Every family has traditions. Some are public knowledge -- rituals and customs that are common to lots of families from the same culture. And some are private -- silly gifts, personalized songs, special meals and little gestures that outsiders might not know about. From random Saturday morning dance parties to living room sleepovers on New Year's Eve, these are the personal things that make your family what it is.
Family traditions can occur with everyday events -- maybe you make the same breakfast every Sunday or there's a special bedtime song that you sing to your kids every night -- but where they really spring up, of course, is around holidays and milestones. Some of the traditions your family follows may seem trivial, or they've been created almost by accident. Most of them probably don't cost very much money or require much effort, but don't underestimate them. These are the moments that kids treasure and are the ones they'll end up re-creating for their own kids.
In this article, we'll talk about five annual events that most families, regardless of religion or culture, tend to create traditions around. Anyone can throw birthday parties, commemorate graduations and snap first-day-of-school pictures, but we'll give you lots of ideas on how to make these milestones even more meaningful (and fun). And new traditions don't necessarily have to be dreamed up by parents -- your kids can be active participants in creating them. You'll find that it's not all about expensive parties, new outfits and fancy toys. There are so many ways (none of them involving wads of cash) to create amazing memories for your kids and give them something special to look forward to every year. Read on to find out how to introduce these special moments and rituals into your family's life.
When you're thinking about birthday traditions, the party is probably going to be the first thing that springs to mind. Kids can spend the better part of the year dreaming up their next birthday party -- the theme, the guest list, the bouncy castle, the pony rides, the human cannonballs and acrobats…it can get crazier and crazier every time.
But beyond the cake, the presents and the general insanity of a party, there are plenty of low-key, private traditions you can start that will make your kids' birthdays just a bit more special. They can be goofy or meaningful, sappy or serious. And it's truly the thought that counts; you don't have to spend a dime to create a ritual that your kids will always remember.
There are numerous ways to go about this, of course, but why not start on birthday eve? Sneak into your kid's room at night and decorate it (this is easier said than done, obviously, for parents of light sleepers). Keep it simple with a sign or string of lights, or go all-out and cover the floor with balloons. In the morning, parade the rest of the family into the birthday boy or girl's room and sing a special song. It doesn't have to be "Happy Birthday" -- make up a personalized tune just for your kiddo. Sing the same one every year or change it up.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but here are a few more fun activities you can throw in throughout the day.
- Make a king or queen "throne" at the kitchen table. Don't forget the plastic crown, cape and silly sunglasses.
- Create a birthday book with letters from family members, annual pictures and interviews with your child about favorite things.
- Do something special at the exact minute of your child's birth.
- Let the birthday kid choose his or her dinner -- anything goes.
It's never too late to start a birthday tradition. Who knows, after a while your kids might start looking forward more to these little rituals than to the party!
Back to School
The first day of school, whether it's preschool or the senior year of high school, is always a bittersweet day in any parent's life. You're proud to see your babies growing up, wistful at seeing them one step closer to independence, excited for all the new things they'll learn and the friends they'll make -- and, let's be honest here, looking forward to getting back some time to yourself.
In terms of back-to-school traditions, the snapshot is a no-brainer. On any given Monday morning in early September (or August, depending on where you live), thousands of kids in spiffy outfits are dutifully posing for photos while holding new backpacks and lunchboxes. For a twist, have your kids hold signs with their age and grade, and get a full family picture, too.
Of course, back-to-school traditions can start way before the actual first day. It's always fun to make a big deal out of the school supply shopping trip, whether it's for clothes or paper and pencils. Pull out bows, glitter and sequins and invite friends to a backpack makeover party. You can also create a countdown calendar or chain, where you rip off a paper link every day. Some kids get pretty nervous about the first day of school, so anything you can do to make it fun will make your life easier when the day comes!
Making a special breakfast on the big day can also go a long way toward calming jitters. Have your kids request their favorite meals, or surprise them with their names spelled out in pancake letters.
Test a few of these out this year and see what sticks! And if any of them are a hit, you could have a longstanding family tradition on your hands.
Last Day of School
The last day of school is the flip side of the coin. You're probably feeling a lot of the same things you do in the fall, but for slightly different reasons: pride that your kids made it through another school year, sadness if they're ending their time at a certain school or leaving behind a beloved teacher…and maybe a certain amount of dread at having to fill an entire summer with activities.
You might not have any end-of-the-year traditions in place or feel there's a real need for them. After all, just making it to the summer is probably reward enough for your kids, so unless one of them has reached a major milestone like an elementary or high school graduation, why make a fuss? We see your point, but you can also look at it as yet another opportunity to create a family tradition. It doesn't have to be a big deal or cost a lot of money -- just something special to commemorate another year passed and a job well done.
One easy thing to do on the last day of school is take a picture of your kids wearing the same outfits they did on the first day. The differences will obviously be more dramatic on a 7-year-old than on a teenager, but it can be a real eye-opener to see all the subtle changes your kid goes through in less than a year.
If you're a collector, the last day of school is also a chance to present your child with a retrospective of the school year. Save their best artwork, report cards and other schoolwork and put them together in a scrapbook. You can also give their teachers a blank card at the end of the year and have them write a personal note about their progress. By the time high school graduation rolls around, you'll have quite a collection for your kids to look back on as they get older -- and hopefully inspire them to do the same with their own children.
Many religions, cultures and countries have a special holiday or time of year that's dedicated to giving thanks. Lots of them -- like Thanksgiving in the United States -- have a harvest theme, and some are tied to a certain historical event, like the end of a war or a country gaining its independence. Most of these celebrations involve eating, and lots of it. But a common theme in all of them is taking time for reflection and appreciation, so they're a perfect opportunity to teach kids about expressing gratitude for the people and things they love.
A thanksgiving holiday is obviously a perfect time to start a gratitude routine. Kids will probably love the ritual of taking turns around the dinner table and telling everyone about what they're thankful for. And they'll feel much more connected to the event (and get more meaning out of it) if they actually have a hand in creating it. Have them contribute to the meal, even if it's just stirring a pot or peeling carrots. Kids will also love making table decorations for the feast, be it a tablecloth, place cards, centerpieces or napkin rings.
It's easy to extend the thanksgiving sentiment into everyday life. Start a tradition of kicking off dinnertime by having everyone name at least one thing they're thankful for. Even the youngest kids can participate -- if they can talk, they probably won't need much prodding to chat about their favorite things. You can also make it more of a show-and-tell activity if the little ones have a hard time coming up with things to talk about.
Bedtime is another great chance for reflecting on the day and talking about being grateful. If your kids would rather write about their feelings than talk about them, give them a gratitude journal (thanks, Oprah!). No matter what holidays you celebrate, learning to express appreciation is an invaluable lesson -- not only for kids, but for the whole family.
New Year's Eve
Once upon a time, New Year's Eve was a big night out; you'd get dolled up, have a few cocktails and stay up 'til the wee hours blowing noisemakers and belting out "Auld Lang Syne." But if you have kids in the picture, NYE probably isn't too different than any other night: After kiddy bedtime, you sit on the couch watching bad TV and crash well before Dick Clark starts the countdown.
But it doesn't have to be that way -- kids don't have to stay up until midnight to have a lot of fun on New Year's Eve. You can ring in the new year at 9 o'clock if that's as far as your kids can make it. The important thing is to have fun together and take time for reflection and good old-fashioned family chats. Here are some ways that your tykes can participate in the end-of-year festivities:
- Make funny hats, masks and noisemakers.
- Create calendars for the coming year, and talk about your favorite things from the past year and what you're looking forward to in the new year. Talk about resolutions and seal everyone's in an envelope to be opened next New Year's Eve.
- Set up a sleepover in the living room for everyone, parents included. If you're feeling really adventurous, invite friends over for an all-ages party.
- Set up a "mocktail" bar with fruity, kid-friendly drinks and some swirly straws and take turns making toasts.
- At midnight (if they've made it that long), celebrate with a few global New Year's traditions. Japanese kids try to slurp up soba noodles without breaking them. In Denmark, they jump off chairs. Spaniards eat 12 grapes. (You might want to skip the Russian tradition of throwing empty vodka bottles.)
- On New Year's Day, cook a traditional Southern meal of black-eyed peas (for luck) and greens (for money).
For more information about special family events and traditions, take a look at the links on the next page.
What are good traditions for families during the summer? Read about 5 summertime family traditions at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
- Cortes, Denise. "My Family's Birthday Tradition." Baby Center, April 20, 2011. (Aug. 8, 2011) http://blogs.babycenter.com/mom_stories/my-family-birthday-tradition/
- Disney Family Fun. "10 Holiday Traditions to Start This Year." (Aug. 8, 2011) http://familyfun.go.com/new-years/new-years-parties/10-holiday-traditions-to-start-this-year-704781/
- Disney Family Fun. "A Perfect New Year's Eve." (Aug. 8, 2011) http://familyfun.go.com/new-years/new-years-parties/10-holiday-traditions-to-start-this-year-704781/
- Johnson, Alex. "Year-Round School Gains Ground Around U.S." USA Today. Oct. 27, 2010. (Aug. 10, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39748458/ns/us_news-life/t/year-round-school-gains-ground-around-us/#.TkM-ZIJ4KyY
- Kingloff, Amanda. "Birthday Traditions to Start Now." Parents. (Aug. 8, 2011) http://www.parents.com/fun/birthdays/ideas/birthday-traditions/
- Klein, Allison. "How Thanksgiving Works." How Stuff Works. Nov. 7, 2007. (Aug. 10, 2011) https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays/thanksgiving.htm
- Ladies' Home Journal. "New Year's History & Traditions." (Aug. 9, 2011) http://www.lhj.com/recipes/holidays/new-years-history-traditions/?page=2
- Martha Stewart Living. "Celebrating New Year's." January 2003. (Aug. 8, 2011) http://www.marthastewart.com/267733/celebrating-new-years
- Radic, Shelly. "Creating Birthday Traditions." Mops. (Aug. 8, 2011) http://www.mops.org/page.php?pageid=127
- Striepe, Becky. "How to Decorate for New Year's With Your Kids." TLC. Jan. 19, 2011. (Aug. 8, 2011) https://tlc.howstuffworks.com/home/how-to-decorate-for-new-years-with-kids.htm
- Thanksgiving. "Gratitude and Thanksgiving: A World-Wide Tradition!" (Aug. 10, 2011) http://www.thanksgiving.org/world.html
- Tip Junkie. "12 First Day of School Activities." (Aug. 8, 2011) http://www.tipjunkie.com/first-day-of-school-traditions/