Some of the more practical parenting information that science has produced pertains to risk and protective factors.
A risk factor is any attribute or characteristic that increases the odds that a child will experience a bad outcome. For example, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that children of alcoholics are between 4 and 10 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than are children whose parents are not alcoholic.
A protective factor is any attribute or characteristic that lowers the odds that a child at-risk will experience a bad outcome. For example, a study found that children of alcoholic parents were less likely to become alcoholic if their family maintained important family rituals (e.g., holidays, religious). Thus, preserving family rituals appears to be a protective factor for children of alcoholics.
Rituals are regularly observed activities or events that promote a child’s sense of acceptance or a family’s sense of stability and cohesion. In the same way that rules can help parents with discipline, rituals can help parents with acceptance. If rules are “standing orders” for how children should behave, then rituals are “standing invitations” for children to be a part of the family. A few good rituals can help parents compete with the other sources of influence in their children’s lives (e.g., peers, Internet).
Family rituals don’t have to be grand or elaborate to be useful. Some families embed simple rituals into their daily or weekly routine. Dinnertime, bedtime, car-rides, and trips to the grocery are all opportunities for a mini-ritual that makes the activity just a bit more special.
Some rituals actually take families out of their routine and are seen as very special. These major rituals are less frequent and often more formal than mini-rituals; they’re typically used to mark important transitions or accomplishments in the family. Births, birthdays, funerals, weddings, religious and patriotic holidays, graduations, and vacations are all opportunities for major rituals. These events can generate strong feelings and sometimes the feelings can overwhelm family members.
Major rituals usually have a kind of script that family members follow, and these scripts help them navigate tough emotional waters. This is particularly true for events like weddings, funerals, and graduations. For example, at weddings all the major players have a script to follow and a particular job to do, whether, the father of the bride, the mother of the bride, the best man, or the maid of honor. Even the bride and groom are given a specific script to follow, right down to their “I-do’s.”
In some families, major rituals are elaborate affairs that cost lots of time and money but fail to provide children with a sense of acceptance or families with a sense of cohesion. In fact, it’s not unusual for major rituals to leave some family members regretting that they ever participated or disappointed at what could have been.
Every year in the United States, large amounts of food are prepared and millions of homes are opened to visiting family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. What would make Thanksgiving a “successful” holiday? Some might say it’s the quality or quantity of food they ate, but I suspect most would say it’s simply a chance to give thanks for what they have and to be with family members and friends. If that’s true, then the next question is how much time is devoted to planning this part of the Thanksgiving ritual?
In some homes, there is very little planning done on this front. More common is for visitors to be greeted, for all to eat their fill, for some to drink too much, and for everyone to leave. There are even some who count it a successful Thanksgiving if no one got hurt and the police weren’t called!
But what if giving thanks and reconnecting with others were truly the top priorities of the day? How would that change the look and structure of your Thanksgiving Day Ritual?
Many families have creative, memorable traditions that are part of every Thanksgiving: an annual touch football game, a day-long jigsaw puzzle, a potluck dinner with everyone’s favorite dish, or a long family walk after dinner. Some families pay special attention to how they give thanks before everyone dives into the turkey. In many families, everyone—adults and children—are invited to say what they’re most thankful for. Some families literally break bread together by passing around a small loaf of bread from which each person takes a small piece, perhaps while giving their thanks.
The point here is that rituals are incredibly rich in their potential to promote a sense of belonging and cohesion, but tapping into that potential will require some planning. That’s true for Thanksgiving and for most other major rituals that occur in the life of a family. Creating a new family ritual requires a certain willingness to take a risk and try something new. This shouldn’t be a problem for parents who are comfortable in the role of family leader but other parents might balk at starting a new ritual because of anticipated pushback from relatives or friends. Here’s a list of suggestions to use if you’re looking to change or create your family’s rituals.
Successful Family Rituals
Rituals are special ways that families do ordinary things (like mealtime or bedtime) or special events that only happen once a year or less (like graduation). Rituals are an opportunity for children to feel accepted by parents and for families to feel like a family.
Changing a family ritual or starting a new ritual can feel strange, but it can also be fun. Try out a new ritual before you decide to keep it.
Talk to other families about their rituals and borrow what you like.
Any ritual, no matter how small, can be a success if the tone or the mood is warm and pleasant. As the parent, it’s your job to set that tone. How family members treat each other during a ritual is the most important activity.
Any ritual, no matter how big or fancy, can be a failure if the mood is cold or hostile. Don’t work too hard on a major ritual if it’s going to feel to everyone like a major disaster. Better to keep it small and meaningful and positive.
Don’t start too many rituals. The best rituals fit your schedule and are not too hard to maintain.
Keep these questions in mind when changing or creating a family ritual:
o What’s the main focus or activity of this ritual? (e.g., bed time, birthdays, making and eating pizza)
o Who does what and when in this ritual?
o How often will this ritual occur (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly, yearly)?
o Is there a name for this ritual?
o What part of this ritual promotes acceptance?
o What part of this ritual promotes family cohesion?
o What can I do or say to make this ritual special and positive?
o What do I want this ritual to mean to my child and to my family?