My kids never loved camping the way I do. I practically had to force them at gunpoint to get them to go. But now, we've adopted a new twist on camping called geocaching, which involves using a GPS to find little treasures hidden by other geocache enthusiasts. We've discovered little places we would otherwise not know existed while on our camping trips, and it's an adventure we now enjoy together. A new family tradition is born!
Finding these new ways to bond with your family is particularly important today because we live "in an age where we are growing 'super children' with sports and activities taking precedence over family time," says family therapist Laura Doerflinger, M.S., LMHC, of Kirkland, Washington. "It's important to create rituals and make family time together a priority. These activities aren't just for fun. They work to keep the family bonded during crucial developmental stages in kids' lives," she says. Holiday traditions, she notes, also aid in "giving each family its own unique identity, based on family history, heritage, and religion."
According to family traditions expert Meg Cox of Princeton, New Jersey, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Everyday, creating new family traditions is a way to generate memories and experiences that children can share. She suggests that families start with what they identify with most. "If you're a musical family, put on a holiday concert. If you're an outdoorsy family, plan an annual rafting trip," she says.
Halloween conjures up a family tradition for the LaPorte family. This family of artists makes the most of their favorite holiday by transforming their own Oak Park, Illinois, home into a haunted house. Sons Max and Ben are in charge of scaring up their own rooms and their friends are invited to stay. "Instead of worrying about them knocking on strangers' doors, we have the celebration at our house," says mom, Marcia. "It's the safest way to enjoy Halloween. And all the neighborhood kids make our house the last stop so they can stay and get spooked."
As much as adults enjoy celebrating holidays, a special day is sometimes less meaningful to young children who don't understand the significance of the event. That's why every Christmas the Skurtu family of Knoxville, Tennessee, bake a birthday cake for Jesus and sing "Happy Birthday" before blowing out the candles. "When the kids were younger it was an easy way for them to understand what Christmas was about. Now, it's tradition and even as teenagers they still insist on having a birthday cake".
Traditions are especially helpful when it comes to creating friendships in a newly blended household, says therapist Doerflinger. One way to initiate bonding is by planning an all-new tradition.
When Chad and Morgan Bloch of Chicago got married and created an instant family of five, they immediately began "Friday Bloch Party." The kids decide the menu, do the cooking, and take turns choosing board games they play for the night. "The only rule is no complaining about the games chosen," says Morgan.
Doerflinger says game nights are the perfect opportunity to bring people together where kids also learn life skills such as group dynamics, negotiating, money management, etc. She does not recommend a "movie night," however, as this leaves little opportunity for interaction and bonding.
To make new traditions really personal, therapist Cox and her family focus on milestones. For instance, she regularly celebrates important events with a banner ritual. "For my son's third birthday, I painted symbolic icons on a banner made out of a bedsheet. One icon was a pair of big-boy underpants to celebrate that he was now potty-trained. He had to pass through the banner to get to his birthday gift." When we cross thresholds in life, Cox says, we need to mark them with a ritual so we can recognize that these are moments significant not just to us, but the whole family.
Other families find that simple rituals like discussing the best parts of their days helps keep them connected. One Motherboard Mom told us about how she and her 4-year-old daughter share what they?ll dream that night. "She asks me every night when I tuck her in, 'What are you going to dream about tonight?' and I tell her. Then I ask her. Sometimes she says 'Ice cream and candy,' or 'Meeting my new teacher.'" These conversations give families a window into each others' worries, dreams, and interests.
It's essential to let kids get involved whether it's with the planning of each event, or the cooking, or the decorating, etc. Cox says the most successful traditions "develop when each family member feels like an integral part of the ritual." Brian and Jaimee Kelsey of Westport, Connecticut, observe both Christmas and Hanukkah with their sons Carter and Russ by lighting the menorah and then going as a family to choose a cut-your-own Christmas tree. "This way we can share both of our religions with our boys. And they love being in charge of lighting the candle and choosing the tree."
As families grow and move further away, it becomes increasingly difficult to carry on the time-honored family traditions. Originally from Vermont, the Abbot family moved to Landsdale, Pennsylvania. As their three boys grew, it became almost impossible to make time during the holidays to visit with their Vermont relatives. The solution? "Extra Christmas." The entire family gets together in Vermont in March so they can all be together, open gifts, put up a tree, and celebrate all over again. According to mom, Joyce, "Our kids look forward to Extra Christmas almost as much as 'real' Christmas!"
With so many different households in one extended family, it can be tough to see them all for Thanksgiving. Jim McNulty and his family of Gaithersburg, Maryland, give relatives a second chance at getting together by hosting a morning-after brunch and football game. "After we fill our bellies—again—we take it outside to work off a few of those calories."
Sometimes new traditions spring from the merging of cultures. When the Doyle family in Farragut, Tennessee, wanted their adopted Chinese-born daughters to better understand their roots, they started celebrating Chinese New Year (which occurs in February of each year). "This was a way to meet other Chinese families and involve our daughters in the celebration of who they are," says mom, Carolyn.