By Matt Bartlett
We have many family traditions that have spanned generations, as well as new ones that my wife and I have, ourselves, created. Our favorite and most consistent family tradition is pizza night; so important is this tradition, that if we miss a scheduled pizza night, we have to make it up! For us, pizza night is not designed around the kind of pizza you order and have delivered. Our pizza nights involve homemade dough, homemade sauce, our favorite toppings, and a spirit of creativity. Our children all get to make their own pizza to their personal specifications-from toppings to size to shape. There are no rules. Every weekend from Friday through Sunday there are excited shouts and cries in our house pleading for a pizza night.
It has surprised me that what started as a cheap date night for two newlywed college students has continued on as our favorite family tradition. It’s become a bonding time for our family to the point that our children even refuse to have pizza night if one of their siblings is not home, preferring instead to wait for his or her return. That’s a sign to us that Pizza Night is a successful family tradition in that it has deepened our children’s bond to each other.
If you’ve ever seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof, you’ll remember Tevye’s cries for “Tradition! Tradition!” In this song, he invokes the typical roles of fathers, mothers, and children at that time and in that culture. But family roles represent just one of many areas impacted by traditions and rituals.
Types of Traditions and Rituals
The most common traditions, of course, center on holidays or major life events. Some family traditions involve regular vacations and reunions. Others fall into the category of ritualized routines and emphasize frequency over pomp and circumstance. These rituals may occur daily, weekly, or monthly and may include bedtime routines, family dinners, game nights, movies, one on one time with individual children, or Sunday dinners. Some traditions are multi-generational while others are created by individual families. In order to create the consistency needed to establish a valuable tradition you will need to do it over and over again. According to Gregory Fritz (2002), something as simple as family meals may constitute a valuable family ritual or tradition.
“(Family meals) may be the only consistent time that all family members gather together. As such, it is a time for updates about the day, discussions about family matters, and coordination of schedules and plans. It is a rich context in which to observe patterns of communication, problem solving, behavioral expectations, and role negotiations.
“For children, the most important traditions and rituals are family-based. The way a family celebrates holidays, birthdays, or developmental milestones; the family stories or jokes that are told and retold; memorabilia such as favorite ornaments, treasured photographs or handmade articles; the foods, like grandma’s cookies or Aunt Myrna’s potato latkes, where the preparation and eating link generations – all provide an essential continuity, consistency and coherence to children’s lives.”
Traditions in a Developmental Context
As children transition into adolescence they “begin to renegotiate how they relate to family members,” according to Dawn Eakers and Lynda Walters (2002). “At this stage, adolescent personal experiences, or satisfaction, in family rituals may be important to consider because the roles they played as children may not be acceptable to adolescents. If rituals are to be beneficial for the individual development of adolescents, modification of roles to reflect increasing competence of both thought and behavior may need to be made.”
During adolescence, the amount of time spent away from the family increases and influences other than the family play an increasing role in the development of self. With their developing sense of self, adolescents may experience time with family negatively if family members do not acknowledge the ways in which they are changing. However, family rituals can also provide opportunities for adolescents to renegotiate roles within the family. Rituals may also provide opportunities to share what is liked or not liked about family interactions as well as how family rituals make adolescents feel as individuals in their families (Eakers & Walters, 2002).
In addition to helping negotiate changing roles, the “developmental process associated with psychosocial maturity flourishes when adolescents feel connected to their families but not constrained by the family (Bomar & Sabatelli, 1996; Gavazzi et al., 1994; Gavazzi & Sabatelli, 1990).” This suggests that adolescent experiences in family rituals need to be considered when examining associations between family environment and psychosocial development (Eakers & Walters, 2002).
Long-Term Conflict Reduction through Inclusion
According to Dickstein (2002), current research “highlight(s) that the experience (or perception) of belonging to the family or being satisfied with family inclusion-not simply status as a family member-is an important factor associated with the (likely bidirectional) impact of family routines and rituals on individual development and well-being.”
In addition, Dubas and Gerris (2002) found that when families engaged in more shared activities together (that varied over time according to developmental needs), they were less likely to experience conflict five years later.
Well managed family traditions and rituals strengthen family connections, create a comforting sense of belonging and history, and can even reduce family conflict. Positive traditions can take many forms including specific holiday, religious or family celebrations that are multigenerational; new traditions and rituals that are created by the family; and simple activities that become ritualized and predictable. Good traditions and rituals are built on the principle of inclusion; space should, therefore, be created for whole family involvement, discussion, and even-at times-dissent. Balancing the old and the new in our traditions has enriched and stabilized my own family’s life together and gives me pause to remember the words of Tevye: “Life without traditions is as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
Dickstein, S. (2002) Family routines and rituals: The importance of family functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 6(4), 441-444.
Eaker, D.G. & Walters, L.H. (2002). Adolescent satisfaction in family rituals and psychosocial development: A developmental systems theory perspective. Journal of Family Psychology, 16 (4), 441-444
Fritz, G. (2002). Children and adults need family traditions. Journal of Family Psychology, 16 (4), 406-414.