Can we talk about family rituals for a minute?
And I don’t mean the big, overwhelming, expensive, Pinterest-crazy traditions that make us feel like we aren’t doing enough and that the childhood memories we’re creating will be no more than a desert of homework, Brussels sprouts, and endless TV cartoons. (Seriously, what even is a “Teen Titan”? Jesus, save me.)
No, I’m talking about the simple, small, routine things that if we were just a little more intentional about—voila!—they would become meaningful parts of the fabric of a childhood that feels safe and memorable.
Sometimes I think we make this idea of traditions harder than it needs to be. I know that I’m guilty of thinking, I could probably do that once, but I’ll never be able to sustain that year after year. Or, Nice idea, but a new season of The Voice is about to start and I’ll never have that kind of time. However, the truth is that most memorable traditions are quite simple and require only our attention to help them blossom. So, here are four simple ways to create more rituals in your own family that will do just as good of a job instilling a sense of belonging into your little ones as any of the fancy ones:
1. Give a name to a routine that you already have.
Don’t underestimate the power of simply naming something. Giving a regular habit a title makes it feel official and more significant. When I was little and would spend the night at my grandmother’s house, we would sing the same song every morning. It was how she started the day with me. When my boys were little, she and I sang it with them, too. My grandmother passed away in 2011, and whenever I drive the boys to school, we sing that song, which is now called “MeMaw’s Morning Song,” as our start to the day. I don’t know the name of the real song, but that is our name for it, and that has made it feel even more important.
“Snuggle Club” is the official name for when all family members (and usually the dog, too) are piled onto our bed/couch for some intentional togetherness. This is usually the stuff moms’ dreams are made of…right up until one of the boys lets one rip and we are all forced to disperse immediately. Even with one child firmly in the tween years, there are raucous cheers of “Snuggle Club!!” on a Saturday morning if the boys find us still in bed and can wrangle the dog up there to join (though now that I think about it, it is starting to sound more and more like a war cry than a sentimental moment). Regardless, having a name for it gives us all a way to reference a time of connection we have come to count on.
2. Add a new element to a routine that already exists.
Chances are pretty good that you sit around the dinner table every once in awhile, or that you have some kind of daily routine. No reinventing the wheel here—just adding a twist to an activity you already do is an easy way to ensure consistency for a new ritual.
We try to have a family dinner as often as possible (sometimes that looks like clearing the table of junk mail and homework remnants just in time for the take-out containers to arrive), and when the schedule gets too crazy for even that to happen, we switch the priority to family breakfast (because toast and eggs take two minutes to prepare). At any rate, while sitting around the table we have several games that help with conversation and solidify the idea that this time is more about family than food. One of those is Two Truths and a Fib: each person tells three things about their day—two true things and one fib—and everyone gets to guess which one is the fib. This gets funnier and harder the older the kids get, by the way. There are a ton of variations for this: Rose and Thorns, Highs and Lows, Table Topics (conversation prompts), and even just out-of-the-box questions about the day like, “What was something that made you laugh today?” or “The lottery is up to $400 million. What would we do if we won?” (A potential side benefit of this activity is that sometimes even picky eaters get distracted by the conversation fun and forget to complain for the forty-seventh time about how they simply cannot eat broccoli.)
The other easy candidate for adding a new ritual is at the end of the day. Each night at bedtime I tell the boys three things I love about them and they tell me three things they love about me. It takes three minutes, and while these are often silly and light-hearted, they have also contained moments that find me wiping my eyes before we say prayers. My oldest considers it an incomplete day if “Three Things” doesn’t happen and has been known to email them to me if I’m not home for bedtime.
3. Add a permanent element to annual celebrations.
Things happen every year without us planning them—birthdays, holidays, taxes, another Harry Potter book or movie—so attaching an item or an activity to these recurring events can build an easy tradition lickety-split.
I had some fairly campy birthday banners made for each of the boys when they were little. They hang on the mantle on each birthday without fail. Their party might be at the house or not, the themes and invitees have changed so much over the years, the cakes/cupcakes/cookies vary as often as my kids change their clothes, but those banners are always there (and much easier to manifest than a fancy homemade red velvet cake, so I let that one go a few years ago!). The silly banners are featured in many birthday photos over the years, so I imagine how we’ll laugh about them when I’m still stubbornly hanging them in their twenties. And, let’s be honest, their forties, too.
We live in South Texas, which boasts the very best Tex-Mex on the planet. (I have no time to debate this fact of life, so don’t bother.) This means that Christmas is exciting because of Santa and tamales. It has been our family’s tradition for as long as I can remember to have a big Tex-Mex spread on Christmas Eve. That’s right—no turkey or ham or cranberries when we are putting cookies on the hearth, but plenty of chili and guacamole and queso for days. This meal is a permanent part of the holiday, and no matter where we spend it, which family members are present, who is traveling, or any other variables of the season, there will be tamales. Praise the heavens.
4. Use negatives to create positives.
Because rituals work based mostly on predictability and how that creates a feeling of safety for our kids, this means even not-fun rituals can still create a stable, positive environment. I’m looking at you, chore charts! Yay! A ritual that also gets my trash taken out!
When assessing your daily life, be sure not to overlook the less desirable parts of your routines as opportunities to capture a sense of family ritual. I hate, hate, hate to do laundry, but the next best thing to never doing it all was deciding to only do it one day per week. “That’s it, Mt. Laundry—you get one day of my week and no more.” And on top of that, to make it even more palatable, I roped my husband into the gig and we use the Folding-of-Mt.-Laundry time to catch up on whatever show we are currently watching together. (You know, the Netflix series commitment you make when you start a show together and therefore cannot watch one hot second of it without the other person present or it is akin to the worst kind of infidelity? Yeah, that.) Anyway, if the latest episode of Game of Thrones is showing, then the kids have to go to their rooms for bed earlier than usual so we can start “folding laundry” (read: ogling Jon Snow and geeking out over dragons). The kids roll their eyes and moan about getting kicked out of the TV room on Laundry Night—and I smile and gently remind them that if they complain enough we’ll happily put on Frozen and make them fold their own dang clothes, and off to their rooms they go! But, honestly, it is usually with very little grumbling and difficulty, partly because it is expected; it’s Laundry Night, and they trust its regularity so much that they don’t bother challenging the routine. Same goes for chore days and daily reading time and any other necessary thing that your spawn might complain about. See, you aren’t ruining their lives; you are creating rituals and security that will ensure a sense of belonging to your family. You’re welcome.
For other ideas and inspiration about family traditions, there’s a great list here. And I trust our readers will share their favorite family traditions in the comments. Thanks in advance!