The Christmas or holiday season is here and it’s a wonderful time of year to become more intentional around building family rituals. With some planning and leadership by parents small activities can become traditions that family members enjoy and look forward to each year.

Why are family rituals important?

As children grow and develop they feel more safe and secure when they know what to expect not just on a daily basis but each time a holiday or special event occurs. For example, established family rituals might help children know their birthday will be celebrated with their favorite meal, singing “happy birthday” and a phone call from a grandparent. Predictability helps children cope with all that is expected of them during an average day and on a special day when their feelings are heightened.

Christmas is the most elaborate holiday season in our western culture. The holidays are meant to be a time to visit with family and friends but parents and children often end up tired and tense because of all the preparations. I urge parents to take time to slow down and plan which activities will be enjoyed by all family members. Which activities will build connections, will support the values you want to pass on to your children? Are there rituals that your family has established or can be built on? Children are great at identifying what they consider important or which foods they like to have during the holiday season. Remember to assign jobs/roles to family members as appropriate. Building new rituals takes careful planning and if family structures change, it takes more planning to be respectful and caring for each family member.

Families are an energetic mass that need something to hold them together or the individuals within will eventually drift apart. Family rituals generate a family identity and can be part of the glue holding a family together.

To illustrate, the Smith family always eats pancakes for breakfast and takes a group picture to celebrate Father’s Day. Everyone in the Smith family knows what to expect and what their role is whether it be eating pancakes, smiling for the picture or bringing the maple syrup. Family members share the load as is age appropriate. Roles change as children become old enough to help make the pancakes and over time other foods are added to the meal with consultation and planning. It is likely the family next door does not celebrate Father’s Day in the same way making the Smith family unique in the eyes of the children. This is how small family rituals build family identity.

Well defined family identity provides children with a sense of belonging and helps parents maintain a strong connection with their children as they mature and develop relationships with peers and adults outside the family. A strong family identity helps children develop a sense of self and adopt the values and morals reflected within the family. Having a strong family identity is a protective factor and during times of stress and difficulties for both the individual members and the family as a whole.

Maintaining family rituals should not include having to tolerate traditions that make you uncomfortable. Careful planning can generally unearth a compromise that lets you maintain your integrity and still maintain a family ritual for members to enjoy and remember as part of who you are as a family. For help with this, refer to The Intentional Family – Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties by William J Doherty. Best wishes for a warm and wonderful holiday season, whatever your unique family celebrations are.

By Julia Stockhausen, Chairperson for the Greater Trail Success by Six Early Childhood Coalition and Infant Development Program Manager for Kootenay Family Place