The family code: Choosing five words for everybody to live by

My son’s family (daughters ages 3 and 6 and mom and dad) have picked out five words they try to live by: patience, calm, politeness, respect and love. They have the words posted on a chart in the house for everyone to see and be reminded of. I love this idea of little mantras, or rules, or slogans for the whole family to try to follow.

The idea came about from a moment of total desperation. The family was about to embark on an extended trip with many hours of airplane travel. The girls had not been behaving. Some neighbors loaned Mom and Dad some travel books, and with them a couple of old, no longer needed parenting guides.

Mom and Dad started reading about parents having to change their attitudes before the children could change theirs. When the parents in the book started practicing patience and treated the kids in a calm and respectful manner, everything changed and they all started having constructive conversations instead of fighting and arguing.

So, the real family created these five words together to try a new tactic. They all had long discussions about what each word meant and practiced scenarios and examples of how they might use politeness, respect, etc. The important part was to actually role play the words, so young children can really connect with the concepts.

Mom knew that when she was not calm, the kids picked up on it and got wild themselves and all hell would break loose. Isn’t it true?

Whatever is going on around us we immediately absorb. Consider that energy is about 10 times as potent for a young child. Chaos – frenzy. Loud – louder. Whisper – quieter. Calm – peace.

Mom and Dad are trying to lead by example. They practice these five slogans on each other and with the girls. When the kids lose it, they all read through the words again. Mom and Dad say they rely on the words themselves a lot.

I love that this family found their words and really try their best to live by them. I love that the words are not denigrating or authoritative. Everyone is on the same level. They have a structure to come back to, a container to “hold” all the feelings that fly around in a busy, young family. A sort of family code.

It’s interesting to hear what families do to keep the peace and provide some form of private understanding between them. Another family says, “1,000 kisses and hugs everyday,” “I love you,” “please” and “you are my best friend” all day, every day. Another family with three kids goes around the dinner table, each talking about their best and worst parts of the day. We used to do best and worst in bed at night before sleep – a good way to wrap up the day and introduce kids to perspective.

What are your words? Peace? Honesty? Communication? Sharing? Fun? Kindness? Listening? Trust? Understanding? Appreciation? Love, of course!

Martha McClellan has been an early care child educator, director and administrator for 36 years. She currently has an early childhood consulting business, supporting child care centers and families. Reach her at

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