What's Your Family Mantra?Aug 03, 2023
Years ago, I heard a friend say to her child, who was on the verge of starting an altercation with their sibling, “Grace and courtesy.” When I asked for the background story on this prompt, she explained that it is integral to the Montessori school’s philosophy of teaching polite social norms. I liked the idea of a mantra that could be used purposefully in my parenting. You’ll hear the term “mantra” used in yoga and other spiritual contexts, but I thought about it from a behavioral psychology perspective.
I used mantras in my clinical work to help clients with anxiety-related repetitive behavior issues like trichotillomania (pulling out strands of your hair) and lip biting (to the point that your lips bleed). I also utilized mantras in anger management training to help clients stop anger from escalating out of control. Mantras could definitely be used in parenting from a psychology perspective, but I thought it would work better to choose terms that were more relatable so even a 3-year-old could define them easily. Thus, I decided to come up with my own mantra for my family.
How many terms should be in our family mantra? I thought a maximum of five so the kids could remember them all and they could use their fingers to help them remember the terms. What should our mantra entail? The kids and I brainstormed together and decided to cast a wide net, encompassing all qualities that you should exhibit when interacting with another person.
Our last name is Emmerson, so we developed the Emmerson 5: Happy, Kind, Respectful, Helpful, and Gentle. You may want to develop the Johnson 5 or Smith 5.
Happy: We decided this should mean trying to be happy, or in a good mood, yourself, and also trying to help others to be happy, very much in line with the positive psychology movement.
Kind: Whether others treat you kindly or not, we decided we should always try to be kind to others and not hurt anyone’s feelings.
Respectful: We decided it is important to respect other people by using “please” and “thank you,” by appreciating that different people are entitled to different preferences and opinions, and by respecting their words, whether they’re asking you to do something or to stop doing something.
Helpful: We decided we needed to help others whenever the opportunity arose, as long as we first checked that they would like our help. Within our family, we’re part of a team that helps its members. And that extends more broadly to the world where we help other people.
Gentle: This was glaringly obvious because I have one girl and three very active boys, so for years, gentle touch was a common focus of our parental interventions.
I’ve used the Emmerson 5 as one of my primary parenting tools for years. My kids can easily recite all five terms in our family mantra. When their behavior does not meet these standards, typically, the first thing I say to them is, “(Insert child’s name), Emmerson 5?” and they will repeat the mantra back, “Happy, Kind, Respectful, Helpful, Gentle.”
Having five terms works out very well because I simultaneously hold up my hand in a stop motion with my five fingers spread, which helps cue them to take a break from their inappropriate behavior. Then, as they are reciting the five terms, I wiggle a finger or two depending on which quality they are lacking at that moment. So, if one of the kids says unkind words to the other, I wiggle my second finger for “Kind.” This reminder works great for helping the kids to step back from the situation and look at it from a more objective perspective.
Running through the Emmerson 5 qualities on my hand also helps me to keep my parenting positive, so instead of saying something like, “Don’t hit your sister” or “Stop saying that,” I am framing my words with positive language like, “Good job repeating the Emmerson 5 correctly” and “Please be kind to your sister.” So I feel better about my parenting, too.
Having this family mantra has also proven useful in public situations such that you can have a relatively discreet interaction with your child rather than those sometimes awkward parenting moments at play dates or at the playground where you and your child might be a little embarrassed to talk about their less than ideal behavior.
“Use your Emmerson 5” is also a great quick reminder to get your kids in the right mainframe as you drop them off at play dates when they get a little older without getting them too embarrassed by your parting reminders.
I use the Emmerson 5 often, and especially for younger kids, I have loved having five qualities included. I’ve also tried abbreviated variations of the mantra as the kids got older to really focus on the most challenging qualities at the time. I tried just “Kind and Gentle” when roughness was a real priority issue in our household with those three energetic little boys.
Another friend of mine once suggested using just “Respectful” and said that really everything boils down to being respectful: Respectful of others’ bodies, respectful of others’ words, respectful of others’ feelings, respectful of property, etc. I thought that made a lot of sense.
One quality I think would be an excellent addition to the Emmerson 5 and the “Respectful” family mantra is “Thankful.” Sometimes I use “Thankful and Respectful.” Many childhood dilemmas can be resolved by looking at the situation from a thankful perspective. In line with the “Happy” element of the Emmerson 5, if you’re thankful for what you have, you’ll be much happier.
I overheard a parent at the playground using “Listen and be Kind,” which I thought was really a great mantra too. My brother always tells his girls, “Be Good.” Similarly, I’ve wondered whether “Make Good Choices” could actually sum up the essence of everything I tried to encompass with the Emmerson 5. Of course, by choosing a shorter mantra, you lose the added behavioral cue of putting your hand up and using your fingers to identify the problem area. So, I suggest a 5-word family mantra. Feel free to use our five qualities or modify them to suit your family.
There’s no single perfect family mantra, but if you think your family could benefit from a verbal reminder of good behavior and perhaps you could benefit from a positive reframe for your parenting, try out a mantra and see how it works for your family. It will take some repetition to get it to sink in with your kids, but it will be worth it when they are more easily brought back to having good behavior.
Family Mantras are part of the Communication category in my 5 C’s parenting framework (see The 5 C’s to Amazing Parenting). To view more posts in this category, use the category search menu on the right of your screen. Keep up the good work on your amazing parenting journey!
P.S. If you like the idea of getting intentional about your parenting and focusing on how you communicate with your children, you might be interested in learning more about my 5 C’s framework and continuing your amazing parenting journey with my free Bootcamps. Find a Bootcamp specific to your child’s age and save your spot today.