You may have noticed the growing interest in holding "family meetings" - where the patriarch brings everyone together to talk about plans to leave money to the kids and grandkids.
This kind of meeting, even if it is only about money, is generally healthy and far better than leaving things unsaid until the legal documents are read after the funeral. However, if it's
only money that is passed down, that money will probably do more harm than good. Numerous studies suggest that most inherited wealth disappears by the third generation. The saying "shirtsleeves-to-shirtsleeves in three generations" is a sad experience echoed in cultures around the globe.
Far more important than passing down money is the passing down of
family values. Every family can do this, and based on our experience, it can be both fun and rewarding. Of course, every family passes some kind of values to the next generation, mostly indirectly and without intention.
For years that's how my family operated - until my wife and I decided to become intentional. The hope was that our family values could become part of the positive lore of future members of our growing family. So we embraced the idea of "better late than never" and scheduled our meeting.
Here is how we structured our Family Meeting
We wanted to use our family time to identify our core family values, with the hope that these values would soon be supported by stories that could be passed down for the generations
This was the ultimate goal, since it is the stories that people will remember and the glue to helping those family values stick.
Five Essential Ingredients for a Great Family Meeting
- More fun
With 5 grandkids under the age of 6, and family members living on both coasts, we decided that a rented beach house would be the right venue. We wanted everyone to attend, so we purchased plane tickets for all and rented a beach house for five nights.
Attractive location + chance for fun family time +
FREE = enthusiastic participation
The agenda was to have beach and fun time all day - enjoying each other and catching up while playing in the sand and surf. Each family took charge of the evening meal one night - an essential concept with a group so large. After dinner and the grandkids in bed, we'd have our family meeting conversation for 90 minutes or so.
We didn't want to surprise our kids (or their spouses) with our agenda, so we sent this email ahead of time:
Girls (and husbands):
Mom and I want to spend a little time during our beach week discussing and defining the Sylvester family "legacy." We want to do this as a way to pass on the healthiest parts of our family traditions to future generations. And while there isn't a whole lot mom and I can do to change our cumulative story, each of you can choose to embrace the good stuff and establish and refine your own family legacy as the years pass.
Here is where we'll need your help: we want to pull together words that help define our family values and especially stories that do the same.
We'll have a couple of questions of the day to spur our conversations and we'll spend some time talking about the stories that have shaped our family.
We want this to be fun, but also worthwhile. Structure will be limited and input and laughter encouraged.
So think back, even a couple of generations, to values and stories that have shaped you.
Shoes optional. Drinks allowed.
We used three techniques to encourage individual participation.
- Question of the Day. The first two days everyone answered these questions:
- What was the toughest thing you ever had to do?
- Tell us about a defining moment in your life.
The answers helped everyone listen and empathize in a deeper way. We learned important things about each other. Everyone felt closer and more secure in the process.
To highlight the problem of passing on stories, we asked all of our kids (four daughters and their husbands) to write down the first names of their great grandparents. [See below.] The best score from any of us (10 people total) was 50%. A few could name only one or two. And no one could relate an important story about any of the great grandparents.
The message was clear:
if we aren't intentional about passing down important family stories, the principles we followed and the things we valued would totally disappear in a couple of generations.
Post-It Note Participation.
Everyone was given large-sized Post-It note and a Sharpie with instructions to write down key values that defined the family. We took turns presenting our list, and the colorful Post-Its were assembled on the picture window facing the Gulf of Mexico. We had words that covered a dozen or so categories, but six areas dominated the responses. Those six areas are where we want to develop our family stories. [Thanks to clients Carolyn and Steve for the Post-It suggestion.]
Our Post-It list, after grandkids decided to organize by color!
Alas, due to robust conversation, we ran out of evenings to identify the stories that have so influenced our family. However, w
e enjoyed the event so much that we're already planning another, where we will further develop our stories and find out how our kids have used the family legacy concept in their own young families. I don't think we'll have much of a problem getting the group together again.
Note: If you haven't yet orchestrated your first family meeting, it's not too late to start. If you have, we'd like to hear about your experiences. There is are many ways to structure a family meeting; your successful experiences will be welcomed and celebrated.