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.