What’s Your Family’s Mantra?

Years ago I heard a friend of mine say to her child, who was on the verge of causing an altercation with her sibling, “Grace and courtesy.”  When I asked for the background story on this prompt, she explained that it is integral to the Montessori school philosophy of teaching healthy social interactions.  I liked the idea of a behavioral mantra. You’ll hear that term used in yoga and other spiritual contexts, but I thought about it from a behavioral psychology perspective.  I had used mantras in my clinical work to help patients 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 had also come across mantras in anger management training to help stop anger from escalating out of control.  I thought mantras could definitely be used in parenting from a psychology perspective, but no offense to Montessori, I did not care for the choice of grace and courtesy – they seemed too abstract and esoteric to be tangible to a 3 year-old.  So 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 5 so the kids could remember them all and they could use their fingers to them remember the terms.  What should our mantra entail?  The kids and I brainstormed together and decided to cast a wide net, encompassing all behaviors that you should exhibit when interacting with another person.  Together we came up with the Emmerson 5: Happy, Kind, Respectful, Helpful, and Gentle.

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 are treating you kindly or not, we decided we should always try to be kind to others.

Respectful: We decided it is important to respect other people by using “please” and “thank you” and to respect their words, whether they’re asking you to do something or to stop doing something.

Helpful: We decided we need to help others whenever the opportunity arises, as long as they would like our help.  Within our family, we’re part of a team that helps its members.

Gentle: This was glaringly obvious because at that time, I had a 4 year-old boy and a 2 year-old girl, so gentle touch was a pretty common focus of our parental interventions.

For years, I’ve used the Emmerson 5.  My 3 oldest kids can easily recite all 5 terms in our family mantra.  In fact, 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 5 terms worked out very well because I would simultaneously hold up my hand in a stop motion with my 5 fingers spread which helped to get them to take a break from their inappropriate behavior.  Then as they were reciting the 5 terms, I would wiggle a finger or two depending on which behavior they were at that moment lacking.  So, if one of the kids was saying unkind words to the other, I would wiggle my second finger for “Kind.”  This worked great for helping the kids to step back from the situation and look at it from a more objective perspective.  This also helped me to keep my parenting positive, so instead of saying something like, “Don’t hit your sister” or “Stop saying that,” I was framing my words in positive language like “Good job” to repeating the Emmerson 5 correctly and “Please be kind to your sister.”  So I felt 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” (Smith 5, Johnson 5, etc.) is a great quick reminder to get your kids in the right framework as your drop them off at play dates when they get a little older without getting them too embarrassed.

I still use the Emmerson 5 a lot, but I’ve also tried out different variations of the mantra when I thought 5 terms might be too many.  I tried just “Kind and Gentle” when roughness was a real priority issue in our household. Another friend of mine once suggested using just “Respectful” and said 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, though the one thing I think would be a nice addition to the Respectful mantra is Thankful so lately I’ve been saying “Thankful and Respectful.”  Lots of childhood dilemmas can be resolved by looking at the situation from a thankful perspective.  Similar to 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.”  I’ve wondered whether, “Make Good Choices” could actually sum up the essence of everything I tried to cover in the Emmerson 5.  Of course, by choosing a shorter mantra, you loose the added behavioral cue of putting your hand up and using fingers to identify the problem area.  There’s no single perfect mantra, but if you think your family could benefit from a verbal reminder of good behavior and perhaps you could benefit 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.

3, 2, Thank You!

How do you discipline your children? Certainly infants and very young children don’t need any discipline. Rather, the focus at these ages is on modeling good behavior and steering children away from danger. As your child approaches age 2, he starts to have more of a sense of independence and starts trying out new behaviors, some of which you may not want to continue. This is when the concept of behavioral consequences should be introduced: Each behavior you choose has a consequence.

My favorite strategy for disciplining young children involves providing choices. Your child’s verbal comprehension skills are well-developed already, so even if they do not yet have a lot of verbal expression (saying words), they can understand what you say and the choices you provide very well. Giving your child a choice helps them to feel empowered rather than feeling like their parents are dictators. Something as simple as, “Would you like to read this book or that book before your nap today?” helps your child develop their independence and gets them used to the concept of making choices.

Using choices as a discipline technique comes into play when your child says they do not want to do something that you expect them to do. For example, when you let them know it’s time to head upstairs for their nap and they in turn, let you know they don’t want to take a nap today. First, I would provide an explanation for why you are asking them to do the given behavior, in this case napping, such as, “Your body needs rest so you will have enough energy for our fun afternoon outing. Let’s head up to nap now.” Assuming your child seems ready for his nap and this resistance can be attributed to “testing the limits” of his independence, I would then provide the clear choice, “You can walk up the stairs to nap or mommy can carry you.” You’re still speaking to your child in a kind way but you are clearly communicating that you are in control and the nap will happen, while giving him a choice to make a good decision and walk up on his own.” I would then start counting, “3, 2, 1” and if they have not started walking up the stairs by 1, I would pick them up and give then a snuggle or fly them like a plane to keep the mood lighthearted before nap.

Some people count up to 10 but I think 3 counts is plenty of time for them to make a decision. Some people count up from 1 to 3 but I think it’s clearer to kids that something will happen after 1. They know there’s a number 4 after the number 3 but they’re not yet aware of negative numbers (and often not even aware of 0) so to them 1 indicates the end of the line. And here’s my favorite part about counting down from 3: When your child gets the hang of it and knows you’re serious about the alternative choice (being carried up to nap in this example), they’ll get those feet moving, usually after a teeny bit of dilly dallying, so you end up saying, “3, 2, thank you!” (never having to say 1) which rhymes so nicely and keeps the mood positive.

If you’re going to use this strategy, remember that it must be used consistently. That doesn’t mean use it universally every time your child is doing something you don’t like. Rather, use it only for behaviors for which there is a clear next step that must be followed: “Please climb in the car or mommy can help you in,” “Please hop out of bath or mommy can help you out,” “Please give that back to your sister or mommy can help you give it to her.” Using this approach consistently means when they have refused to do something you have asked them to do, you provide a choice, start counting down from 3, and if your child does not choose the favorable option, you consistently follow-up with the consequence. There’s no further discussion. Set a clear consequence, make sure they hear the consequence, start counting, and hopefully you’ll be saying “3, 2, Thank you!”

As you can see, in the early years this is a physical approach (in a very gentle way; please do not confuse this with physical punishment) in that you’re helping your child move their body. When used consistently, kids learn to make the good choice provided by you (because they know if you start counting, you’re serious about making the request happen). Over time, your child will learn to make good choices on his own and to respect your words so this becomes a simple, verbal approach to discipline (start early with your 1-2 year-old so you won’t be carrying your heavy 4 year-old around every time they refuse to follow your requests). Using techniques like this, by the time your munchkin starts kindergarten (that first milestone that I’m always working towards in my parenting) they’ll be cooperative and helpful both at home and in the classroom.