How to Choose Which Traditions to Pass On to Your Children

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.


Tips for Choosing Traditions to Pass On to Children

A young boy takes a picture of his family in Times Square.
Getting kids actively involved in a family tradition, like vacation photography, may help them understand why you enjoy it and want to pass it on.

Like heirloom tomatoes that grow best in certain soils, some traditions are better suited for some family situations. Here are ideas for picking those that will keep producing a harvest of happy memories for future generations:

Get children's input. Ask children which traditions they enjoy and why. You may get a variety of answers, especially if their ages range widely. Dig beneath the externals to find what really makes an experience special. Maybe the appeal of pizza night isn't the pizza, but rather the sense of contributing to an important family job: providing a meal.


Balance "big deals" with "little moments." Your own favorite childhood memories probably include special events like holidays and birthdays, and small ones -- reading stories together, say. Both can contribute to a child's sense of security and self-worth, strengthening ties to society and family.

Offer something for everyone. A tradition that involves family members of different ages and abilities is more likely to be carried on as children grow into adults. On a vacation, a 12-year-old might be charged with taking photos, while an older teen could upload and e-mail them to friends and relatives.

Focus on underlying values. If your values or beliefs are what you want to pass on, you might adapt a tradition to the circumstances or for family harmony. Suppose a spouse feels left out when a new job makes it impossible to help serve a winter meal at the soup kitchen as the family has done for years. Starting an equally worthy tradition that avoids the conflict, like wrapping presents for nursing home residents, reinforces the values of charity and generosity.

Adapt to changing times. Passing on family traditions can be hard when family relationships and societal roles seem to change in the time it takes for today's fifth-grader to graduate junior high. Again, focus on the importance of the tradition. If women in your family have been stitching award-winning quilts for the state fair competition for three generations, does it matter that the fourth generation includes sons, stepsons or foster sons?

With these ideas for inspiration, check out the next page for resources to help put them in action.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Barrow, Mandy. "Boxing Day." (Aug. 11, 2011)
  • Grunland, Stephen A., and Mayers, Marvin K. "Enculturation and Acculturation." July 30, 2010. (Aug. 15, 2011)
  • Imber-Black, Evans, and Roberts, Janine. "Family Change: Don't Cancel the Holidays!" Psychology Today. March 1, 1993. (Aug. 3, 2011)
  • "Family Traditions." (Aug. 15, 2011)
  • Stern, Joanne. "Creating Everyday Rituals That Are Meaningful for Your Family." Psychology Today. Nov. 29, 2010. (Aug. 3, 2011)