How to Build Family Traditions

The more enjoyment your family gets from its rituals and traditions, the longer they will last and carry into future generations.
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Across the pond, it's tradition among male members of the British Royal Family to serve in the armed forces. Prince Phillip was involved in the Allied troops' invasion of Sicily in World War II; Prince Harry saw time in Afghanistan. From William IV in the late-18th century to the current crop of royals, the families of England's monarchs have suited up in uniform for more than a century, flying helicopters, leading naval fleets and commanding ground troops from the Falklands to the Far East. While this lineage of patriotism and bravery is admirable, those of us who don't descend from a long line of dukes, princes and earls don't have to dodge bullets or navigate roads in a foreign land to establish familial identity and culture through tradition.

A family tradition is anything that the family does together on a regular basis that joins members and celebrates the family bond. In fact, most families probably already have traditions. A tradition doesn't have to be a big, expensive event; just something that brings the family together, strengthening the relationship among siblings, parents and even extended family.


As a kid, you may recall barely surviving dreaded family traditions like eating Grandma's Jell-O mold, hunting for a Christmas tree in bone-chilling temperatures or attending summer family reunions and being forced to play with distant cousins. Those experiences, while somewhat cringe-worthy but very common, shouldn't steer people away from rekindling long lost family traditions, maintaining ongoing ones and starting new traditions from scratch. Keep the ones you like, discard the ones you don't. Come together to establish traditions that each and every member of the family, and members yet to come, will enjoy.

Why Build Family Traditions?

What's so great about family traditions? The answer is in the question: your family. You're going to be spending a lifetime with them, so you may as well enjoy it.

Yet there are other benefits to encouraging and embracing family traditions in addition to simply making family time a bit more pleasant. "Families who talk and plan together are more successful and happier than families who don't," according to psychotherapist Joanne Stern, the author of "Parenting is a Contact Sport." "You have the unique opportunity to create meaningful family rituals that bond you together, give your kids a sense of belonging and make them feel valued," she adds [source: Psychology Today].


Through traditions, families honor the past, celebrate the present and lay the foundation for the future. In "Family Traditions," Thomas Kinkade and Kathleen Blease note that "[t]here's no greater comfort to a young child than a family, and there's no greater joy to a parent than building a family that is sustaining and nurturing." Indeed, the memories created through tradition often stay with children forever, imparting a sense of comfort and security that both young and old crave throughout their lives.

That's not to say that all traditions are -- or should be -- serious business. Don't get bogged down in details and formalities; the point of the tradition is for the family to enjoy each other's company, not feel trapped by or pressure to hold on to those that simply don't work anymore. Read on for tips on trading in those stale events and outings for new traditions the whole family can agree on.


Creating Rituals

Something as simple as hitting a few balls with Dad after dinner can turn into a family's generations-long love of baseball.

If you're having a hard time identifying your family's particular traditions or coming up with new ones, the best thing to look for is a ritual. In "The Book of New Family Traditions," author Meg Cox writes that a ritual is "pretty much anything families do together deliberately, as long as it's juiced up with some flourish that lifts it above humdrum routine." Rituals range from the simple -- weekly game night, Sunday morning pancakes -- to the adventurous (annual family ski vacations to the Rockies, for example) and the obscure (Monday Night 10-Minute Neil Diamond Dance Party!).

Consistency is the key to maintaining family rituals. Cox suggests that families implement one daily ritual and another to be observed each week. Pick a time of the day and week for each and stick to it.


Remember that your family's rituals need not be huge productions or long, time-consuming events. With rituals, it's often a case of less is more. The goal is to develop simple regular routines that keep the family interacting with each other. Basketball legend Bill Walton, for example, used to write inspiring quotes (often taken from The Big Red Head's college coach, John Wooden) on his kids' lunch bags every morning before they went off to school. These types of regular rituals not only impart that coveted sense of security but also teach basic values.

Families can also implement basic nightly rituals like sharing cooking duties, setting the dinner table and washing dishes. After dinner, bedtime is often the best time to observe rituals. A nightly tuck-in or story is a tradition that's easy to keep and encourages children go to bed (and hopefully stay there for the night) feeling safe, secure and loved.

Once these basic rituals are developed, you're ready to expand them into lasting family traditions.


Tips for Building Family Traditions

When developing traditions, families should look to the past to inform the future. Bring back old traditions by talking with family elders -- parents, grandparents and older aunts and uncles -- about the special things they did as children and young adults, then continue the ones that you like in your own family.

Part of creating a family identity is acknowledging the individual identity of each member of the family. Not all the old traditions you dig up will work for your family at present. Families should also create new traditions that will keep everyone interested and actively involved.


One way to build tradition is to create special family behaviors; things that the family does only with each other. A unique holiday gift exchange, family birthday celebrations and milestone traditions (a special dinner when a teenager gets his driver's license or an annual beach trip on the first day of summer, for example) are common family behaviors.

Holidays also lend themselves to creating tradition. Annual religious observances are usually marked in special ways -- family Christmas tree shopping and decorating, Passover Seder dinners, Easter Egg hunts -- that celebrate both holiday and family. You don't need a special occasion to create a tradition, however. A family can develop unorthodox traditions based on its own quirks, such as annually living like a tourist in your hometown for a weekend.

Whatever the new tradition, it's important to make sure that all family members are involved in creating it. This is mainly to ensure the tradition is something everyone will enjoy celebrating, but also that it reflects the family's distinct character. And the more enjoyment your family gets from it, the longer the tradition will last, possibly carrying over into future generations.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Beliefnet. "10 Ways to Create New Family Traditions." (July 29, 2011)
  • Cox, Meg. "The Book of New Family Traditions." Running Press. 2003.
  • Kinkade, Thomas. "Family Traditions." Andrews McMeel Publishing. 2002.
  • Parents. "14 Fun Family Traditions to Start Today." (July 29, 2011)
  • Psychology Today. "Creating Everyday Rituals that are Meaningful to You and Your Family." Nov. 29, 2010 (July 29, 2011)
  • The Cute Kid. "Create Family Traditions." (July 29, 2011)