holiday rituals

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Family identity — what the family collectively does and cares about — is deeply grounding for kids

Research links family routines and rituals to children's health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships

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Our family, like yours, has all kinds of rituals we perform with our children. Some are handed down. Most we started. A few may live on for our future (and hypothetical) grandkids. These are the activities “our family does.”

At bedtime, we tell stories, sing and read books to our kids. We play board and card games over some meals. We have a weekly “movie night” even if we watch the movie in the morning. We tend to eat croissants for birthday breakfasts. My younger daughter says goodbye and good night with a prescribed sequence of kisses, hugs and “nosey nose” rubbing (the “nosey nose” having been handed down by my wife’s dad).

Take a routine, add special meaning and a sense of what it means to be your family, and you have a ritual. Dinner + shared prayer or reflection = ritual.

Holidays also come with their own set of personalized rituals and traditions. We open one present on Christmas Eve, and the next day, we open presents from youngest to oldest (both passed down from my wife’s family). I make eggnog French toast in December (which I’m pretty sure I invented). “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an annual screening, at least for me but eventually for the kids. We read Jon Muth’s “Zen Ghosts” at Halloween, and my wife agrees to watch one “scary” movie a year at that time. On New Year’s Day, partly out of superstition, we eat black-eyed peas for good luck.

These activities make the ordinary special and the special memorable. There are more traditions waiting to be invented, adopted or adapted, and each one, no matter how long it lasts, brings our family closer together and may even improve our mental and physical health.

They also add depth and meaning to our time together. “It is the quality of our intentionality and the consciousness that we bring to them from moment to moment that give family rituals their meaning,” Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote in their mindful parenting testament, “Everyday Blessings.”

Family identity – what the family collectively does and cares about – is deeply grounding for kids. Whatever storms are raging outside the home, a child’s anchor can be found in the definition of “this is us.” And your unique family-ness brings you all closer together, especially as you do the things you collectively do.

According to a 50-year review of research on the topic published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology in 2002, family routines and rituals are linked to “marital satisfaction, adolescents’ sense of personal identity, children’s health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships.” A study in 2007 in the journal Infants & Young Children linked rituals and routines to strengthening marriages, helping children with difficult transitions and fostering their sense of autonomy while maintaining family connections.

The 32-study American Psychological Association review looked at all kinds of occasions available for imprinting ritual, including dinner times, bedtimes, birthdays, Christmas, family reunions, Thanksgiving, Easter, Passover and funerals. The 2007 study focused primarily on meals and reading books together.

Having predictable routines in place has long been tied to health and resilience. Children with regular bedtimes sleep better. One study in the review showed evidence that routines are a stabilizing factor for kids of divorce coping with the challenges of single parenting and remarriage.

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    The holiday season is a great time to take stock of your family rituals and maybe add one, a la carte. Volunteer for a charity. Celebrate half birthdays. Invent a family meal. But also look at how to take ordinary activities such as meals, brushing teeth or hair, bath time, bedtime or cleaning up and add a layer of fun, such as a game, a topic of conversation or reading. It makes the mundane pleasurable but also introduces a layer of security and positive emotion.

    Make your rituals, new and old, fun and memorable. Bonus points given if they have side benefits such as increased literacy, awareness, appreciation, happiness, compassion or wisdom. But they can also just be fun.

    David G. Allan is the editorial director of CNN Health, Wellness and Parenting. He also writes “The Wisdom Project” about applying philosophy to our daily lives. You can subscribe to it here.