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

A somewhat corny, mostly brilliant tip from corporate America

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.

Before setting out, I called Jim Collins, author of the mega-bestseller Good to Great. All successful human organizations have a duality to them, Collins told me. They "preserve the core while stimulating progress." A family mission statement is a great way to define what's bedrock to your family, he said.

Collins coached us through the process. We started with the family equivalent of a corporate retreat, a pajama party with our daughters. I made popcorn. My wife brought a flipchart. I had assembled a list of 80 values, from agility to zest, taken from books about psychology, management, and education. We discussed which ones applied to us. Discipline is great, but a core family value? "Question authority"? We might come to regret that.

Then we asked a series of questions. What words best describe our family? What are our strengths as a family? What would you like others to say about our family?

Finally we voted on a single statement (taken from a remark I made when they were born): "May our first word be adventure and our last word love." Finally we added a series of ten statements: "We are travelers not tourists;" "We don't like dilemmas; we like solutions."

So what had we created? First, a clear ideal. A central finding of recent research into families is that parents should spend less time worrying about what they do wrong and more time focusing on what they do right. The family mission statement is a simple way to articulate what your family does right.

Second, a visual identity. Some people paint their family mission statement on the wall, but my wife drew the line at that. Instead we had it printed up, and it now hangs in our dining room. Again, research reinforces this notion. Laura King, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, asked subjects to spend a few minutes every day writing a description of their "best possible selves." The experience dramatically boosted their optimism, even more than expressing gratitude. Creating a family identity is the collective equivalent of imagining your best possible self. It forces you to conceive, construct, then place in a public place a written ideal of what you want your family to be.

Finally, a touchstone. A few weeks later, one of our daughters got into a spat with a classmate. We didn't know what to do, so we called her into my office. Our family mission statement was on the wall. My wife asked her if any of it seemed to apply. "We bring people together?" she said. Suddenly we had a way into the conversation.

Parents need to look for new ideas wherever we can find them. As Jim Collins told me, the more any organization knows about itself, the better it's able to deal with life. "And one thing we know about life," he continued, "is it's going to hit you in random and unexpected ways." If you don't have your own frame, he said, you'll be whipsawed by life. If you do, you're more likely to succeed.

This piece is adapted from The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More by Bruce Feiler.