by Dawn Franzen, M.Ed.
Think back to your childhood, and chances are, you had a special family ritual or tradition that remains vivid in your memory. Perhaps it was drinking green milk on St. Patrick’s Day, or leaving carrots and hay outside on Christmas Eve for Santa’s reindeer. Maybe it was lighting the Shabbat candles every Friday, or having Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house. You’re smiling now, aren’t you?
That is because family rituals and traditions are an important part of belonging to a family. They conjure images of happy times, when everything in the world was right. Rituals allow people to forget the stresses of everyday living and, if even for a short time, give stability and order to an oftentimes chaotic and uncertain world. In short, rituals bring us back to what matters most in life: our families.
The reasons why rituals are necessary to families, and simple steps that families can take to create their own individual traditions, are explored by former Wall Street Journal reporter Meg Cox in her books The Heart of a Family: Searching America for New Traditions That Fulfill Us and The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays & Everydays.
Need for rituals is in our genes
Rituals are universal. No scientist has ever found a human group that did not have its own rituals. Why are rituals so powerful that all human cultures include them in their lives?
The answer is simple: rituals provide order and routine, and serve as anchors for all members of a group. They give people a sense of security and comfort.
Says Cox, “...the experts agree that somewhere in our basic genetic makeup is a need, a compulsion, to perform actions in repetitive, ritualized ways.” In fact, she says, such repetitive behavior has been shown to produce a discharge within the nervous system that results in a pleasurable sensation similar to a state of ecstasy—a “natural high.”
Family rituals help prevent problems in children
Perhaps the most compelling evidence in support of family rituals is the positive effects they have on our children. In a recent study, researchers questioned 90,000 teenagers in order to find out why some kids were more likely to engage in “risky behaviors” such as drugs and sex. The only factor that clearly stood out was that those kids felt emotionally close to their families. “And what is it,” says Cox, “that makes families feel truly connected? Good family rituals.”
Furthermore, in a series of groundbreaking studies during the 1970s and ‘80s, Steven J. Wolin, M.D. at George Washington University Medical School researched the rituals of families with a history of alcoholism. He learned that the more serious a family was about its rituals, the less likely the alcoholism would be passed down to the next generation.
Cox cites another study in which psychologist Barbara Fiese, Ph.D. looked at freshmen college students and found that those who had strong family rituals adjusted better to college life. Those students came from families where there were rituals for a variety of activities, from mealtimes and vacations to religious and ethnic traditions. She concluded that engaging in such activities all their lives gave the students “...a firm grounding, a sense of identity and these things made them feel more worthy of being liked.”
No, family rituals won’t cure the world of all its ills. But the research does indicate that they strengthen family ties and help promote a strong sense of self. And, says Cox, “As Americans loosen their ties to organized religion, ethnic heritage, and even the commitment of marriage, what will bind families together?”
Creating your own rituals
No matter what your parenting style, you can develop new rituals that are right for your family, and consciously enhance the rituals you already have.
Cox outlines three basic components of a ritual:
Cox sums up: “Remember, rituals are like jokes: it isn’t the words themselves but the timing and telling that matter.”
Rituals can be as basic as eating take-out pizza every Friday night or checking for monsters under the bed before tucking a child in. Or they can be as elaborate as celebrating a wedding or the coming-of-age ceremonies of various religious and ethnic groups.
What makes all of these activities into meaningful, special rituals is that people know to expect them. They know what is involved, and they know that these are cherished events.
Rituals, indeed, have incredible influence in our society. But Cox assures us that we need not become daunted by such influence. “The power of ritual to comfort and heal and teach is enormous, and all parents have this power; they just need to know how it works.”
Remember the three basic elements: Action, Repetition and Intention. You are on your way to creating lasting, significant memories for your children—and possibly for generations to come.
A parent and frequent contributor to St. Louis Parent Magazine, Dawn Franzen, M.Ed., has taught with the Summer Academies and Learning Labs of the Gifted Resource Council in St. Louis.