Let me tell you about one of the most valuable and important things we have ever done as a family.
When our older kids were teenagers, we had dinner with our friend Stephen Covey and his wife Sandra just after they wrote a book together called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. They live near us and have been friends for 40 years. During the course of our conversation they discovered that we had not yet created a family mission statement and they encouraged us to get going! They assured us that it was important enough to warrant a weekend away with the kids for the sole purpose of creating a mission statement together.
So we did, never imagining the impact it would have on our family! We rented a conference center at a weekend discount, and that weekend will always stand out in our children’s memory as not only fun but as one they will never forget. We had short “working meetings” broken up by visits to the hotel game room and pool.
During our first official meeting we asked them to think about their favorite “visionary” words that would describe what they thought our family should be and what we really wanted our family to accomplish together. We wrote the words on a whiteboard and expanded the discussion to what they thought should set us apart as a family and how we should treat each other. Later, we asked them to find a private spot for a few minutes and write what they thought the mission of our family should be, and to include their favorite words and ideas from the earlier discussions. Our kids’ ages were from 17 to 3. The ones who couldn’t write drew a picture to illustrate their point.
By the end of the two days and one night we had come up with a one-page document that everyone agreed would be a good statement of what we are about as a family. So we patted ourselves on the back and were glad that it was done!
Not! A month or two later we asked the kids to tell us what our family mission statement was in a family meeting. They tried but most could only remember the specific words they had suggested and pretty much the rest was just generally “be a good family.”
So we talked again in a family meeting and shortened it down to one paragraph. But a few months later, the kids couldn’t even remember much of that! So we decided on three words—words that packed a punch and really meant something to the kids, as it looked as though that was about all our kids could remember. We felt that the process that we went through to find those words through our previous exercises was not wasted but very important! It took the process to produce the result!
Our three words were “Broaden and Contribute” which may not mean much to the casual observer but meant a new paradigm to our kids. We all agreed that to us those words meant that it was the responsibility of everyone in the family to broaden… to get the very best education possible according to his/her gifts and strive to really learn how the world works. Then, because we had the advantage of that good education and broadening advantages, our next responsibility was to find ways to give back. We decided that one of the most important things in the world was to love and serve others so we could each in our own way make the world a better place. That concept applied to helping just one person as much as it did to helping broader society.
When we posted the first version of that mission statement on the fridge door on a piece of construction paper, no one could have known what an impact those three words would have on our family. Years down the road the kids found a calligrapher who engraved those words in gold and they have hung ever since in our entry hall. Each of our children has figured out their own ways to broaden. All have at least one college degree, all have traveled widely, and are well read and able to see issues from diverse perspectives. “Broadening” has become their justification for most everything they do.
On the “contributing” side, humanitarian expeditions to Bolivia, Africa and Mexico have become one of the brightest patches of fabric in our family “quilt,” as each child has grown immensely from life-changing experiences in the Third World. All nine have taken two years out of their college experience to do missionary and humanitarian work full time and to immerse themselves in the culture of another country.
In the end, we realized that the most important part of conjuring up a family mission statement is to give the kids ownership in its formation. If you as the parents come up with something that YOU think sounds great, it’s probably not going to fly. Let the kids figure it out. When your family is young is the best time to start, but it’s never too late… even after the kids have left home!
We gave the challenge of coming up with a family mission statement to a group of parents in Canada and then we went back to their group six months later to see how they were doing. One mother, beaming with pride rushed up to me and said, “Do you want to hear our family mission statement straight out of the mouths of a 6- and 8-year-old?” Of course, I was delighted to hear her say, “This is it: Be Thinkful, Be Thankful and BE BANANAS!” Out of the mouths of babes! Those kids wanted their parents to remember that they were there to be thinkful, thankful AND to have fun!
So we challenge you to come up with a mission statement for your family. If your family is young, just do it in a family meeting. You’ll find that your kids can be much more willing and able than you give them credit for, and their ideas are sometimes astounding. It gives them equity in the family and gives them an enormous amount of security knowing that they are part of something bigger than themselves!