Why we all need a Family Mantra

How do my kids know what behaviors are expected in our family? How do they know, in a stressful or confusing situation, how to recognize a line that they cannot cross?

That’s what was going through my mind as I sat in my son’s school auditorium, listening to a talk on Empathy given by Dr. Michele Borba. Empathy, being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes, to feel their pain or share their joy, has apparently been on the decline. Although in countless studies, it has been shown that empathy and the ability to understand people is what increases academic and later work related success, our digital world is decreasing the amount of face to face contact we have with each other, which in turns makes it harder to learn to “read” emotions and hence hampering our emotional literacy.

Dr. Borba, promoting her latest book, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All About Me World, was breaking down how to teach empathy to children into subcategories, and I had been happily mentally checking each one off.

  • Talk feelings often … ✔
  • Read emotionally charged literature with your kids … ✔
  • Practice perspective taking … ✔

But then she raised the idea of the importance of children having a “moral identity” as one of the competencies for empathy. One recommendation to do this was to establish a family mantra. These words should reflect the core values of the family. The family mantra should be verbally repeated and shown through example over and over again. It should be something ingrained in the family-a no brainer.

It made me think how comforting it would be for me as a parent and my kids themselves if when faced with tough social decisions or awkward social interactions, they could rely on a simple key phrase that is always swimming around in their heads, ready to come up for air when called. It’d be like a gift to provide them words that create a strong sense of not only who they are individually, but also who they are as a representative of our family. A family mantra, I think, is a special bond through code words that are there to guide you and keep your behavior aligned with your values.

The next evening over dinner I explained what a mantra was and asked for suggestions on what our family mantra should be. I have to say I was shocked that my kids were stumped. We talk so much about being kind and open-minded, I thought they’d have a million suggestions right away. My husband tried to help by asking what we all have in common but we got responses like, “four limbs?” It’s a work in progress but even just brainstorming about it for now is challenging them to think beyond themselves, which is in essence, what empathy really is.