A few years ago, my four-year-old daughter was starting to say our grace before dinner. “Daddy, fold your hands like this!” she shrieked. Everyone else at the table was stunned at the intensity of her outburst.
But if we consider the world from the standpoint of a four-year-old girl, it may make perfect sense. Sarah wakes up in the morning and isn’t always sure if she’s going to school or not. She’s not quite sure of which clothes she should wear, and she’s not always sure who she’ll be spending time with each day. She’s not all that comfortable with the language yet, so it’s not always easy to get her point across.
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In other words, she lives with a lot of uncertainty in her life. Having rituals in your family creates an opportunity for your kids to feel secure and to feel equal in the family. It’s a time in which nobody will tell them what to do and everyone knows their role. It represents certainty for kids who live in a sea of uncertainty.
Contemporary American families are entropic, meaning they drift toward falling apart,” says William Doherty, head of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota.
“Rituals combat that entropy and help hold families together. Whenever you do a ritual, you are saying `No’ to other activities or people, and becoming what I call an intentional family. Most of us just drift into habits, doing what is most convenient.
But ritualizing means to take a hold of activities and ask: does this meet the needs of our family? If it’s something like sitting in front of a TV night after night for dinner, then the answer is `No.'”
So whether your kids are toddlers or teens, make sure you’re holding and creating rituals which have meaning for your family. Family dinners, weekend trips, or family laundry day on Sunday can all have an important impact on your family.
And remember that it may mean a lot more to your kids than it does to you! One of your jobs as a parent is to create some rituals that hold meaning for your family.
Here are some ideas:
- Create a time each week to do a family chore together and then order pizza.
- Plan a “recreation time” for your family at the same time every week, and rotate who chooses the activity.
- Create your own special activities on established holidays — on Thanksgiving Day, bring food or clothing packages to families who may need them.
- Have a regularly scheduled family meeting in which you talk about problems, negotiate solutions, plan fun activities, and acknowledge each other. Make it sacred. Turn off the phone and make it happen.
- Make sure that you include your kids in planning the rituals. The more invested they are in creating it, the more meaningful it will be.
There’s a tendency for parents today to throw up their hands when “together time” with the family is mentioned. With dance lessons, baseball practice, piano lessons, and homework getting in the way, there may seem to be little time left for the family. Those in the middle of a chaotic family schedule seem to have lost the choice along the way.
And while it’s inevitable that family life will be busy these days, parents can never afford to lose the choices available to them. Because the very “soul” of your family is expressed in meaningful rituals that parents choose to undertake.
It may be hard to decide against the extra piano lessons that your son or daughter could be taking, or to have your child participate in only one sport instead of two. But by doing so, you’ll teach them a lesson that’s far more important than the ones they’ll learn from these other activities.
You’ll teach them that their family comes first. And as their parent, it’s your responsibility to see that it happens.
Mark Brandenburg MA, CPCC, coaches men to be better fathers and husbands. He is the author of “25 Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers”.