Want to Give Your Family Value and Purpose? Write a Mission Statement

A somewhat corny, mostly brilliant tip from corporate America

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Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Every parent I know worries about teaching values to their children. How do we ensure that in today's ever-changing world they understand some beliefs are timeless? How do we truly know if they grasp the qualities that are most important to us?

For a long time, my wife and I were so busy responding to the chaos around us in our family that we never had a chance to address these questions. But when I set out a few years ago to try to find the qualities that united high-functioning families, I kept encountering a similar object in many homes. Some families call it a "belief board," others a "statement of purpose."

Could such a document be one answer I was looking for?

The first reference I found to a family manifesto was in Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, which was published in 1989. A management consultant from Utah with a Harvard MBA, Covey often asked his corporate clients to write a one-sentence answer to the question, "What is the essential mission or purpose of this organization, and what is its main strategy in accomplishing that purpose?" Executives were usually shocked at how much their answers differed. Covey then helped them create a more unified mission statement.

Covey's innovation was to encourage families to do something similar and create a family mission statement. "The goal," he wrote, "is to create a clear, compelling vision of what you and your family are all about." He likened the statement to the flight plan of an airplane. "Good families—even great families—are off track 90 percent of the time," he wrote. What makes them good is they have a clear destination in mind, and they have a flight plan to get there. As a result, when they face the inevitable turbulence and human error, they keep coming back to their plan.

Covey and his wife asked their kids a series of questions, including "What makes you want to come home?" and "What embarrasses you about our family?" Next the kids wrote their own statements. Finally they ended up with their single sentence.

"The mission of our family is to create a nurturing place of faith, order, truth, love, happiness, and relaxation, and to provide opportunity for each individual to become responsibly independent, and effectively interdependent, in order to serve worthy purposes in society."

I had a range of reactions on reading this. On the one hand, I found the whole thing a little corny. It seemed cumbersome, heavy-handed, and a tad humorless. On the other hand, I kinda loved the idea. I'm corny! I also thought Covey's idea captured something inherently true: How can we ask our children to uphold our family's values if we never articulate what those values are?

Around this time my wife, Linda, came home complaining about some branding problem she was having at work. Linda co-founded and runs an organization called Endeavor that supports high-impact entrepreneurs around the world. For years, she worked with branding gurus on Madison Avenue who help the organization identify its central mission and core values. It was a powerful, even emotional, process for everyone.

That's when it hit me: What if we tried something similar with our family? What if we tried to create our own brand, so to speak? Linda pointed out that brands have an external purpose families don't exactly have. We weren't selling running shoes, after all. But brands also have an internal purpose.

Presented by

Bruce Feiler writes the “This Life” on contemporary families for the New York Times. He is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including Abraham and The Council of Dads.  For more information, please visit brucefeiler.com.

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