While writing this article my mind is replaying the words, “Tradition! Tradition!” from Fiddler on the Roof. In the musical, Tevye is referring to the typical roles of fathers, mothers, and children at that time and in that culture. Family roles represent just one of many areas impacted by traditions and rituals.
In my own family, we have many traditions that have spanned generations, as well as new ones that my wife and I have, ourselves, created. Our favorite and most consistent family tradition is pizza night; so important is this tradition, that if we miss a scheduled pizza night, we have to make it up! For us, pizza night is not designed around the kind of pizza you order and have delivered. Our pizza night involves homemade dough, homemade sauce, our favorite toppings, and a spirit of creativity. Our children all get to make their pizza to their personal specifications – from toppings to size to shape. There are no rules. Every weekend from Friday through Sunday there are excited shouts and cries asking, “is it pizza night yet?!”
It has surprised me that what started as a cheap date night for two newlywed college students has continued as our favorite family tradition. It’s become a bonding time for our family to the point that our children refuse to have pizza night if one of their siblings is not home, preferring instead to wait for his or her return. As parents, we love pizza night in part because we have our children’s undivided attention and they have ours.
Types of Traditions and Rituals
The most common traditions, of course, center on holidays or major life events. Some families count regular family vacations and reunions as key traditions. Other traditions take the form of routines or rituals that might occur daily, weekly, or monthly. These include bedtime routines, family dinners, game nights, movies, one-on-one outings with individual children, and Sunday dinners. Some traditions are multi-generational while others are created by individual families. In order to create the consistency needed to create a valuable tradition you will need to do it over and over again. According to Gregory Fritz (2002), something as simple as family meals may constitute a valuable family tradition.
“(Family meals) may be the only consistent time that all family members gather together. As such, it is a time for updates about the day, discussions about family matters, and coordination of schedules and plans. It is a rich context in which to observe patterns of communication, problem solving, behavioral expectations, and role negotiations.
“For children, the most important traditions and rituals are family-based. The way a family celebrates holidays, birthdays, or developmental milestones; the family stories or jokes that are told and retold; memorabilia such as favorite ornaments, treasured photographs or handmade articles; the foods, like grandma’s cookies or Aunt Myrna’s potato latkes, where the preparation and eating link generations – all provide an essential continuity, consistency and coherence to children’s lives.”
Traditions and Adolescence
As children transition into adolescence they “begin to renegotiate how they relate to family members,” according to Dawn Eakers and Lynda Walters (2002). “At this stage, adolescent personal experiences, or satisfaction, in family rituals may be important to consider because the roles they played as children may not be acceptable to adolescents. If rituals are to be beneficial for the individual development of adolescents, modification of roles to reflect increasing competence of both thought and behavior may need to be made.”
During adolescence, the amount of time spent away from the family increases and influences other than the family play an increasing role in the development of self. With their developing sense of self, adolescents may experience time with family negatively if family members do not acknowledge the ways in which they are changing. However, family rituals can also provide opportunities for adolescents to renegotiate roles within the family. Rituals may also provide opportunities to share what is liked or not liked about family interactions as well as how family rituals make adolescents feel as individuals in their families (Eakers & Walters, 2002).
In addition to helping negotiate changing roles, the “developmental process associated with psychosocial maturity flourishes when adolescents feel connected to their families but not constrained by the family (Bomar & Sabatelli, 1996; Gavazzi et al., 1994; Gavazzi & Sabatelli, 1990).” This suggests that adolescent experiences in family rituals need to be considered when examining associations between family environment and psychosocial development (Eakers & Walters, 2002).
Benefits of Rituals and Traditions
According to Dickstein (2002), current research “highlight(s) that the experience (or perception) of belonging to the family or being satisfied with family inclusion – not simply status as a family member – is an important factor associated with the (likely bidirectional) impact of family routines and rituals on individual development and well-being.”
In addition, Dubas and Gerris (2002) found that when families engaged in more shared activities together (that varied over time according to developmental needs), they were less likely to experience conflict five years later.
What do you do now?
Here is a process that might be useful for identifying, adjusting, rejecting, and/or creating meaningful family traditions:
- Identify the traditions and rituals that you have carried over from you family of origin. Some of them may be ones you find burdensome and want to get rid of. Highlight those that have meaning to you and share those experiences with members of your family.
- Identify new traditions you created when you started your family. Are they ones that you want to continue? Are they age-appropriate for your children? What meaning do they hold for you? Ask your children what meaning these traditions hold for them.
- Look for opportunities to create new traditions. Gregory Fritz stated that “good traditions have a number of features in common.” Good traditions, according to Fritz:
- Have symbolic meaning that points to the family’s core identity
- Allow for whole-family participation, regardless of age
- Require us to slow down
- Require explanation and encourage discussion and communication
- Elicit positive emotions and associations
- Invite all family members to participate in the creation of new traditions. Have a weekly family meeting to plan family vacations or other activities.
As you go through this process you may come across old traditions that were forgotten or you may create new ones as a family. Whatever the specific outcomes, this process will help you learn more about each of your children.
Traditions played an important role in my development as a child and have carried over into my own adult family life. They have provided me with opportunities to stay connected to my parents and share that connection with my wife and children. Each Christmas I get to joke around with my wife as I place a giant Mickey Mouse ornament on the tree. It was the first ornament she gave me after we were married. She gets embarrassed when she compares her lighthearted, silly ornament to the more earnest “newly married” ornament I gave her. In this ritual of teasing, I remember not only that first Christmas as a couple, but also the reasons that I married her. Over the years each child talks about when they received their special family ornament – another of our traditions – and its meaning to them. It strengthens our connection one to another as we reflect on the fact that all of our individual ornaments hang from a single tree. It also gives me pause to remember the words of Tevye: “Life without traditions is as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
- Dickstein, S. (2002) Family routines and rituals: The importance of family functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 6(4), 441-444.
- Eaker, D.G. & Walters, L.H. (2002). Adolescent satisfaction in family rituals and psychosocial development: A developmental systems theory perspective. Journal of Family Psychology, 16 (4), 441-444
- Fritz, G. (2002). Children and adults need family traditions. Journal of Family Psychology, 16 (4), 406-414.
Matt Bartlett, LMFT, is an Executive Clinical Director at New Haven Residential Treatment Center, part of the InnerChange family of therapeutic programs.