“For every birthday in our immediate family, we gift the birthday person the Birthday Squirrel,” says Sara. “Basically it’s just two Beanie Baby squirrels inside a clear plastic handbag with pink faux-fur trim. We have no memory of how this tradition began or when the second squirrel was added (we started with just one), but it’s 100 percent imperative at every birthday celebration that the Birthday Squirrel be present,” she explains.
Weird? Sure. But it’s also an important family ritual that promotes bonding and is something that everyone looks forward to each year (including significant others who have now joined in on the fun).
These funny or sentimental things that only your family does are a key part of what it means to be a family. Even something small, like reading your kid a bedtime story each night, can be a meaningful ritual. And although these sets of behaviors may seem trivial to you, they’re actually crucial for your kid’s wellbeing. Here’s what you need to know about family rituals, including some fun ideas from other moms (in case you want some inspiration for your own brood).
What Are Family Rituals?
“All families have rituals,” says Karen Caraballo, Psy.D., a child and family clinical psychologist in New York City. “Rituals are symbolic acts that we consciously repeat.”
Some of these acts have been passed down from previous generations, while others are created within the immediate family unit. They can happen during important events and celebrations, such as weddings, anniversaries and graduations. (Cracking open the family photo album every anniversary to look at photos from your wedding day, for example.) Other rituals are related to culture, such as lighting the menorah at Hanukkah or shooting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. But rituals can also happen on a smaller, more frequent scale. Think: kissing before starting the day, hugging when you say goodbye or enjoying a special breakfast on Sundays.
Rituals Versus Routines
It can be difficult to distinguish between rituals and routines. According to clinical and developmental psychologist Barbara Fiese, PhD., “family routines are characterized by communication that is instrumental, involve a momentary time commitment and are repeated regularly, holding no special meaning.” For example, cleaning up the dishes at the end of a meal is a routine. Family rituals, on the other hand, involve symbolic meaning and center around what it means to be a member of the group. Going out to breakfast every year on your kid’s first day of school would be considered a ritual. And sometimes an activity can be both a ritual and a routine (“every Thanksgiving, I make my grandmother’s stuffing recipe while the kids set the table”).
Here’s another clear distinction that Dr. Fiese makes between the two: “When routines are disrupted, it may be a hassle; when rituals are disrupted, family cohesion is threatened.”
Both routines and rituals can impart important sentiments and values. Which brings us to our next question...
Why Are Rituals So Important?
“Family rituals foster a sense of belonging and identity, and are important for children and their socio-emotional development,” Dr. Caraballo tells us. These traditions and behaviors allow children to feel part of a group. They also provide structure and reduce stress through predictability. “A predictable home environment helps children feel safe, secure and looked after,” she says. Another benefit of family rituals? They help to define roles and responsibilities within the family unit, as well as beliefs and values.
“If families don't have rituals, they may be stressed on an everyday basis,” warns Dr. Caraballo. “Rituals ground families and help calm people, especially in times of great change. In times where there is so much external uncertainty and fear, children need to know and feel safe. Rituals are opportunities to connect and reconnect. They create comfort and happiness.”
Bottom line: Family rituals are emotionally meaningful, and an opportunity to learn family values and bond with family members. Per Dr. Caraballo, “[Family rituals] convey the message, ‘This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what it means to be part of our family.’”
8 Family Rituals from Real Moms
“As part of our bedtime routine, each night before I close the door, I say to my two-year-old: ‘I.’ (He replies: ‘I.’) Then I say: ‘Love.’ (He replies: ‘Love.’) And finally: ‘You!’ (He shouts: ‘You!’) But then, every night, there's a follow up — I have to say ‘you!’ twice. I didn't think he really cared about it that much until this week. I shut the door after setting him down and he started screaming and crying. I burst back in thinking something was really wrong and said, ‘What's wrong?! Are you OK?’ And he looked at me with tears streaming down his face and said: ‘You! You!’ I realized I forgot the second ‘You!’ I said it, he laid down and fell sound asleep. It melted my heart!” — Rachel
“Every night, my kids ask to ‘do the joke’ which basically means they get all the way under their covers and then a parent lies on top of them and says, ‘My goodness this bed sure is lumpy! What a lumpy bed!’ And then the kid sneezes and moves around and the parent says, ‘Wait is this bed SNEEZING?’ And we do that for about three minutes and then the kids go to sleep.” — Jillian
Special occasion rituals
“For birthdays after my daughter goes to sleep, we hang streamers all over her room and blow up balloons that we leave on her floor. We also hang streamers in front of her door so she has to walk through them. It brings her such joy!” — Dabee
“Every Halloween, my husband and I make pumpkin pie and watch a scary movie together. To be honest, neither one of us are big fans of pumpkin pie (we actually skip it on Thanksgiving), but it’s become a tradition that I look forward to every year. Now the only question is, how do we involve our 1-year-old in this family ritual?” — Alexia
“’Roses and Thorns’ is our family ritual. At the dinner table we go around and ask everyone to pick out a thorn of the day (something that was a bummer) and a rose of the day (a joyful moment). It’s such a great way to share the ups and downs without necessarily having everyone comment on it, just a way to get where we are all at out there.” —Dana
“Things have been stressful out in the world lately, so we’ve started a new family ritual at home. Every morning, both kids and parents go around the breakfast table and say something that they’re grateful for or excited about that day. Sometimes it’s small things (‘today I’m excited we have strawberry Pop-Tarts’) and other times it’s the big stuff (‘I’m grateful we have each other’).” — Sarah
“My extended family always flies with a bag of peanut M&Ms for good luck. Thirty years ago, my grandfather told a cousin of mine who was scared to fly alone that nothing will happen if she had them with her. The superstition has spread to so many of our family friends throughout the years.” — Michele
“When I was a kid and had a big test at school, my mom would always—and this is going to sound weird—turn me around and gently knee me in the behind. I guess it was a way of saying ‘go kick that exam’s butt!’ I now do the same thing to my kids!” — Jen