Ellie Gwilliam looks at how a family mission statement can encourage the team and motivate even the youngest players.
I have little quote books filled with the wisdom and wit of my three daughters. From the mouths of babes flow revealing insights into what their minds are mulling over.
One such entry belongs to my eldest who, one morning at age four, put particular effort into getting dressed and flounced up the stairs in frills, pearls and an array of hair accessories.
“You look lovely today!” I commented.
“Yes,” was the reply, “I have to look prettier than Lottie (younger sister, then aged two).”
Now, I understand the ego-centric world of a preschooler and that her comments weren’t spiteful. But just after I suppressed a giggle, and just before I ran off to record the brutal honesty in her quote book for posterity, I felt an overwhelming motivation to instill in my daughters the truth that sisterhood is a privilege, not a competition. And with all the pressures our three daughters will inevitably face from peers, the media and even themselves, they need support from their rock-solid foundation of family.
As a parent, I passionately want my girls to know that sisters are not the opposition — they are on the same team.
The A team
Children benefit from experiencing a sense of team within their family long before they can articulate the concept.
Counsellor and strengths finder coach Jenny Purkis describes it as a very basic human need. This need includes feeling like we are a valuable part of something bigger than ourselves.
“Creating an environment of ‘belonging’ is essential at an early age when the synapses of the brain are making connections even before speech.
“These connections can go a long way to making home a ‘safe place where I fit in’,” says Jenny.
This emotional resource can be especially empowering to children when the world seems overwhelmingly large and frightening, when your new kindy routine has taken you well out of your comfort zone or when the bigger kids won’t share the swings at the park. You innately know to find refuge at home and receive comfort from being back with your team.
Family is the first point of reference for a child building a sense of identity. Within the safety of family, and encouraged by a sense of belonging, a child will learn about where they have come from, and that information can be highly influential over where they are going. Family histories, tales of ancestors, stories of parents’ lives before children all serve to enrich a child’s journey of discovering who they themselves are.
Children learn that families are different and can take many forms. A child’s ability to celebrate her own uniqueness is fostered within a family unit where she feels understood, safe and accepted.
So, family, quite a big deal then. But our family is not only our team, our family should also be our cheerleaders. Individual successes are shared by the whole team, from promotions at work to a dry nappy at night — a win for one is a win for all.
But does it all just come naturally? Not necessarily, if competitive accessorising among preschoolers is anything to go by. What can we as parents do to enhance a sense of team within our families?
Your mission, if you choose to accept it
A family mission statement is more than just a cute Pinterest-worthy idea, it can be a powerful tool in shaping a positive family life. Mission statements go beyond a list of prescriptive rules with a “toe the line or else” approach to offer a code of conduct that considers the bigger picture: Who we are and what we’re all about. Within this sort of framework, “house rules” now have a context within which children can begin to understand the consequences of their behaviour.
“Companies often use mission statements to direct their decisions and operating procedures, but their utility is even greater for families. After all, instead of manufacturing widgets, you’re moulding children, making memories, and constructing the very best stuff out of which life is made,” writes Brett and Kate McKay in their article “Creating a Positive Family Culture” (artofmanliness.com).
While being part of a team that supports one another will give a child security, a mission statement teaches boundaries, mutual respect and honouring of differences — concepts that go a long way to providing children with a solid foundation of what is acceptable and what is not, explains Jenny.
Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, puts it this way: “A family mission statement is a combined, unified expression from all family members of what your family is all about — what it is you really want to do and be — and the principles you choose to govern your family life.”
All good in theory
But how do we put these ideals into practice? It’s all about getting intentional. Our days can be easily consumed by the necessities of family life without a spare moment for lofty ponderings, but time spent considering the bigger picture of raising a family is an investment of immeasurable value. And it helps to be in agreement with your partner on such matters. We can assume a reasonable level of agreement got you to shared parenting in the first place, but it may be worth taking a moment to discuss the values that matter to each of you so you can present a united front on what you want to pass on to your children.
Next, get the kids involved and ask the big questions: Who are we? What do we like to do? What sort of people do we want to be? How do we want visitors to our home to feel? What do we want to do for others? What are our values?
This may be harder for young children to articulate, but they will probably already recognise that it is important to say, for example, “sorry” if you hurt someone, or “thank you” if you are given something, or “Would you like to play with me?” to someone who looks lonely — actions which they will grow to understand represent the core of their family’s values.
What do we admire in other people? For young children these examples could even be found in TV or movie characters, children’s entertainment never being short of moral undertones. Perhaps our family is brave like The Incredibles and we’ll always come to each other’s rescue. Or maybe we’re more interested in what’s on the inside rather than outward appearances, like those faithful green romantics Shrek and Fiona.
Once you have some keywords and phrases that sum up your shared values, and perhaps a hope and dream or two, you have the basics of a family mission statement. Don’t be too concerned about the end result, in fact Brett and Kate McKay suggest that the process is even more important than the end result as it encourages discussion on what really matters in life.
That said, here are some ideas for how to display your family mission statement with style so it is not only inspirational, but also looks really pretty.
What are you talking about?
I asked Jenny Purkis how parents can help young children understand the values that are important to their family unit. The simple answer is by “walking the talk” or living out what we want our kids to duplicate. Leading by example will be far more influential than the “verdict” style of parenting which insists “do as I say; not as I do”.
I really ought to keep this in mind next time I start shouting reminders to my kids that we don’t yell in our family, and a flight of stairs is no excuse.
Staying in shape
Jenny suggests that kids will be more likely to keep the “house rules” if they have contributed to setting them, so involvement in the process of creating a family mission statement is really useful in terms of discipline.
Have some statements on hand that help direct your children back to the behaviour guidelines you have together established. Here are some of our favourites:
“Let’s look at our family rules and see what we have all agreed on shall we?” you might tell your child.
“Can you remember the one that you thought of about sharing with your sister?” is another good option.
“Remember, we want to make each other feel loved and special in this family. Do you think that calling your sister a poo bum/slamming the door in her face/saying her drawing was dumb made her feel loved and special?
“What could you do to make her feel like she’s a valued part of our family team again?
On a mission to be the family we want to be
The Going family of West Auckland, (pictured: Sienna aged seven, Mum Helena, Dad Gareth, and Summer aged three), generously opened their home and hearts to us, sharing both their mission statement and the motivations behind it.
Helena explains that they were encouraged to consider the value of a family mission statement at a parenting course at a local church.
“We felt a mission statement would give us direction as a family and help us to be intentional about the things we want to develop in ourselves both as individuals and as a family,” says Helena.
Gareth and Helena initially took time as a couple to consider what they valued and wanted to pass on to their children. They then asked their children to come up with a word or phrase that could describe their family. Three-year-old Summer came up with “kind to others”.
Going forward, excuse the pun, the family plan to spend time each year evaluating if they are actually putting into practice what they believe to be important. Helena adds that their mission statement has also proved useful when facing big decisions regarding the direction of their lives. And it’s also a platform for dinner or bedtime discussions, encouraging the kids to reflect on what values such as kindness and courage may have looked like over the course of the day.
The Going Family Mission Statement:
We as a family choose to be:
• Generous with our time, talents and resources to bless others.
• We value truth
• We enjoy learning, reading and creating
• We have fun
• We celebrate, support and show affection to each other
• We aim to create an environment of joyfulness, growth, belonging, closeness, refuge and most importantly, love.
As for the Gwilliams, in our family we will remember to use our inside voices when we are inside. We’re going to encourage each other to dream big and cheer each other on. We’re going to love each other no matter what, and love anyone who comes across our path. And we’re not going to worry about who looks prettier. We’re going to tell each other, “You look fabulous today.”
We’re going to look for the good in each other and practise our compliments, so when we head out the door we will be looking for the good in other people, as opposed to checking out their hair clips.
Photography: Sam Mothersole (sammothersole.co.nz)