How to Grow Happy Kids with Family Rituals
I have long loved the quote, “There are only two lasting gifts we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.” In recent years, we’ve focused a lot on giving our children strong wings and the freedom to fly. But, it’s also important to stay intentional about helping to grow their roots deep and strong. Family traditions—purposeful and repeated practices that involve members of the family—are the perfect food for kids’ roots. Traditions can include both routines that organize our day-to-day lives such as Friday pizza night, and seasonal or holiday rituals that are more symbolic and planned. These repeated, shared experiences contribute to making us who we are.
How do we know that traditions are important?
If your family nurtured traditions, just thinking about them will likely evoke powerful memories of people, specials aromas (mmm, that casserole), and strong emotions. It’s also clear in research that family traditions correlate to a range of outcomes for kids, and even for parents. Psychologists have been researching the impact of family rituals for over 50 years, and their findings link family rituals to increases in children’s happiness, emotional well-being, sense of identity and even success in school. Not all families face the same challenges, but evidence shows that, even when families deal with significant stresses, the creating and nurturing of traditions are linked to better outcomes for kids. Well planned and supported traditions are also linked to higher levels of satisfaction, both overall and marital, for the adults in the family—outcomes that benefit everyone!
Why are traditions so important?
Although the reasons are many, here are a few that really resonate:
They give life the good kind of structure. Children need structure and repetition to feel secure and to learn what is important and valued. Traditions, whether waffles every Sunday or apple picking each Fall, mark the passage of time and help children internalize the cyclical nature of life.
Traditions give us a sense of belonging. Psychologists credit traditions with “establishing and perpetuating what it means to be a member of that group.” Membership can be a powerful source of emotional well being and comes with the understanding that you belong and are both known and cared for.
Traditions connect us. Rituals and routines can offer a chance to unplug, pause from our harried daily routine and connect, face to face. We often engage multiple senses as we taste and smell special foods, sing or listen to special songs and get our hands busy with the preparation and experience of the ritual, making the connection even more memorable.
Traditions teach values and connect us to our past. Traditions can give children experiences and stories that help them learn about and remember the elders of their family. As such, they are an opportunity to understand from whom and where we came. They also pass down cultural, religious and family values and may teach specific religious or cultural norms and ideas. These values come to life and become part of who we are through the symbolism of rituals.
What are promising practices for making traditions a part of family life?
Perhaps your family already has a rich set of routines and rituals that support you and your children on a regular as well as a more seasonal or annual basis. If so, stop to congratulate yourself and take some time to solidify your practice with your partner or other adults in your family. Look for ways to better share the planning and consider ways to include the kids in the planning and preparation process more too.
Many of us may be looking to include new traditions in our family life. To follow are a few ideas to spark tradition development:
Start with what you value most. Do a brainstorm of the values you hold dear, then imagine or search for rituals that make tangible or pass on that value. For example, if gratitude emerges, do something like thanking your local park rangers for the work that they do on National Public Lands Day. If it really works, do it every September.
Keep it simple. Start small. Try things, see what sticks, then stick to that. You can always make a simple practice more complex as the tradition and your kids grow. For example, at dinner, each person in our family shares a “rose” (a highlight) and a “thorn” (a struggle) from the day. Recently, our 7-year-old added a “bud” (something to look forward to). This tradition has helped our children learn to share, reflect and listen to one another, and it’s evolving as our kids evolve.
Find community in nature. Today, there are so many ways in which we can feel divided as a people, but we all share the natural world. And, nature offers us special moments that cycle through month after month and season after season. Learn about the phases of the moon or the four “quarter” days of equinox, solstice and the midpoints between them. For centuries, people all over the world have noted these points in the solar year with festivals of many kinds, and these moments map to important shifts in our seasons. No surprise, many common holidays are timed around these moments.
Test out a ritual for each season this year! Here is one idea for each of the four:
Fall Lantern Walk—Our Fall Lantern Walk is an example of a tradition we created to help us turn the darkness of “fall back” into a chance to embrace change and celebrate the seasons. This year, tens of thousands of families, including ours, will share this special ritual—amazing!
Winter Listening Walks (with treats)—We take hikes and walks all year, but we make sure to listen carefully to the sounds you might easily miss in the winter—part of winter’s often hidden magic. We also only bring hot cocoa and warm muffins on winter walks, making them extra special.
May Day Baskets—We are hooked on acts of kindness done for the pure joy of it, so we make, fill and deliver May baskets to neighbors each May 1st.
Summer Solstice—We live near a marvelous sun wheel built on the University of Massachusetts campus. Hundreds of people gather to see the Summer Solstice sun fall over its special rock. Even if you don’t have a sun wheel nearby, you can note that this day brings the longest amount of daylight of the year. Put on PJs, pack a treat and do a PJ-hike to enjoy a few extra minutes of sunlight together before bedtime.
Whatever we each use as inspiration for traditions, cheers to us all for setting aside moments in the day, week or season to unplug and nurture family traditions—it’s likely our best way to nurture our family’s roots.