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Building Tradition with Your Family

By James P. Marshall, PhD

University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service

In the classic musical, The Fiddler on the Roof, the character Tevye, a father of five daughters, identified a key to effective parenting and strong families when he sang about the importance of "tradition."

Bill Doherty, a well-known family scholar, says, "In contemporary family life, love gets you the first tank of gas; being intentional gives you the refills needed for the long journey." In other words, just because we love one another doesn't mean we will automatically have long-term success in our family relationships. We need to intentionally plan and do things that will help us grow strong and bring us closer together.

Family traditions can be a way to reconnect with one another and create a sense of belonging. This is true even for those who are not part of a "traditional" family set-up. In fact, setting traditions can be even more important for children who have experienced their parents' divorce or some other family disruption. Children crave their traditional family rituals during times of stress and turmoil. Traditions don't necessarily have to be complex or time-consuming, but they ought to be thoughtful and intentional.

Here are a few ideas to help you be more intentional about your family traditions. Remember, an important principle is to start from where you are and build on the great things you are already doing. Positive family traditions are within anyone's reach.

Everyday Traditions

Many of us equate family traditions with major holidays. Although holiday traditions are important, there are many simple everyday ways to bring traditions into your family life.

Think back to when you were a kid. When were you the happiest? What were you doing? Who were you with? Although answers to the question of what you were doing when you were the happiest might differ quite a bit, many of your responses were probably simple things. And many readers might have said that they were with a family member while doing these simple things. Grocery shopping with Mom, working in the yard with Dad, Sunday dinners at Grandma's, reading stories with a parent or older sibling at bedtime, or regularly sharing family meals may have been some of the things you remember. These are everyday traditions.

It turns out that the things kids remember most about happy childhood times were not the gifts they received for any special occasion. Rather, they are the simple and oft repeated traditions of everyday family life.

In our family, we have grilled cheese sandwiches, popcorn and a homemade dessert almost every Sunday night. We read from religious texts and say a prayer together every morning. We eat dinner together as often as we can. We also regularly ask one another, "What was the best thing about your day?" These are just a few of the everyday traditions our children have come to expect in our family, and they let us know if we ever miss. These traditions bring us closer together.

Take a moment to list some of the everyday traditions that are important to you and your family.

Fitting Traditions to Your Family

There is no single tradition or set of traditions that will work well for every family. Families are unique and varied, and their traditions should be too. Figure out ways to fit your traditions to your family situation and the people in it. For example, one family may celebrate Christmas on Dec. 26 because one of its members always has to work on Christmas day. Another family may eat hamburgers on Thanksgiving because they like them better than turkey. Still another family may exchange heart-felt letters rather than store-bought gifts on special occasions because they find them more meaningful.

Every member of a family should be involved in identifying and establishing traditions that fit and will be meaningful for them. This can be a challenge in large or blended families. You will have to experiment and be willing find activities that appeal to everyone and that everyone can be a part of. For example, one large family I know has the tradition of making tie dyed T-shirts every July 4. This is an activity that everyone - from the parents, to the teenagers, to the toddler - can agree on. It gives them each the chance to be creative and to make their own design.

If you try a new activity and it doesn't work out, try something different. If you try a new recipe and the kids don't like it, try another one next time. Involve every family member in trying to identify regular activities you all enjoy, and then work on building them into family traditions.

Creating New Traditions

A "tradition" sounds like something that has been around for a long time, but that doesn't have to be the case. All traditions had to start somewhere, and your family is as good a place as any.

When couples come together and form a new family they will each bring with them traditions from their families of origin. Some of those traditions may stick and be meaningful, but others will not. It's okay to drop or modify old traditions if they don't serve a meaningful purpose, and it's certainly okay to create new traditions together. Don't feel like you have to continue to do the things you've always done. There's no sense going to see a movie every Christmas Eve just because that's what your family did growing up if it's not something that brings your current family closer together.

Feel free to borrow and adopt traditions you like from friends, neighbors, religious groups and even other cultures. Look at other families. What do they do that you like and would make your family stronger?

For additional information about the importance of traditions in building strong families, consider reading The Intentional Family by William Doherty or The Joy of Family Traditions by Jennifer Thompson.

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