There’s a strong connection between family traditions and rituals and the ability of a family to survive and thrive in today’s world.
The family has changed dramatically over the last century. Family members are spread across the country. Young and old have their own separate, hectic schedules. Family time becomes a casualty to tired parents, children’s sports practices or lessons, and the lure of television. We’re also caught between a pop culture ideal of individual happiness and fulfillment, and the dream of love and connection sold in commercials. We still love each other and we have no less desire for meaning and connection. But we drift apart and feel empty.
We don’t know how to deal with the changed family. We generate the highest expectations of family life of any generation in human history, but provide the least guidance and support for making it happen. There are few rules. And so we struggle along, each trying to figure it out in a way that will make sense for ourselves and our circumstances. Building a family, just like building a home, a career, or world peace, needs a plan and conscious, continuous effort. It also requires a foundation on which to build and maintain real relationships, even when they get messy and difficult.
One way to establish that foundation, to find order amid the chaos, is through tradition and ritual. This doesn’t mean “going back to the good old days” (there really weren’t any), but it does mean connecting to each other and our communities in a habitual pattern that we can count on and that slows us down every once in a while. Traditions and rituals are a powerful way to balance the whirlwind of our lives. We are creatures of habit. And when we ingrain a family tradition, it becomes a habit that anchors us. Traditions and rituals can pull us back to what’s important – a story at bedtime, a weekend meal, a holiday gathering. Our best memories – and sometimes our worst – tend to be tied to family traditions and rituals. It’s not only how we communicate in a family, but how we enact our connections that matters. Research is slowly beginning to uncover tradition and ritual as a very important factor in strong, close families.
1. Start in the Kitchen: Research shows the kitchen – not the living room or dining room – is the most relaxed place to make cozy memories. We smell, we taste, we talk, we learn things in the kitchen. Something as simple as baking cookies (even if you use a mix!) can create a loving memory.
2. Have Your Own Family Book Club: Choose a new book every month. If you’re a grandparent who lives far away from your grandchildren, mail a book a month – even send along an audiotape of yourself reading the story! This gives you something to share, and to talk about in person or over the phone.
3. Use the Power of Story: Read aloud as a family- even with teenagers! It’s a cozy activity all ages can enjoy that builds bonds – and can start important conversations. When you finish a story, share the memories or stories from your own life that it evokes. This helps children get to know you and themselves. Bring your stories alive by using old mementos (your mother’s earrings, your grandfather’s watch, an old train ticket).
4. Make It Picture Perfect: Have a family scrapbook party. Children, parents, and grandparents can choose their favorite photos and you can decorate themed pages. It’s a great way to organize those scattered photo packets, recall family memories, and create a treasured keepsake. If you live far apart, photocopy old family photos, write a few lines at the bottom about what’s going on, and every once in a while mail a photocopy as a reminder of family history.
5. Involve All Ages in a Collection: Whether it’s rocks, coins, or baseball cards, a shared family interest gives generations something to talk about and enjoy together.
6. Give a Keepsake: When parents and grandparents give a keepsake, explain or write down the story behind it. Where did it come from? Why is it important?
7. Remember Two Small Words: parents should encourage a simple “thank you” note whenever children get a gift from a grandparent. This teaches kids an important social skill, and makes grandparents feel appreciated.
8. Bestow Your Furniture: Assign a special piece of furniture to each child or grandchild. It’s like giving twice – now and in the future- and makes children feel important.
9. Encourage Family Rituals: The more complicated the world gets, the more simple things matter. From waving good-bye from the same window every morning to going to the local pizza place every Friday night, these are the moments that make memories.
10. Share Your “Best Memory”: Even in a strained relationship, one of the most powerful gifts you can give is a short note describing your best memory of someone. They’re often surprised at what it is!
11. Interview an Elder: When children interview an elder, they learn an important communication skill and come to understand their past. Older people often value the chance to talk about their lives.
12. Hug Someone You Love: Research shows that the older people get, the fewer hugs we give them. But “big, warm smiles and warm snuggly hugs” aren’t just for kids. We all need them! Remember to give your child or grandchild, and your parent or grandparent, that extra hug.
The national Legacy Project is a community service initiative that offers grandparents and parents lots of free information, ideas, activities, and contests to bring the generations in your family closer together. These 12 tips to get you started are from Legacy Project Chair Susan V. Bosak. For more great ideas, visit the Legacy Project website at www.legacyproject.org.