Articulating Our Family Values
By Annie Garrett, M.Ed.
How do you create a positive culture?
What is the reason for your existence?
What purpose do you serve?
For me, questions like these conjure up memories of workplace retreats, trust falls, and “yay team” sorts of motivational talks. They are the types of guiding questions that formal groups- nonprofits, corporations, etc- may turn to as they seek to establish a shared vision. Interestingly, they are also the types of questions that an increasing number of families are asking themselves as they seek to jointly define their values and their expectations. In The Montessori Toddler, a 2019 national bestseller, author Simone Davies encourages families to formulate “ground rules” or “a list of family values framed on the living room wall” (Davies 2019 p. 121). She shares the following example:
- We are kind to each other
- We sit at the table to eat
- We contribute to the household
- We engage in rough play by mutual consent
As the parent of a toddler and a parent educator to toddler families, I do a lot of thinking about how families set limits. This is important and necessary and taxing, at least in the short term. Perhaps it is this thinking that makes Davies’ suggestion to think about limits in the context of values so appealing to me. Refreshing, even. How do we get clear on our limits? Davies states that parents she meets in Montessori workshops typically “…don’t have any ground rules at all. This means we are mostly just winging it- making it up on the spot. This can be difficult to keep track of, for us and definitely for our toddler. Imagine if they changed the rules for traffic lights and some days the red light meant “stop” and on other days it meant “go”. No wonder toddlers get mixed messages when we change our minds” (Davies 2019 pp 121-122)
As I reflected on limits, I also began to ask a deeper question: What ends do these limits ultimately serve, anyways? Could we go beyond ground rules to create a more enduring manifesto, of sorts? I thought back to various family mottoes I’d come across over the years. I recalled that one of the families I most admire uses a three-part maxim: “We are caring, compassionate, and competent”. Simple and seemingly effective. The family has stayed exceptionally close-knit and purposeful while raising a total of 5 healthy, happy children and grandchildren over the past four decades. I also recalled the more poetic saying taught to children and parents in the Unitarian Universalist community with which I’ve long been affiliated: “We are Unitarian Universalists with minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are willing to serve.” With hand motions to accompany, children learn this phrase young and I’ve seen many live into it over time.
Feeling inspired, I proposed the idea of creating an original manifesto to my partner. He chuckled as he claimed he was not surprised that I, a program manager by training, would try to attach a mission statement to our family. But he agreed to take a stab at it, and so the family manifesto began. As the daughter of a scientist, I can admittedly be guilty of relying so heavily on research that I overlook that little inner voice: intuition. As I began to study family manifestos, I noticed that most writing on this subject fell into two camps, with families inspired either by corporate culture or by creed/religion. Under the corporate umbrella, I found step-by-step instructions with brainstorming activities, worksheets, and full how-to books, with businessman Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families lead amongst them. On the religions end of the spectrum, I found that inspiration is taken from God and religious text may be quoted. The deeper I got into my research, the more I realized that neither the corporate nor the creed-based approach spoke to me. The opposite, in fact. My husband and I both work in public service and lean more toward humanist than theist. I realized that it was actually the non-hierarchical, secular condition of our family that drew me to the concept of the family manifesto. In the relative absence of structure, a family is at risk of feeling more like a collection of individuals than a unit. And when our motivations and needs as individuals are in conflict- as they so often are when we are parenting young children- frustration and loneliness can result. I would argue that today, a family is largely an enterprise of the soul. In a post-agrarian society, few of us need children for survival. And in an increasingly secular society, less of us are having children for religious purposes. And so if it is love and joy that motivates us to form families, then you might say it is soul that unites us. Alas, I realized that
How can our family cultivate love and respect for one another?
How can our family live joyfully together?
How can our family work together to leave the world a little better than we found it?
These simple questions are our starting point. We will hang something on the wall but the one thing we know for sure is this: for us, it will be written in pencil. For now, it will also have crayon doodles around it. Our daughter is growing and developing right alongside us, after all.
What do you think—would your family benefit from articulating its values? What questions motivate you? Would you write it in pen or pencil? Maybe in song, or maybe on Twitter in size 11 Times New Roman font? Whatever form your family values may take, written or unwritten, may you enduringly find a way to live your values together.
Annie Garrett is a Parent Educator with Cooperative Preschools and Manager of the Early Childhood Education Program at North Seattle College.
Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families: Building a Beautiful Family Culture in a Turbulent World. New York: Golden Books, 1997.
Davies, Simone. The Montessori Toddler: A Parent’s Guide to Raising a Curious and Responsible Human Being. New York: Workman Publishing, 2019.
Samantha Power. The Education of an Idealist. New York: Dey Street Books, 2019.