“No Crying at the Dinner Table”, a documentary short by Carol Nyugen depicting her own family captures the quiet sorrow of family members who reside together but live in their own isolated worlds. There are words left unsaid and subjects left unbroached that come spilling out, revealing Asian reticence, the immigrants’ hustle, and universal family dynamics. At the end of the documentary, the family as a whole listens to each other’s confessionals. A question looms unspoken above the sobered dinner table–“Now what?”
What if the answer lies in running a household more like a business? While a therapeutic catharsis is no doubt beneficial, the training ground for forging a family’s values lies in the day-to-day grind. Could developing systems for doing chores help families love each other better?
David and Eleanor Starr describe implementing a business model in their home in “Agile Practices for Families: Iterating with Children and Parents”. Agile practices revolve around “openly managing an individual’s behavior in a structured group setting” with the key being that every member has the agency to set and manage their own goals. With agile practices, the Starrs sought to sever the knee-jerk pairing of “dysfunctional” with “family”.
First, they installed a task board. In addition to a daily task list, the Starrs created 3 separate categories: To do, Promised, and Done with tasks progressing from one end to the other. The children’s “Promised” tasks consist of a personal weekly task (e.g. cleaning your room) that stays constant, and a shared weekly task (e.g. sweeping the driveway) that gets assigned to a different member each week. The “Promised” queue for the parents changes constantly, and “parents must be able to explain all work items to the kids in a meaningful way.” It made me realize that all the while I complained about my parents not really seeing me while growing up, I seldom thought about, let alone showed appreciation, for the countless tasks they did to keep our family afloat. The task board goes beyond being a mere organizational tool, and creates opportunities for acknowledging all that a family does.
Another agile practice is a weekly family meeting which for the Starrs, is organized around three central questions:
- What things went well in our family this week?
- What things could we improve in our family?
- What things will we commit to working on this week?
Everyone has a hand in voting for what aspects of family life will be worked on in the following week and the ensuing punishments and rewards. Children especially get creative, with one of the Starr children suggesting seven push-ups every time someone interrupts another family member. This weekly safe space to share, hear, and collaborate tides a family over the quotidian ebb and flow.
The important takeaway is not that task boards and family meetings always work, but that cultivating a happy family is work. Agile offers a way to shift the work from trying to be the perfect child or parent to embracing the messiness of coexisting with those we love dearly by reflecting, communicating, and committing to change. Change, even for the better, can feel scary, but it’s a lot less scary when it’s the family business.