Organizing and Running a Parent Discussion Group

by James B. Stenson

One of the most vexing problems in life today is the disappearance of the extended family. This is, as you know, that network of close relations --parents and grandparents, married siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins of all ages and their spouses --that parents relied on for centuries to answer questions, resolve doubts and dilemmas, lend a sympathetic ear, pass on experience, give encouragement and back-up to parents.
What we find today instead is that young parents are isolated, and certainly feel isolated, as never before. Our mobility has scattered us far and wide. Parents and siblings live at a distance. Aunts, uncles, and cousins are virtual strangers. And, of course, many relatives, burdened with huge personal and family problems of their own, are in no position, alas, to give advice or encouragement to anyone.
For this reason, more and more young couples are organizing themselves into mutually supportive parent groups. What they can't get from relatives, they get from good friends. Meeting with like-minded, interesting friends --that is, people who share the same principles but have different temperaments, backgrounds, and points of view --they discuss family issues and share experiences. They've found the truth in the old adage: "Good friends help us make life's most important decisions."
Almost without exception, couples in these groups found they've enjoyed this experience and received great encouragement from it. What were the benefits they gained from this investment? This is what they've told me....

Nearly all discussion groups consisted of couples, both husbands and wives. But some were just for mothers and others just for fathers. (Dads, too, need a job description, and men, as much as their wives, enjoy getting together to swap ideas and experiences.) Whatever the composition of the gathering, here are their experienced tips for anyone organizing a discussion group:

(1)Don't try to do everything by yourself. Start with a steering committee of three couples and divide up the work. Decide on a definite schedule for meetings (see below) and sequence of topics based on this Web page's folios. Put this in writing as a simple informative flyer; the more that details (dates, times, topics) are set in place, the more likely will people decide to join you. Make lists of people who would probably be interested. (Rule of thumb: Count on inviting three times as many people as you hope will show up.) Invite them to an initial informal get-together where you explain the program's purposes and specific details. From those who opt to join, gather their phone numbers and e-mail addresses to keep them informed.

(2)Since most busy people are understandably chary of open-ended commitments, make clear to prospective participants that the program is not open-ended. That is, there's a definite sequence of six or seven meetings, and if people prefer to drop out after that, no problem. In fact, people are free to disengage at any point --and to rejoin later if they wish: "We're all busy parents, so we understand."

(3)Friday or Saturday night once a month, on a set weekend, seems to work best for nearly everyone. A fixed night of the month helps people to plan and remind themselves. The optimal time slot is from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. (Allow about a half-hour for socializing, and then start at 7:30.) Though sometimes meetings will be a bit late starting, it's important to end on time. At 9:00 sharp, some people will have to leave while others will stay a while for decaf coffee and snack. For nearly all families, a weeknight is out of the question and Saturday night can also be a problem. (This varies, though. Many couples prefer Saturday night. Choosing the optimal day for everyone is one of the details that the steering committee needs to determine initially.)

(4)Some times of the year are tough for parents to get away. September fills up with start of the school year; late November and all of December conflict with holidays. January through May seems to be the optimal time, though sometimes early October and early November are possible. Because of vacations, the summer is usually unsuitable for discussion groups, though it's fine for other social gatherings like cookouts and picnics for participants. So, the group would meet rather early in the month (say, the second Friday evening) during October, November, January, February, March, April, and May. Some groups arrange a party or family picnic in May or June to end out the year.

(5)Where to host this? Some groups prefer one fixed venue. Others rotate among homes of the steering committee and then, later, other people's homes. The delimiting factor seems to be the size of the living room or family room where people will meet. Generally speaking, the optimal size seems to be six to ten couples. Any more than this, especially without a strong-willed but tactful moderator, can lead to confusion in discussion.

(6)Set up comfortable seating arrangements, especially for the men. Because of their bodies' higher center of gravity, men need chairs with arm-rests in order to sit comfortably for an hour or more. So, don't use benches or straight-back chairs.

(7)Cost? Mainly a couple of dollars for snacks and printing costs, if any. The cost for the activity itself shouldn't be more than $25, though babysitting charges will add to the total outlay. Whatever the cost, see it as an investment.

(8)What about bringing small children along? Some organizers tried this at first and found it so distracting that they dropped it. Since participants are given plenty of notice, they should be able make their own babysitting arrangements. "Treat it like a monthly night out at the movies," said one organizer, and this seems to be most effective approach.

(9)Format? Encourage people to read (or at least skim) a folio beforehand and come prepared for discussion. Have one person responsible in advance for leading the discussion; this responsibility can be rotated on a volunteer basis. Be a learner, not just a teacher. Set out with the attitude that you're doing this to cement friendships and to learn how to be a better parent yourself. Maintain a spirit of service. Remind yourself often that, in the long term, you are doing an enormous amount of good for each family involved.

(10)Keep things light and friendly. Use a lot of humor, even with more serious topics. Be determined that everyone will have a good time, a pleasant evening. Use the discussions to cement friendships that will last for years. Don't let people be heavy-handed or dogmatic. Shun political discussion and religious controversy. Avoid doctrinaire participants (that is, don't invite them in the first place), or tactfully suggest they either tone things down or just disengage from the meetings.

(11)Stay in touch with participants between meetings, even by phone. Have an occasional social event --party, family picnic, watch a ballgame together--during the "off-season."

(12)Don't shoot for big numbers and don't be disappointed by occasional low turnout. If even one family is helped significantly, turns things around for the better at home, the whole effort is worth it.

(13)Keep ongoing notes of experience in order to keep improving.

(14)As time goes on into the second and third year and later, shoot for some variety: discussion questions, videos, reviews of parenting books, short case studies.

(15)Stick with it. It's an investment. Years from now, you and your friends --and indeed your grown children --will be glad you did.

Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this material for private use.
It is taken from the Website of James B. Stenson, educational consultant: