Modern Family

UPDATED: November 2, 2011
PUBLISHED: November 2, 2011

On Christmas morning a little toy boat floats in a bathtub filled with water in Kristl and Eric Story’s home near Houston. Attached to it is a string—a very, very long string—that leads over the tub and out the bathroom door. It winds through the house, around corners and over furniture, until reaching a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. That’s where the Storys’ wide-eyed kids wait anxiously for their cue from Mom to follow the string.

“I remember finding my first sled at the end of a string!” Kristl says of the quirky family tradition her parents started years ago. When her own children came along, Kristl kept the “string present” alive. When individual gifts called for multiple strings, her house resembled a cobweb. But not on this Christmas morning, when there’s just one very mysterious string and three very excited kids.

So where did this string present lead them? Two places really—the toy boat, of course, which represents a family cruise. But perhaps more important, this wacky tradition leads them to each other.

Whether it’s a holiday ritual, a celebratory rite of passage or even something simple like Saturday breakfasts out with Dad, traditions help bring families closer. At their best, they connect today with all our yesterdays and our tomorrows. They bring happiness, security, comfort, adventure, tolerance, and sometimes they save our sanity.

Quirky, Flourishing Families

“Happy families do a lot of things better than most, including specific, quirky rituals that the family counts on for emotional stability,” says Caroline Adams Miller, a best-selling author and life coach. “These rituals wind up being a thread from one generation to another.”

In flourishing families, nutty uncles and eccentric grannies all have a place at the table, Miller says. Kids who grow up accepting idiosyncrasies feel more comfortable expressing their own differences and have a happier, more open outlook on life.

Rites of passage in just such a family aren’t humdrum, card-sending occasions. Instead, Miller says, these families come up with their own celebrations—gathering around food to celebrate a teen’s first driver’s license, a “car mitzvah,” perhaps, with a goofy passing of the keys from one member to the next, each telling stories about their craziest driving experience until they ceremoniously place the keys in the teen’s hands.

“Families are like small tribes and it is no wonder that tribal rituals—like closely held and meaningful traditions—are part of family systems,” says Patricia Leavy, a sociologist and author of more than a dozen books, including Low-Fat Love, which explores identity, esteem and relationships.

Family traditions instill in people and their “tribes” a sense of belonging and stability in an otherwise chaotic world. They allow individuals to feel a part of something larger than themselves and also integral members of the family unit. In so doing, our “tribes” are stronger, more engaged with one another and more likely to thrive, Leavy says.

Engaging Connections, Meaningful Conversations

Jane Shafron understands what Leavy means by engagement. She produces private documentary films for families, and wades through hours and hours of family videos. “It’s endless video of everything but the people. It’s so disappointing,” Shafron says. “I realize what missed opportunities those videos have been. What we really care about are the people.”

So when Shafron’s California family rendezvoused with her brother-in-law’s Australian family for a Hawaiian adventure last summer, she knew to turn the camera around. Despite spending seven glorious, fun-filled days together, Shafron kept thinking they were missing an opportunity to truly connect with each other.

Then on that last night, Shafron announced plans for a one-on-one video interview with everyone on the trip. It was low-key, filmed on an inexpensive, flip camera. She started slowly with questions about the beaches and snorkeling, high points, who woke up first most mornings and who was the grumpiest. Family dynamics made for some funny answers.

“Then I asked them about their plans for the next 12 months and a few life questions. Wow, it was a hit!” Shafron says. “I just listened to what they had to say. It was delightful. It made the whole trip worthwhile on a personal level for me.” And just like that, a new family tradition was born.

Adults and teens alike had a great deal to say, many of them revealing untold goals and ambitions. The younger people talked about what was going on in their lives, what they cared most about.

“Often you don’t get around to those meaningful conversations,” Shafron says. “You are often talking to other adults and let the kids wash around you.” But as she found, the teenagers really wanted to talk to her about what they felt. “I was very happy to have gone to this little bit of trouble to connect with them.”


What psychotherapist David Klow loves about Shafron’s new tradition is that it incorporates technology. “We see iPad commercials with people chatting face to face. Grandma and Grandpa are waving as their granddaughter graduates from high school. If used right, technology can bring people together in new traditions. This is a great, creative use of video,” he says.

As affiliate psychotherapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, and in his practice as a licensed marriage and family therapist, Klow explores how groups affect people, how groups help people change, and how people see themselves in their relationships with others.

Traditions, Klow says, impact individuals biologically, emotionally and mentally. “Our brains are hardwired for repetitive interaction and predictability. That can be very satisfying to the brain and bring a lot of pleasure to know that the thing you are waiting for and planning for happens,” he says.

Macro traditions happen once a year, like following that string on Christmas morning. Micro traditions come round more frequently—an evening meal complete with talk of the day’s events, or little notes tucked into a child’s lunchbox or a spouse’s luggage during a business trip. Both kinds create neural pathways in the brain, akin to a well-worn path. Their repetitive nature organizes the brain in a way that keeps people more stable.

Holiday Hoopla

There’s very little that’s predictable about Sherry Richert Belul and her extended family—except their holiday traditions. They call their version, “Holiday Hoopla!” and every winter they take it on the road—from the California home where Sherry and her ex-husband live together, raising their only son, to her mother’s house in Ohio. Along for the trip is Sherry, her son, her ex-husband, his father, and Sherry’s beau of six years. Sherry’s mother and her mom’s boyfriend are Christians and celebrate Christmas. Sherry’s ex-husband and his father are Jewish, while Sherry and her boyfriend lean toward Eastern spiritual beliefs.

“We all stay with my mom and this tradition has enabled us all to bond in a way that would be difficult otherwise,” Sherry says. “It not only gives us a week together, cooking together and playing games together, but it also enables us to celebrate our various religious backgrounds.”

And what puts the hoopla in their holiday? Rather than exchanging gifts, Sherry and her California entourage set up carnival booths and put on a variety show for their Buckeye relatives. Then they serve up supper. “It is a tradition that teaches my son that creative gifts from the heart are every bit as wonderful as other kinds of gifts,” she says.

Imprinting for Life

Traditions, especially those introduced in childhood, help us develop our sense of self. Klow says they work like that retro toy, Silly Putty. “You press it against the newspaper and there’s an image on the Silly Putty. Our brains are so impressionable that way when we are young. The tradition imprints on us and when we lose touch with it, we lose touch with something that is very close and very sacred to ourselves,” he says.

When traditions end as a result of a death in the family, a marriage, the addition of grandchildren or family members moving away from each other, people and families may feel a bit lost. But these changes actually can be opportunities to rethink and create new and unique traditions, rather than just repeating the same ones, Klow says.

In fact, even those time-honored traditions may lose their relevance and start to feel more like obligations and drudgery. They may even serve to isolate people or highlight differences rather than what family members have in common.

So, instead of simply repeating a tradition out of habit, Klow helps families examine their rituals and adapt them to the here and now. Sure, it can be disruptive and there can be a sense of loss and mourning. But if the goal is to enhance the time your family spends together, he says, “then there’s a rebirth of a new tradition that really fits. And that’s what the world needs right now—new traditions that fit our ever-changing times.”

That may mean throwing out the Norman Rockwell image of the perfectly roasted Thanksgiving turkey or Martha Stewart’s hand-tied Christmas bows. Maybe you’ll have lasagna and cannoli instead, or wrap your gifts in the comics from your hometown newspaper.

One-size-fits-all traditions simply don’t suffice anymore. How you celebrate life’s special moments, and whether you create your own or follow those from years past, is up to your family. In the end, the tradition is simply a tool that holds the old and embraces the new—a vehicle that deepens relationships with those you love the most.