My daughter turned 18 months old this week. This happened fast, and I was not prepared for how quickly dad duties escalated from the mindless tasks of newborn care to the doozies involved in raising this now self-aware mini human.
And here’s the scariest part…the girl won’t start preschool for 3 more years. This means until then, I am her exclusive source of education. It is my job to instill valuable life lessons deep within her impressionable little brain. The more I screw this up, the more likely she is to conjure some imaginary friend who convinces her to go grab a chef’s knife and stand over daddy’s bedside.
What I want most though — next to not raising a sociopath — is for the girl to be happy. I want to pack her childhood with so much fun and fulfillment that when she looks back on it as an adult, she shivers with nostalgia. As a parent, it’s my responsibility to manufacture these positive experiences. And as it turns out, one of the best ways to do this is with family traditions.
What is Tradition?
Tradition is defined as a belief or custom handed down from generation to generation. However, Meg Cox, tradition guru and author of The Book of New Family Traditions, believes that what we typically consider tradition is better referred to as a ritual, and she offers the following definition:
I sometimes use the words ritual and tradition interchangeably, but I prefer the word ritual because it covers more ground. It’s a stretchy word that covers everything from saying grace at the table to big ceremonies. Ritual is something you do in the same way over and over, on purpose. To me, family ritual is practically any activity you purposely repeat together as a family that includes a heightened attentiveness, and something extra that lifts it above the ordinary ruts.
Why Are Rituals Important for Children?
Instills a Sense of Belonging
Rituals promote togetherness, providing kids with a sense of belonging and security, traits that can help them adjust to the next stage in life…
Prepares Kids for College
A 1992 study performed on college students found that kids who grew up with family rituals possessed a stronger sense of identity, a trait that made them feel worthy of being liked and helped them transition to life outside the home.
As a father, you control only so much. A good portion of your child’s wellbeing is up to fate or God or the universe or whatever else you want to pin it on. But while I can’t prevent every boo-boo or violently threaten every playground bully (though I will try), I can provide a safe and supportive environment at home.
Decreases the Chances that Your Kid Turns Out A Screw-up
A study of 90,000 teenagers showed that kids who feel emotionally close to their families are less likely to engage in ‘risky behavior’.
Helps Navigate Change
While rituals have long been used to celebrate graduation, marriage, and many other major life changes, they can also help with transitions in daily routine. Take bedtime for example. My daughter avoids sleep like I avoid an old high school acquaintance I’ve spotted in a grocery store. But after a her bath and bottle and, like, 16 bedtime stories…presto! Right to sleep.
Provides Exclusive Family Time
I’m busy, man. Between work, maintaining the house, and constantly trying (and failing) to stay in shape, I have little time for anything else. Rituals, however, provide exclusive, pre-scheduled family time. And according to child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim in his book A Good Enough Parent, regular periods in which a child is the center of attention is essential to his or her psychological development.
Teaches Practical Skills
A less obvious benefit of ritual is that your kid might actually learn something — a bedtime story teaches her to read, while conversing over dinner helps her communicate. If there’s anything the girl can learn without me having to lecture her 30 times, I’m all for it.
Creates Deep Emotional Experiences
Rituals create happy brains. Research shows that rituals stimulate both the left and right brain hemispheres simultaneously, creating deep emotional experiences (picture a shiver down your back). These positive emotions can lead to higher levels of overall happiness.
The 3 Types of Rituals
While rituals come in many shapes and sizes, Meg Cox recommends families establish and practice 3 overarching types:
A ritual doesn’t have to be some major production. Routine-based rituals can help kids navigate their day and include:
- Family dinner
- Bedtime rituals
- Morning rituals
- Before/after school rituals
One fun family activity per week seems like a safe place between promoting togetherness and driving each other crazy.
- Movie night
- Weekend outing
- Game night
- Homemade pizza night
- Saturday morning breakfast
3. Celebrations of Holidays and Major Milestones
- Annual vacations
- First and last day of school celebrations
How to Get Started Right Now
Some of my favorite traditions and most cherished memories come from being a kid during the holidays. Was there anything better? I remember our family’s Halloween parties, and Thanksgiving meals, and do you remember Christmas morning? Member!? The Christmas of ‘91 I got a Sega and omfg…16-bit graphics are what kids’ dreams are made of. To a kid, holidays are magic.
But now that I’m all grown up, I realize that was as good as it’s gonna get. You spend a few years dealing with the real world and all of its bullshit and the magic dies. This is why only the kids can hear the bell in The Polar Express…because the adults have had the magic beaten out of them by 40 hour work weeks and mortgage payments.
But since my daughter was born, a funny thing has happened: I’ve started to relive some of that magic vicariously through her. She’s reminded me of importance and awesomeness of childhood family traditions, and she’s the inspiration for this list:
The Big Ass List of Family Traditions
Here is The Millennial Man’s running list of family tradition ideas. We will start with the major holidays, adding new editions and traditions throughout the year.