I learned the importance of having family rituals when my son, Jourdan, was a little boy. After our divorce, my ex-husband became estranged from the two of us, so Father's Day was tough. To ease the pain, my son and I began celebrating "Grandfather's Day" in honor of my dad. We couldn't visit him (he lived on the other side of the country), but we spent hours making cards and gifts to send in the mail. After we finished our projects, we'd go out for a special meal and make a toast to Grandpa.
Jourdan and I also created a "last day" ritual to mark the end of school, the close of camp, the final game of the soccer season. We'd take time out of our hectic lives and sit quietly over a candlelit pizza dinner, reflecting on what Jourdan would miss about the experience now that it was over. These dinners were a way to mark an ending, to give closure to a part of his life.
Every family needs such rituals—special days, celebrations, and ceremonies to help you slow down and savor the moments of your life. Rituals are a way to connect, reflect, and show appreciation for things you might otherwise overlook. Sometimes rituals have a somber or even spiritual overtone, but they don't have to. They can just as easily be fun and whimsical.
Families can fashion their own rituals for everything from the most mundane experiences—like eating a meal or taking a bath—to the most profound, such as a ceremony to mark the death of a pet or the birth of a sibling. The best are those that you create uniquely for your family and that reflect your values and ideals. Here, some ideas to inspire you.
1. Designate a Donation Day
Teach your children that there are people in the world who are less fortunate than they are. If kids get into the habit of contributing to the needy, they'll develop a generosity that will stay with them for life. Set aside a jar into which everyone can throw pennies and other loose change. Declare a donation day every six months or so, when you sit down together and count out the money. Discuss which charity you'd like to donate to and why. Let your children help compose a letter to accompany the donation.
2. Commit to a Family Meal
Reserve one night each week (or every other week) when the entire family will dine together. Prepare special foods; it doesn't have to be anything fancy, just a little different from your usual fare. (It might even be a kids' favorite, like tacos or macaroni and cheese.) Let everyone participate: Your 9-year-old can help you bake a cake.Your 6-year-old might pick flowers for a centerpiece. Your 3-year-old can decorate the table with homemade place mats. Even a toddler can help out by placing napkins next to everyone's plate. The goal is to allow your children to play an important role in the preparations and to gather the family together on a regular basis. Such a routine comforts kids by giving them a sense of belonging.
3. Honor Your Pet
Throw a party for the family pet to celebrate either his birthday (if you know the date) or the day he arrived in your household. Let each member of the family tell a story about a particularly joyful or funny time spent with the animal. Ask everyone to list two or three favorite things about him: his soft paws, the way he curls up on the bed, his sloppy kisses, his early-morning howl. Don't forget to take photographs of each family member with the pet and place the pictures in an album that you can update every year.
4. Take a Ceremonial Bath
If your child usually takes his bath in the evening, designate a day every few months or so for a special morning bath. Get out the fanciest towels you have. Use aromatic bath oil or add rose petals to the tub to give it a festive feel. Sing some of your favorite songs to your child as he splashes about. Try to make the experience similar each time you do it. The more familiar it becomes, the more special it will feel.
5. Say Grace
Saying grace is a way to honor the food you eat and the people you love. Initially, your kids might fidget, but if you start mealtime with grace when they are very young, they will become accustomed to the practice. Designate one family member to lead grace at every meal, or, if you'd prefer, take turns leading the prayer.
Every culture has its own form of grace, but if you can't find one you like, make one up. You might offer thanks for getting over a cold, having a great day at school, or winning the softball game. Or you might thank the stove for cooking the food, the garden for giving you vegetables, the baker for the fresh bread. Children love to do this: It's like a game, but it also makes them conscious of how much they have in their lives.
6. Go International
Choose one day every month to introduce your family to other cultures and cuisines. Try Thai, Chinese, Ethiopian, Italian, and Mexican foods. Get out the atlas and show your kids a map of the country. Use an encyclopedia or the internet to learn more about the culture. Listen to that nation's music, and observe some of its traditions.
7. Have a "First" Fest
Your child's first haircut, a visit to a new doctor, and the opening game of Little League season are special moments. Create a ritual that marks each occasion. Go out for an ice-cream sundae. Make a greeting card that says, "Happy First!" Take snapshots, write comments about the event on the back, and put them in a photo album. The idea is to honor the occasion so it becomes even more special.
8. Make a Birthday Book
Each year on your child's birthday, fill a few pages of a scrapbook with photographs, greeting cards, lists of her favorite things, the names of her current friends, information about her school, and more. Ask her to tell you what she likes about being 2, 6, or 11—and record or write down her response. It's a great way to capture memories and will make a wonderful wedding gift someday!
9. Have a Heritage Day
It's important for kids to learn about history -- especially their own. Pay homage to family ancestors. It doesn't have to be a boring lesson; just take some time to teach your children about their grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. Show them old pictures and tell them the story of both sides of their family. (Kids love seeing pictures of parents and relatives when they were children.) Use a globe to show your children where various family members came from.
10. Celebrate the Seasons
Plan a special activity for the first day of every new season. It's a great way to teach your children to notice changes in weather and patterns of nature. Plant a tree in your yard to celebrate the beginning of spring. Make a wreath from bush clippings at the beginning of winter. If your daughter is a dancer, let her choreograph a routine to honor the start of summer. Make the day even more festive by serving a meal of seasonal foods.
11. Honor Kids Day
Along with Mother's Day and Father's Day, why not devote a day to your children? The idea is to give your kids an opportunity to be in charge and let them do whatever they want (within reason, of course). For instance, if your daughter wants ice cream for breakfast, serve it to her -- in bed. If your son chooses to spend the entire day in his pajamas playing with Legos, permit him to do so. Giving children this kind of freedom helps them explore their own desires. Above all, it makes them feel special -- and loved.
12. Commune With Nature
Take your kids outside and let them explore bugs, trees, grass, and flowers. You don't have to go anywhere exotic; start in your own backyard or a neighborhood park. Bring a magnifying glass. Look under rocks. Examine the parts of a plant. Encourage your children to ask questions. Your goal is to teach them something new about the physical world. This adventure will also give them a stronger connection to and respect for the earth.
13. Embrace Quiet Time
Instructing your children in deep breathing and meditation can add a sense of calm to their lives-and yours. Set aside a special time in the evening when the entire family relaxes together. Turn the lights low and burn scented candles. Show the kids how to inhale slowly, hold their breath briefly, then slowly exhale.
It will be hard to tame the little ones, but you don't have to force them to sit still for long. Just take a few minutes to teach them relaxation skills that will last a lifetime.
14. Say "I Love You"
Make a ritual of telling your children that you love them. Sit in a circle with them at night and hold their hands. Write them a poem or a letter every month that expresses your feelings, and save the poems in a special box. Make up a silly song of praise. No matter what their age, kids will relish this. It's one ritual that you can never do too often.