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Family Traditions: Finding Meaning, Joy and Community

Deanna Duff

Published on: November 27, 2012

family traditionsBetween the juggling of homework, careers, soccer and nightly dinners, family life just gets busy. Desperately seeking some quality one-on-one time with their kids, Tacoma residents Meilee and KC Anderson each take one of their children, ages 5 and 14, on a monthly date night: ice skating, opera, a walk in the park. It has become a tradition.

“I want to instill a sense of family,” says Meilee Anderson. “Raising my family today is different than it was when I was growing up, but it’s still important to feel connected and to focus on the kids.”

Whether it’s an elaborate holiday festivity or a simple daily note in the lunchbox, parents find that family traditions blend bonding with family fun.

“Traditions teach children what a family holds valuable. It’s almost like a workout for the beliefs and practices of a family,” says Laura Doerflinger, a Kirkland family counselor.

Kids love traditions — especially when they’re young. “The earlier you introduce family traditions the better, because children become more resistant as they grow older,” says Doerflinger.

Even when they’re older and go through phases when they reject those familiar customs, parents shouldn’t worry. “Studies show that people eventually come back to their family values. By the time they have their own children, they’re knee-deep in family traditions again,” she says.

Tailor-made traditions

Some families love silly sayings. Others gather for weekly dinners. Typically, families are immersed in traditions without realizing it. And these casual rituals can be meaningful, says Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day.

Cox encourages parents to create traditions that reflect the family’s identity. “Ask yourself, what are the two or three most important values you want to teach your kids? Then make sure your daily and holiday rituals reflect it,” she says. “If reading and books are important, create a tradition around bedtime stories. If you’re philanthropic, raise money for a local shelter.”

Family traditions provide kids with a sense of security and identity, Cox says. That can be as simple as kissing a child’s injury to make it feel better, which reinforces a child’s sense of safety, or reciting a prayer before dinner.

Traditions can evolve. As kids grow older, it’s important to adapt and keep traditions relevant. “One mom was OK with dropping some traditions, but didn’t want to give up Easter egg hunts, even though her children said it was childish. Rather than putting candy in the eggs, she used gift certificates for iTunes or The Gap. Suddenly, her kids were very interested again,” says Cox.

And these customs should be fun. “They shouldn’t become a chore,” says Cox. “Traditions can intimidate people, because they want everything perfect. Sometimes it’s even better if it’s not. When you forget to cook the Thanksgiving turkey, that’ll be the year no one forgets.”

For kids, that fun factor is especially important. If your goal is to impart family values, your ritual will have a greater impact if it’s an enjoyable experience.

As a child, Meilee Anderson enjoyed family date night with her father because it was cool — doughnut shops and movies. It wasn’t until years later that she realized his other goal: He wanted to teach his daughters how their future dates should behave. “He tried to set an example for my sister and me: A man should open the door, listen and be nice,” says Anderson. “He was setting the bar for what we should expect.”

The greater good

Traditions can include customs and rituals within a family or expand to include the greater community. Sometimes the most successful traditions are both.

Seán Bray’s faith and community service were founded in family tradition. Bray, a social justice minister at Seattle University, grew up with the example of his mother baking mountains of holiday treats and distributing them to family, friends, churches and service agencies. His parents passed away this past year — but the tradition lives on.

This year, his family will share baking duties. Bray hopes this will teach his children, ages 1 and 3, to share their blessings with others. “My daughters won’t have the memory of making cookies with their grandmother, but this is a way to incorporate her into their lives,” says Bray.

Chef John Howie, his wife and two sons have made generosity a longstanding family tradition. The owner of Seattle’s and Bellevue’s Seastar Restaurant and Bellevue’s John Howie Steak, Howie and his family, along with volunteers, have served Thanksgiving dinners to more than 500 people each year for a decade.

While the tradition benefits hundreds, it has also deepened and strengthened the Howie family’s community. At the end of the day, everyone shares a holiday meal. “It’s a lot easier to really feel thankful after what you’ve done for others,” says Howie.

Deanna Duff is a Seattle-based freelance writer who contributes to a variety of regional and national publications. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Press Association, which has awarded her writing.


cookiesHow to create traditions

•    Establish family traditions as early as possible. Children in the 8- to 12-year-old age range are particularly receptive to them.
•    Teenagers often become resistant to family traditions as they begin establishing their own sense of self. But studies show they return to their family values as they grow older and start their own families.
•    Find traditions that reflect your interests. One family that loved culinary arts gave its children cookbooks and had them host weekly dinners using new recipes. Another family, devoted to social justice causes, held weekly family discussions This inspired one daughter to eventually join the Peace Corps.
•    Keep it fun! Both children and adults are more likely to participate when it doesn’t feel like a chore.
•    Don’t feel that traditions have to be elaborate or expensive. One father drew a stick figure for his daughter every morning before he left for work. The family saved the drawings and compiled them into a memory book.
•    Traditions are about connecting, so stop texting, put away the iPhone and turn off the computer.
•    Expand traditions beyond immediate family to honor deceased family members, friends and those in need.

Sources: Meg Cox and Laura Doerflinger

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