Each year our family creates a holiday card. Our daughter finds a beautiful location, tells us what to wear and takes our photo, we all go to the paper store and choose just the right colored card stock to complement the photo. For years we printed the message Happy Holidays or Peace on Earth on the card. But then, one of the kids objected to the generic message and insisted we come up with something more meaningful.

We all agreed that we wanted the message on the card to represent us as a family. That decision lead to a fantastic exploration with questions such as: What is important to us as a family? What are our strengths and our core words to live by? How do we interact with each other, our community and the world? This was a lively conversation with everyone throwing out different ideas and words.

We finally came up with three words Live, Laugh, Love. That may seem clichéd now, seen on home decor, in memes, and on greeting cards. But for us, those words became much more. They became our family motto.

Later we sat down to figure out what we really meant about those three words and came up with “sayings” that we strive to live by. Here are a few:

Live – Be present, get outside, explore and adventure.

Laugh – Be optimistic, act like the glass is overflowing, find the humor, find the fun.

Love – Care for each other, kindness is our guide, be gentle, be vulnerable, connect.

A family motto distills your values into a short statement or collection of words, like Live, Laugh, Love. The words themselves matter, but as you see with ours, your phrase doesn’t have to be unique. The time you spend defining what the motto means to your family or what your motto looks like in action matters too.

We stumbled upon our family motto, but some people create them deliberately. I have always admired the togetherness of my friends the Clark family, and it was no surprise to me to learn that they had purposely set out to create a family motto when their children were young.

Both Karen and Dean love the outdoors, trying new things together, and adventure. They also value an intrepid “can do” attitude, and they wanted to instill these core values into their two youngsters. They created the “Clark Adventure Team,” and together with their kids designed a crest, came up with ideas that would be the guiding mission of their team, and chose a motto. Now their kids are 19 and 21, but the Clark Adventure Team is still trying new things together, having family adventures and having fun.

In one of my favorite books, The Secrets of Happy Families, author Bruce Feiler describes how his family created their family motto: “May our first word be ADVENTURE and our last word be LOVE.” But they didn’t stop at the motto. The Feiler family continued the process, creating sayings that both represented all of the ten core values they had chosen and also spoke to the underlying message of their motto. Examples are: “We are travelers not tourists” and “We bring people together.”

How a Family Motto Can Guide You in the New Year

Family mottos are more than a new year’s resolution or goal. The Clark family could have set a New Year’s resolution to “get outside everyday” or “do more together,” but instead they had a motto to guide their actions.

Perhaps you’re thinking about what you want for your family this year. You may make resolutions or plan some big events. But a motto is a better starting point.

A family motto is your family’s mission statement. Companies commonly define their goals with mission and vision statements, but families? Yes, families.

Creating a mission and vision statement helps families identify their core values and set an intention of how they want their family to live and thrive.

Resolutions are about What and How. For example, the resolution Spend More Time Together would be the “what,” and Hike every Sunday might be the “how.” But because there is rarely a connection to “why,” it is hard to sustain our well intended resolutions when normal life rushes in. But if you can connect your what and how to you “why,” you tap into something deeper – your core values – and that will keep you on track.

Instead of just a resolution to spend time together, Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, suggests asking ”What happens if [we] don’t change? Why is [spending time together] important to us?” The answer will be different for each family, but it could be something like, “When we spend time together we connect in a meaningful way, we understand each other better and we have fun.”

Family mottos and family mission statements express the why of what you want to accomplish and give your family direction. And, when you create your motto together you design a shared vision of what your family stands for and what is important to you.

If you have a family motto, share it in comments. If you don’t have a motto, share some values your family would incorporate into a family motto.

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