Family Traditions: Why They’re the Glue of Great Families

Everyone, particularly every child, needs an identity larger than himself—something he or she belongs to, feels part of, and gains security and protection from. It is kids who do not get this identity from their families who are drawn to the rituals, “colors,” and traditions of gangs or other identity substitutes for families.

Strong traditions exist in every lasting institution—in schools, in fraternities, and certainly in families. Traditions are the glue that holds families together. Kids love and cling to family traditions because they are predictable and stable in an unpredictable world.

Almost all families have traditions, at least subconscious ones, often centering on holidays or the special occasions. But some parents come to realize the importance of traditions and the ability of good traditions to teach values to improve communication, to give security to kids, and to hold families together. Such parents can refine and redefine their family traditions and give them true and lasting bonding power. 

Review and Re-evaluate Your Traditions

Start by assessing and analyzing your own family traditions. What do you do on each holiday? Each family birthday? Do you have some weekly traditions, such as a special Sunday dinner? Are there some monthly traditions, such as going over the calendar and the family’s schedule for the month ahead? Make a list of your yearly, monthly and weekly traditions.

Then, as a family, ask yourself three questions: How much joy or how much fun comes from each tradition? What values are taught by each tradition? Are there some gaps—some months without a holiday or birthday tradition? With these questions in mind, revise and redesign your family traditions. Formalize them a little by writing them up on a chart or in a special book.

Here’s a sampling of what happened to us as we went through this reassessing process:

  1. We revised some traditions. For example, our Thanksgiving tradition had essentially been to eat way too much and watch football all day on TV. We decided to shift the emphasis to thanks by making a collective list, on a long roll of cash register tape, of all the little things we are thankful for. Each year we try to “break the record” for the number of things listed.
  2. We decided it would be good to have at least one major family tradition each month, to look forward to and anticipate. Most of these centered on a birthday or holiday, but there was nothing in May or September, so we started a “welcome-spring day” (a hike) and a “welcome-fall day” (a picnic).
  3. We listed all the traditions, by month, in a big, leather-bound book. A little description of each tradition appears on the left and a child’s illustration of that activity appears on the right.

Besides the once-a-year-type birthday or holiday traditions, there can be shorter-range traditions. Many families have religious traditions on Saturday or Sunday. There can be traditional ways of cooking a particular meal or of getting ready for school or of packing for a trip. 

A Story to Illustrate the Bonding Power of Traditions

One personal incident will illustrate the “staying power” and bonding influence of family traditions. On my (Richard’s) birthday in October, we had always raked huge piles of leaves with the kids and then jumped in them, stuffed them in our shirts, thrown them in the air, and just generally had a wild time. We thought as the kids got older, their interest in such a frivolous activity would fade. On the contrary, when they were teens, the leaf piles just got bigger. Finally there came a year when our two oldest had left home—a son to go to his first year of college and a daughter doing humanitarian work in an orphanage in Bulgaria.  I was missing them as my birthday approached, but on birthday morning, an envelope arrived from each in the mail.  I excitedly tore open the daughter’s first, wondering what kind of card she would send.

But it was not a card.  It was a leaf.  And it had a post it note stuck on it that said, “Dad, this is a Bulgarian leaf. The orphans helped me celebrate your tradition, Love Jill.  PS:  Dad, don’t forget, I’m still part of our family!” The envelope from the son also contained a leaf (they had not talked to each other) but, typical of boys, no note.  I could just imagine Jason thinking, “I’ll just send Dad a leaf—he’ll know what it means.”

Take some time and review your family traditions. Do they help you in teaching values and in developing better communication? Adjust and alter to make your traditions productive as well as enjoyable. List them by month in a special book of some kind or put them on a family calendar so they can be anticipated and planned for. Make them a priority until they take on a life of their own.

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