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.

Using Operant Conditioning to Train Your Children to Have Good Manners

Circling back to our discussion on reinforcement and punishment (see Understanding Reinforcement vs. Punishment from 2/8/18), now that you have an understanding of the basics, it’s time to learn more about operant conditioning. As a reminder, below is the chart showing the 2 forms of reinforcement, positive and negative, as well as the 2 forms of punishment, positive and negative. Remember that positive means adding something while negative means removing something, as opposed to positive meaning good and negative meaning bad. If I were B.F. Skinner, I would have chosen less confusing terms.

Positive Negative
Reinforcement Adding something good

Ex: Praise

Removing something bad

Ex: Stropping a nagging song

Punishment Adding something bad

Ex: Cleaning house

Removing something good

Ex: Taking away a toy

Skinner’s original works used pigeons and rats to demonstrate his learning theory. Though your munchkins are infinitely brighter than pigeons and I would never compare them to rats, the same concepts apply, sometimes when I’m thinking about how to motivate my children’s behavior, I like to simplify things by thinking of them as little birds pecking away at a lever in order to earn their food pellet. The term shaping is used in behavioral psychology to describe the process of teaching a subject to perform a certain behavior by reinforcing successive approximations of the desired response, just as you patiently guide your children toward desired behaviors. I would like for all of my children to be polite and thankful. For example, I would like my 2 year-old to ask for milk by saying, “Mom, may I please have a glass of milk” but I can’t expect him to magically start speaking this way when he first develops communication skills. First, he cries to tell me he wants milk. Then he grabs or points. Then he says “milk”, then “milk please”, and so on until one day he learns to say the complete, polite request. Each of those steps was a successive approximation of the desired response and was rewarded along the way, but once he was ready to move on to the next step I had to stop reinforcing the previously rewarded behavior (i.e., when he was able to speak, I waited to give him the milk until he said “milk” rather than when he simply pointed to the refrigerator). Fortunately children have a well developed understanding of spoken language long before they can verbally express their own thoughts, so I could prompt him for the behavior by saying, “Would you like a milk? Say, “Milk please Mom.” Now that he can say complete sentences, I don’t hand him the milk until he makes a polite request. I have shaped that behavior over time. You have likely been through this process with your children for any number of desired behaviors. Remember that you have the power to set the ultimate goal, so if you want your children to be polite, don’t stop at “Mom, can I have a glass of milk?” (or one of my pet peeves, “Mom, I want milk.”). Choose not to reinforce that behavior until “please” is added at the end of the sentence.

The same concept of shaping applies to training your children to say “thank you”. In addition to asking politely for the glass of milk, I would like my children to say “thank you” when I hand it to them. This is a behavior that is learned through your child’s interactions with you and other people in their lives with whom they spend a significant amount of time, so get on the same page with other caregivers. Often young children have the best manners when they are new talkers because it is so rewarding for them to receive positive reinforcement from you when they say in their adorable little voices, “thank you” as you hand them the glass (or sippy cup) of milk with a big smile. Your praise acts as a reinforcer beyond the reinforcer of receiving the milk itself. This process of using reinforcement to pair the act of you handing the child the milk with a loving smile with the desired response of them saying “thank you” is called acquisition. This polite behavior may fade over time as the novelty of your child’s response wears off and you react less and therefore unintentionally withdraw part of the reinforcer (they are still getting the milk but your loving smile is not prominent). This is called extinction because you have extinguished, or removed, the connection between being given the milk and them saying “thank you” by removing the reinforcer.

Shaping is then needed to re-aquire the behavior. Now the reward must not be provided until the desired behavior is exhibited (i.e., you don’t give them the milk until they say “thank you”). The most commonly heard cue from parents trying to teach their children to say “thank you” is “What do you say?” after the child already has the milk in their hands. Taking a lesson from behavioral psychology, you’ll find that the desired response is more quickly learned and more consistently exhibited if you without the reward until after the child says “thank you.” To do this you might say “What do you say?” or “What’s the magic word?” while still holding the milk in your hand, but I prefer more subtle techniques like offering the child the milk but not releasing it until they say “thank you”. Don’t think of this as a tug of war but rather, picture your child’s surprised reaction as they go to the grab the milk and discover that it has not been released (this lesson is best taught with sippy cups or water bottles for spilling concerns). Without saying a word, you offer an expectant look (eyebrows raised with a knowing smile), and it’s as though you can actually see gears turning in their heads as they think through “What on earth is mom doing? What is she waiting for? Oh, I need to say thank you.” This can be such a fun learning moment; I have found that my children and I usually leave these interactions with a big smile on our faces, rather than the child feeling like they’re being nagged, yet again, to have good manners. This brings us full circle to the idea of maximizing reinforcement in your parenting. This is an example of negative reinforcement because I’m stopping something bad (hanging onto the milk) in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior (saying “thank you”). Reinforcement can be so powerful in your parenting and is so much more enjoyable as a parenting technique compared to punishment. See if you can get better manners out of your kids this week by being an operant conditioning pro!