Why Do Families Need Rituals?

What's a ritual? It's a routine with meaning. Children love ritual. Repetition, the comfort of belonging, the sense of wonder, magic, and celebration -- all create a bonding experience that nurtures both kids and parents. Rituals hold families together.

Photo: Phil Cantor

Why do we need rituals? It's primal. They help us move emotionally from one place to another; they ease pain, acknowledge growth, and create connection.

Most parents discover early on that daily rituals like bedtime stories and goodbye hugs make separations easier and provide security. Traditions like taking a picture on the first day of school and carving pumpkins together at Halloween help children integrate the changes of the year. Rituals like building a sukkah together and Christmas Eve Mass communicate religious meaning in a visceral way. In our secular culture, many parents who don't relate to organized religion develop traditions such as Thanksgiving gratitude practices to transmit their values.

Studies show that happy families not only have treasured traditions, they constantly evolve new ones that help them find their way through the inevitable changes of growing up. But don't worry if you aren't consciously "creating" traditions. Your family is naturally developing them, from Sunday morning pancakes to bedtime blessings. The way you celebrate birthdays or mark anniversaries, the way you say goodbye to each other every morning or shop for fall clothes each school year; anything repeated is a tradition, the stuff of which memories are made. You don't need anything fancy, just love. What creates a tradition is revisiting it year after year, updating as your child gets older.

In a secular culture, many parents who don't relate to organized religion find that rituals and traditions give the sense of meaning and anchoring they seek. All rituals reinforce values and create connection.

It's a cliche that children grow up too fast, though it sure doesn't seem like it on those long days when you just can't wait to get them to bed. But when your kids look back, these are the memories that will define family for them. One way to insure that warm moments outweigh hard ones is to build traditions and rituals into your family life.

"The idea of starting a family tradition sounds overwhelming."

Don't worry, your family already has its own traditions, from Sunday morning pancakes to observing holidays in a certain way. The way you celebrate birthdays, mark the passing of pet or observe a special day, the way you say goodbye to each other every morning or shop for fall clothes each school year; all are the stuff of which memories are made.

"Ok, but how do I create traditions that nurture family connected-ness?"

Creating new traditions that work for your family is a simple matter. Try something new, and if you like it, repeat it. Then begin to talk about it and look forward to it with the whole family. Eventually, that tradition will take on a life of its own and will become a sustaining part of your family's culture.

"And what about rituals? Are they different?"

We might think of rituals as a tradition carried out in a more sacred way, usually the same way every time. Singing the Chanuka blessings or saying Grace before meals are obvious examples, but so are singing Happy Birthday and blowing out candles. It may not seem that "Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite!" is sacred, but all repetitious chants are essentially prayers, satisfying a primal human need. Kids love rituals and gain a sense of safety from them.

"Are rituals easy to create?"

You don't need to do anything fancy. Most rituals use either the lighting of candles or the repetition of a phrase or song as an invocation, or a beginning. Sometimes that's all there is to them, as in the case of a particular goodbye saying. Other rituals, like going around the table at Thanksgiving to say what we're thankful for, have "content." And virtually all have a closing, signaling that sacred space is over and we return to daily life, as when the birthday candles are blown out, or we say "Amen" at the end of a prayer.

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