A girl and her mother cook a holiday meal together.

Teaching your kids how to make traditional family dishes is important -- but adapting them a little to suit your tastes isn't destructive, it's creative.


Any event or activity that you enjoy -- and some that you don't -- takes on added meaning when it's part of a tradition. An eight-course turkey dinner is a treat any time. But for a lot of families, on Thanksgiving it's almost revered. The cranberry relish may be tart enough to make your teeth ache, but if the recipe has been handed down for generations and served every year, you don't dare suggest adding more sugar. It "wouldn't be Thanksgiving" without the classic version.

Why do we cherish these customs? Traditions are part of enculturation, the process of teaching individuals the knowledge, behaviors, beliefs and attitudes of a society [source: Grunland and Mayers]. Following shared rites and rituals provides members of a group with a sense of security and belonging. It identifies them as belonging to their group and not someone else's [source: O'Neil]. Traditions also contribute to a person's sense of identity and status, whether as head of state or maker of cranberry relish.

As an element of culture, traditions also teach and affirm values. Cultures around the world set aside a day to honor mothers, military veterans and national independence because motherhood, patriotism and freedom are highly esteemed.

By their nature, traditions are repeated. Yet they must adapt to stay meaningful. Consider the English holiday of Boxing Day, December 26. Centuries ago, wealthy families gave clay boxes containing money to servants who were going to visit with their own families on the day after Christmas -- their day off. Today, people give envelopes with money to their paper carrier, baby sitter and other service providers.

Family traditions mimic cultural traditions, but on a smaller scale. The community comprises parents and siblings, extended family members and in-laws. In a sense, it also includes those who have died, as traditions link present and past generations [source: Imber-Black and Evans].

A family's traditions can be as personalized as its membership. They can be simple activities, like cooking a weekend supper together, or a sizable event -- an annual vacation at the beach, for instance. Skills and hobbies, such as learning to play the banjo, can become traditions, too.

But suppose a child announces she doesn't like playing banjo, or family finances put that vacation out of reach. When are traditions worth passing on? When are they not? When is it wise to compromise? On the next page, find tips that may help answer those questions.