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Family Rituals and Traditions

Posted , updated Nov 07, 2005.

Family Rituals and Traditions
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Family Rituals and Traditions

As a child, what family rituals or traditions did you have? Did your parent read you a story every night before going to bed? Did your family gather at your grandparents’ home for a special holiday meal?

What family traditions have you carried on or begun? Does your family make a point to have dinner together, go to the library once a week during the summer, or make cookies together for the holiday?

Family rituals and traditions are special ways of doing things that we repeat over and over again. When you use a muscle in your body over and over again in a certain way, it makes the muscle stronger. Likewise, sharing repeated experiences in a certain way strengthens the family.

Traditions give the family stability and a feeling of belonging. Values and beliefs are often reinforced through our traditions. Through the passing of time, we learn the unspoken message of why traditions are created, FAMILY IS IMPORTANT.

As you read through this newsletter, we hope you will reflect about what your family is doing to create meaningful rituals and traditions.

Keeping the Old, But Adding the New

Many families celebrate important events in their lives such as birthdays, weddings, graduations, or the first day of school. But, what about creating a new ritual or tradition in your family? Are there times when new and different rituals or traditions would be helpful?

Changes occur in our lives, such as moving, or relationships due to marriage or divorce. The family often experiences confusion and stress during major changes, upsetting routines and traditions. However, building new traditions can bring a family together in handling life’s changes and challenges.

Perhaps your family has experienced changes. Draw from your past and think of the kinds of activities that fit into your new situation. What kinds of activities might be repeated daily, weekly or annually? It need not take a lot of time, money or energy. The predictable pattern helps family members feel more connected and know “this is the way our family does things.”

The Importance of the Family Table

For many American families, the shared mealtime is less and less common. One in four parents reported that their families eat together four or fewer times per week. One in ten parents admitted that they eat only one or no meals per week with their children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends shared dinner times as often as possible as a way to strengthen families and support children’s development. There are many ways that shared mealtimes can benefit families.

  • Regular-shared mealtimes can increase children’s sense of belonging and stability.
  • Children who share meals with their families on a regular basis tend to eat healthier foods than those who do not. They eat less high-fat, high-sugar prepared and packaged foods and more fruits and vegetables.
  • Teen-agers who eat frequent meals with their families are less likely to be depressed or use drugs than those who do not. They are also less likely to be violent, have sex and experience emotional stress. Adolescents who eat meals with their families frequently are likely to be more highly motivated in school and have better peer relationships.

Family mealtimes promote parent-child communication. Experts agree that open communication with parents is important from a child’s early months through their teen years. Mealtimes may provide a time and place for in-depth talks, relaxation and catching up on family news.

Although most families agree it’s important, many families find it difficult to have meals together. Here are some of the reasons reported:

  • Conflicting schedules (especially important were work schedules and children’s activities, particularly as children enter adolescence)
  • Lack of commitment by family members to shared mealtimes
  • Interference of television (50% of families in a recent Gallop poll say their families watch television during dinner).
  • Food-related problems (lack of cooking skills and differences in food preferences)

While the barriers are challenging, the benefits lead many parents to try to increase the number of meals that they share with their children.

Ideas for Getting Your Family to the Table

  • Make it a family priority to share meals. Every family member should make the commitment and stick to it. Issue a “family challenge”.
  • Declare shared meals to be “sacred” family time. Set a beginning and ending time and devote the meal to talking and having fun as a family. Turn off the television (tape programs that can be watched after mealtime). Turn off pagers and let the answering machine pick up messages. Ban newspapers and books unless they are being shared with everyone.
  • Be flexible about when, where and what. Shared meals don’t have to be fancy. The food can be from the freezer or from a restaurant. If one parent or child can’t make it until later in the evening, have a healthy snack so that the meal can be put off until everyone is home. If you can’t eat together every evening, start with some evenings. Write them on the calendar. If you can’t find evenings, try mornings.
  • Reduce stress. The time just before dinner is often challenging, especially if you have young children. You are busy and the little ones are hungry, crabby and clingy. Make a simple healthy snack part of the routine, such as a bag of carrots and some dip or cheese and crackers. Have a pre-dinner “activity box” for little ones that includes paper and crayons to draw pictures of daily activities to talk about during the meal.
  • Make some meals fun and creative. Sometimes, trying something different can have surprising results. Create family traditions such as a family picnic night where simple meals can be eaten on the back porch or in a nearby park. One night a week could be “theme” night with a meal focused on a current event or vegetarian or ethnic food or leftovers. Light a special candle or play favorite music softly. The point is to make shared meals enjoyable.
  • Get everyone involved. Children are more likely to eat meals that they help plan or prepare. Young children can wash vegetables, tear lettuce and set the table. They can make invitations, place markers and decorations for special meals. Older children may have responsibility (and freedom) to prepare a simple dish or a complete meal for the family.
  • Encourage relaxed conversation. Let everyone have a turn talking and set a “no bickering” rule (violators might have to wash dishes). Ban topics that are strictly for adults (mortgage rates or work stress). While table manners and courtesy are important, avoid discipline during mealtime. Try to model good manners and good nutritious eating habits. This is often more effective than nagging during meals.

Resources: Building Family Strengths (1995). University of Illinois Extension/4-H Publication

Come to the Table: A Celebration of Family Life (1999). Doris Christopher.

Archives of Family Medicine, 2000, 235-240.

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