a turn, uninterrupted, to discuss our day and what made us smile and what made us frown. After everyone has had a turn sharing their highs and lows, we start the cycle again with “Let’s Go Around” for each person to say whatever’s on their mind.
Other times, we “play” “Do You Know,” where each person quizzes the family about themselves to see how well we know each other (like “Do you know what my favorite color is?” or “Do you know how I face my fears?”). This is the time where each of us gains valuable insight into each other’s individuality. These “mini-meetings” allow us to be seen and heard by the people we love the most.
No family can function like an episode of The Brady Bunch or Full House where a troublesome issue or important topic can be addressed and resolved in thirty minutes. For these discussions, more time needs to be invested than a typical dinner can provide. These topics generally fit into one of three categories: health, wealth, or future plans.
Health refers to any topics involving health– major illnesses or upcoming surgeries/treatment, pregnancy, the death of a loved one or family pet, substance or domestic abuse, mental health and wellness, and current events.
Wealth refers to discussing issues surrounding money and finances, charitable giving and multi-generational wealth such as a family foundation, trust or business.
Future plans may include discussing estate planning, a major life event like divorce or moving, how to give back to the community as a family through volunteerism and philanthropy, and any major family occasions (like planning a vacation or major celebration).
Recently, my nine-year-old had some serious questions about the war in Ukraine. My husband and I decided to call a family meeting that included all five of us to offer an open forum to discuss the conflict, its impact on the economy, and allow the kids to ask us anything on their minds. Rather than provide the kids a history lesson or provide our own opinions (unless they specifically asked), we questioned them on what they knew and what they thought.
I was blown away by how much they understood, and was proud at how well they were able to make connections and grasp how something “out of sight” can affect the entire world – like the increase in gas prices, for example. My husband and I used this as an opportunity to tell our children– at an age appropriate level– our own concerns. After all, mom and dad are human and aren’t invincible. By providing our son a forum for open discussion, he felt more “in the know,” and will hopefully continue to bring up any of his future concerns to us. In turn, my husband and I were reminded that having hard conversations are necessary in parenting and can really empower our kids to grow.
Whatever the purpose of your meeting, it’s best to pick a date, time and place, free of distractions, where everyone can be included. Make sure to address one topic at a time and make decisions by consensus. Anyone should be permitted to call a family meeting on a topic that is important to them. And all members should be encouraged to participate, sharing their thoughts and feelings on the matter.
Whether at the dinner table or in a more formal setting, family meetings are important. They help members of the family appreciate and understand one another (diversity) and allow each member to meaningfully contribute to the family dynamic and feel heard (equity & inclusion). Together, the family can overcome challenges, set and achieve shared goals and values, and truly connect.
Life is tough. But it is also quite beautiful. By talking about the things that affect our mental health, we nurture, strengthen and grow our family dynamic, contribute to its overall mental wellness, and can live our family values together.