Family Rituals and Traditions
Ask any adult what they remember about childhood and they'll recall an event that centered around a family tradition or ritual. The family meal, a holiday gathering or even a nightly bedtime routine are all memorable events in a child's mind.
Although a young child's major objective is to become a separate individual, young children also need to form a strong concept of their place in a larger group: the family. Family rituals can enhance a preschooler's identity, provide continuity during times of stress and connect generations in an enduring bond.
"Children love rituals," says Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D., associate director of the Marital and Family Therapy Clinic at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. "Children find a certain security and solace in something that gives a sense of belonging and comfort. Kids find rituals fascinating – artistically, spiritually and emotionally."
Rituals Enhance a Preschooler's Self-Esteem
Ritual may already be a well-established, set routine in a preschooler's family handed down through the generations. When you include young children in these important events, they will feel that they are an invaluable part of the family group. Preschoolers can be given jobs of honor such as being in charge of turning off the lights at family birthday parties when the cake is brought in or putting Great-Grandma's silverware away after it is polished.
Each family can create its own simple rituals that include young children. They can be adapted to fit single-parent or working-parent lifestyles. One two-career couple started a ritual: After work, Mom, Dad and Preschooler kicked off their shoes and relaxed on the bed for 15 minutes. The preschooler felt important telling of her day, receiving hugs or sharing a nursery rhyme while the parents got to put their feet up for a short while.
In single-parent families, the preschooler's responsibility to tell a joke at dinner, help plan a Sunday outing or hold on to the coupons during weekly food shopping will enhance his self-worth by making him feel that he is a very necessary part of the family.
Rituals involving the extended family broaden a preschooler's horizon and introduce him to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who can all help him feel special. Hearing family stories (including ones about the silly things his parents did as children) will make a youngster feel a sense of belonging.
Rituals Provide a Hidden Source of Family Strength
Research done at George Washington University's Family Research Center indicated that children fare better in households where ritual is established and preserved, even if disruptive problems – such as divorce or alcoholism – are present. A nightly dinner ritual of setting the table together, sitting down as a family, discussing the day's events or saying grace before the meal can slow down the hectic pace of today's families and provide a sense of meaning and order to the day. When family members are upset with each other, daily rituals can pull them back together and provide the setting for working out problems.
Rituals are also a positive way to help families affirm their beliefs and values. Attending a house of worship, donating groceries to a food bank or recycling together to help the environment can show a preschooler the importance of a family's community involvement.
Rituals provide a sense of continuity and security that often can help children and their parents work out fears or deal with stress. A nightly ritual of a warm bath, a bedtime story and a prayer can ease children into a restful state. One parent may chase monsters from under the bed or set up a stuffed animal patrol each night to guard the sleeping preschooler until dawn.
A daily ritual can often ease the transition to preschool or a stay with a babysitter. One mother and her 3-year-old devised a secret handshake that included tickling and always guaranteed that their partings were full of laughter, not tears.
Tradition can supply many answers to that famous question, "Why?" It also can help a child learn to cope with disappointment and loss. Even when close relatives die, your preschooler can still feel connected to them in a special way when the family uses Aunt Emma's embroidered tablecloth or tells Grandpa's favorite joke at a family gathering.
Rituals can reduce a preschooler's feeling of vulnerability and give a sense of control over his world. On his or her birthday, your child will feel like king or queen of the day. Holiday rituals provide a special magic as preschoolers instill "fear" in adults on Halloween by wearing scary costumes or are allowed to fool their parents on April Fool's Day. Even the youngest child will always remember being the one to place the star atop the Christmas tree or to light the candles on the Hanukkah menorah. These symbols of happiness in the home remain in a child's mind forever and can help when facing difficult times.
New Twists on Old Traditions
From ceremonial candle lighting to holding an impromptu movie night, rituals can give a preschooler the gifts of family fun and lasting memories. Family traditions don't have to be stuffy or cumbersome. Some family traditions can be serious while others may have a humorous aspect. When you include your child's own ideas, traditions will be enthusiastically embraced by him or her.
Use the five senses to guarantee a lasting memory:
- Your youngster will long remember the tunes of family sing-a-longs, the smells of holiday baking or the feeling of warmth and the sight of dancing flames when the fireplace is lighted after Sunday dinner.
- Make tapes of family stories, history and songs, and videotape special events so your child can look back fondly on the rituals that were so important in her life.
Adopt some kid-inspired traditions:
- Have a sleep-out in the living room once a year with movies, popcorn and flashlights dancing on the ceiling.
- Eat the worst, most sugary, gooey breakfast cereals one Saturday morning a month and watch early morning cartoons.
Establish constructive rituals that help solve problems or encourage good habits:
- At dinner, by sharing the best and worst thing that happened to each family member that day, you can encourage talking about feelings, problems or accomplishments that may otherwise be overlooked.
- Play "Pass the Book" each night to inspire a love for reading. (Each reader reads a page and passes the book along to the next person.) Children who can't read yet can describe what they see in the pictures or switch from lap to lap as the book is passed.
- Go on a family morning or night walk at least once a week and get in the exercise habit.
Seasonal and holiday rituals have a special magic:
- Set up a scavenger hunt to let your child find his birthday present.
- On the first day of spring look at a seed catalog and decide what to plant.
- Put salt in Dad's coffee on April Fool's Day.
- Host a watermelon seed-spitting contest each summer.
- Rake leaves and jump in them each fall.
- Have a family snowball fight.
- Turn up the heat in the dead of the winter, put on your bathing suits and have an indoor beach party.
- On Thanksgiving Day hang up your child's artwork depicting things to be thankful for.
Host a family reunion:
- Provide young children with many activities and allow them to mix at their own pace.
- Let them pass around a family photo album to use as a conversation starter.
- Tell them some positive family stories beforehand so they will be curious to know: "Which one is Uncle Jim who was once on television?"
Take time to teach your children about their ethnic background:
- Prepare recipes, read travel books or watch videotapes relating to the countries of their ancestors.
Don't forget the importance of daily rituals:
- Your child will never tire of the goodnight kiss, the morning hug or having milk and cookies at snack time.
- The best family ritual of all is sharing your time together each day.
Some Dos and Don'ts for Family Rituals
Cohen suggests the following dos and donts:
- Do keep it fun and relaxed.
- Do establish rituals that ensure family time together.
- Do add symbols that your child will remember and that will promote family identity. A vase that belonged to Great-Grandma can be filled with flowers for Sunday dinners, or the homemade decorations your child makes in school can be displayed on holidays.
- Don't bother with empty rituals that have no relation to your family's interest and personality.
- Don't be too formal, making the ritual void of feeling and forced.
- Don't insist on carrying out rituals if they contradict other emotional issues that should be addressed. For example: Don't insist on your child sitting on your lap to read if he is upset or angry about something. Discuss what's bothering him first.