Zelophehad’s Daughters

Memories of Family Council

Posted by Lynnette

When I was growing up, my family had two regular Sunday activities. The first was going to church. The second was the weekly ritual of family council, a meeting which all family members were expected to attend. (It helped that there were usually treats at the end.)

Family council could go on for hours and hours. The length of the meeting was at least partly due to the fact that so many of the members of my family (including myself) find it rather difficult to stay on-topic for even five minutes at a stretch. One regular feature of the meeting was scheduling, which involved going through each day of the week and having everyone report what s/he had going on, so that my mother could ensure that it was all on her calendar and transportation and such could be worked out. Yet after forty-five minutes of lively discussion we could easily still be on Monday, because the conversation kept getting sidetracked by stories, silly comments, and arguments.

Making off-topic comments in this manner was referred to in family lingo as “flakking.” One week my sister Eve, who kept advocating the radical idea of shorter and more efficient meetings, decided to give people “flak points” whenever they engaged in the behavior. She dutifully took notes throughout the meeting. I don’t think anyone was surprised, however, when the number one flakker turned out to be not one of the children, but my mother.

If you wanted to contribute to the family discussion in these meetings, you generally had to forego any pretense of politeness or waiting for others to have their turn. You couldn’t wait for a break in the conversation because there weren’t any; your choices were to remain silent, or to interrupt. You then had to talk very fast before someone else interrupted you, and you also had to talk very loud, in order to drown out the person whom you were interrupting. To this day, I notice that when I’m around my family I talk with greater volume and speed than I do in any other context.

For a while we had a list on the refrigerator where people could write down issues that came up during the week which they’d like to have addressed at family council. After my sister Amalthea made extensive use of the list (understandably, given her position as the youngest child), a rule was added that each family member could only bring up two issues per week. People were encouraged to speak in terms of general problems, instead of recounting past detailed stories which illustrated just how evil a particular sibling was— in other words, to say, “can we discuss the problem of people taking things without permission” instead of indignantly relating what happened last Tuesday. However, this usually played out along the lines of someone saying, “I don’t think that people should be allowed to get away with not helping with the dishes” or “people need to stop saying ‘shut up'”–at which point one of her sisters would correctly deduce that by “people” the speaker meant specifically her, and would respond that perhaps people shouldn’t act in such obnoxious ways that one had no choice but to tell them to shut up.

Family council introduced me at a young age to the difficulties involved in establishing an accurate historical record of an event, as the accounts of participants sometimes differed drastically. While one person would remember an altercation with a sibling as involving a smack hard enough to nearly put her in the hospital, the other would only have a vague memory of being in the same room and perhaps “lightly touching” the first person.

These meetings also honed my debating skills, as we tackled a wide range of issues: at what hours and in what rooms it was acceptable to play musical instruments; at what times watching television was allowed, and who got to control the remote; whether chores were being distributed equitably; and one of my personal favorites: whether it would be safe for me to own pet hamsters, given the possibility that they might escape and chew up my brother Ziff’s baseball cards.

In a psychology class I once took as an undergrad, we read about different family styles: permissive, authoritarian, democratic, etc. I temember trying to figure out into which group my family of origin might fit. But I really wasn’t sure. They didn’t have a category for anarchy.

9 Responses to “Memories of Family Council”

  1. 1.

    Lynnette, your post brought back many entertaining memories. I remember in particular the fights that were recounted on the family-council list, blow by blow, each entry barely concealed in impersonal generalities.

    And for years I don’t think we got through many family councils without at least one person stomping out dramatically in tears, usually as the family council list was being discussed and various fights relived. I’m afraid there’s considerable evidence that a flair for self-ingulgent melodrama is hard wired into the Zelophehad family.

    Come to think of it, our passionate, endless debates, irrelelvant tangents and smart-alecky remarks and generally anarchic Family Councils were the perfect preparation for…blogging.

    (Now if you don’t all stay on topic, I’m going to start distributing flak points.)

  2. 2.

    Interesting. Both my mother and my wife have tried the calendar in FHE, and it always descended into anarchy. I’ve wondered if perhaps the calendar is a mother’s way of attempting to impose order on the chaos. Anyway, it never worked for us, either.

    Mom also had the idea to try a list once, but she quickly decided to discontinue it because of the rudeness of the comments. If someone had said that we should stop saying shut up, within five minutes somebody else would have drawn an arrow to that item on the list and written that whoever said that ought to just shut up. But it still meant a lot to my mother that we sing “Love at Home”, and we always did. I remember singing “all the world is filled with love” while slugging my brother.

    Also, Eve, maybe it is just a big sister thing to do, but my oldest sister was the person who took notes on behavior and awarded demerits.

  3. 3.

    Mark, oh dear, maybe it’s an oldest child disease to write up reports on other people being bad. (They don’t call it Big Brother for nothing.) Wasn’t there some research a few years ago on oldest children being more conservative and more likely to uphold authority than their younger siblings?

    Your descriptions of family council make me wonder if what actually happens is ever anything like the picture the church seems to present of family council. Is it basically the same divide between the Ensign pictures of the smiling cherubic children gathered around the piano in the spotless living room, and the actual Family Home Screaming with which we’re all acquainted?

  4. 4.

    Great post, Lynnette! Our FHE’s were pretty uneventful. We kept a singular focus on getting through it as quickly as possible so we could get to the treats at the end.

    Eve- the Greg Prince David O. McKay bio gives interesting behind-the-scenes insight into what really goes on at meetings of the Council of the 12. While it’s not exactly Family Home Screaming, it’s not as orderly and tidy as we might think. Though the 12 Apostles these days seem to be fairly docile compared to the firebrands in the past.

    After reading this post, I’m a bit disappointed now that all of my real life conversations with the Daughters of Z have been so civil. No screaming, and very little interrupting. Where’s the love?

  5. 5.

    Eve, of course–the traditional storming out of the meeting. Family council wouldn’t have been complete without it. And you’re right: in retrospect, family council was clearly preparing us to become bloggers.

    Mark, I don’t know if we actually ever sang “Love at Home” as a group, but I do remember that the song was sometimes sung at people who were fighting.

    ECS, I suspect that the problem is that you’ve never encountered more than two of us at a time. Based on thorough empirical research, I believe that three is the critical number at which family dynamics begin to truly kick in. We really need to have a bloggersnacker someday and get multiple ZDs to attend.

    I’m realizing that this family council thing (ours was even separate from FHE) was perhaps a somewhat unusual thing to do? (I do remember that they did something like it in the book Cheaper by the Dozen, and I loved the description of it there because it sounded so familiar, complete with off-topic comments and people leaving in tears.)

  6. 6.

    Lynnette, I have distinct memories of Dad singing that very song at Melyngoch and me when we would bicker after Church.

  7. 7.

    “Family council could go on for hours and hours. The length of the meeting was at least partly due to the fact that so many of the members of my family (including myself) find it rather difficult to stay on-topic for even five minutes at a stretch.”

    When we had 3 teens at home, often even our scripture reading would get sidetracked and go on seemingly forever. After a while of just sitting around talking about “stuff,” one of the kids would comment that we were wasting our time — why couldn’t we get on with it. My wife and I would exchange a glanse — the kids didn’t understand that the “wasted time” in which they were talking about whatever they wished were, for us, more valuable than the overt purpose of the gathering. With just one kid left at home, we find it hard to replicate those conversations.

  8. 8.

    ECS, LOL. I suppose I could try to rant and rave the way I did as a teenager! (Come to think of it, I still seem to rant quite a bit, just not so much with the raving anymore). But as Lynnette said, if you meet several of us at once and get us excited about something, then I think you’ll witness us all talking over each other very fast.

    JrL, thanks for your perspective. I think our “wasting time” tended to drive both of our parents a little crazy–although on the memorable occasion Lynnette mentioned when I kept score to see who was wasting the most time, it turned out that our mother was the worst offender. She’s a born smart-aleck, and she’s never been one to just let a potential remark lie there.

  9. 9.

    In a psychology class I once took as an undergrad, we read about different family styles: permissive, authoritarian, democratic, etc. I temember trying to figure out into which group my family of origin might fit. But I really wasn’t sure. They didn’t have a category for anarchy.

    I don’t know how to categorize it either. But I did read a funny comment once that I thought described smart-alecky families well:

    “Parents vary in their attitudes toward children and their ideas about
    family life. In some families humor is considered a virtue and
    laughters its reward; kids are permitted to interrupt or make
    impertinent remarks if they’re funny enough. I grew up in a family
    like that.”

    This is from Judith Rich’s Harris’s excellent book The Nurture Assumption.

    Thanks for posting this Lynnette. It’s fun to remember all the silliness, even if I was probably more frustrated at the time that our meetings took so long (which was mostly everyone else’s fault, I’m sure ;) ).

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