It’s tempting to look at the upcoming holiday season, throw up your hands, and say, “COVID has changed everything, so why bother?”
We get it.
We’re tired and frustrated, too.
But there’s no way we’re giving up on the holidays – and we don’t think you should, either.
We’re not giving up on the holidays because we love them.
We don’t want you to give up on the holidays because they mean much more to your kids – even your jaded teenagers – than you may realize.
Why Family Routines and Rituals Matter
Your family holiday traditions are made up of rituals and routines that you develop over time or are passed down to you through several generations. Evidence shows that family rituals and routines are an important part of childhood and adolescent development. They create a reliable structure within which your children grow, learn, and gradually understand their place both in your family and in the world. They give the days a predictability that’s comforting, the years a consistency that’s grounding, and the whole of childhood – from toddler days through adolescence – a stability that fosters a sense of safety, connection, community, and meaning.
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Let’s take a moment to define exactly what we mean by routines and rituals. We’ll start by saying there’s a significant overlap between the two, but there are also significant differences. Both involve specific, repeated activities or actions that involve two or more family members. However, once we look beyond those common elements, we find significant differences in three specific areas: communication, commitment, and continuity.
We’ll examine those differences now.
- Communication style: Communication around family routines is instrumental. This means the goal of communication is to transmit a specific meaning clearly and efficiently. Instrumental communication is a means to an end. For instance, when cleaning up after dinner, which is a routine, a parent might say to a teen “You fill the dishwasher while I scrub the pots and pans.”
- Commitment type: The time commitment around a routine is short. Once the routine concludes, there’s not much thought about it. In the example above, the teen will likely not think about the dishes at all once they finish the task of filling the dishwasher.
- Continuity effect: Families achieve continuity in routines by repetition alone. The continuity is not important in any way other than the fact that the activity happens regularly and two or more family members participate.
- Communication style: Communication around family rituals is symbolic. This means that the communication takes on meaning beyond the practical. For instance, a family may have a Thanksgiving dinner ritual wherein everyone at the table speaks, in turn, about what they’re grateful for and why. This communication – not the words themselves, but the activity of saying them – serves to teach the children “this is who we are” as a group, and creates “continuity in meaning across generations.”
- Commitment type: The commitment around a family ritual extends beyond the specific activity of the ritual itself. It connects participants to past generations, which are the source of the rituals, and creates an expectation and investment in how the family will continue to behave, which implies adherence to the ritual in the future. Also, there is a substantial emotional attachment to the memory of past rituals, the performance of rituals in the present, and the anticipation of the rituals recurring in the future.
- Continuity effect: Families achieve continuity in rituals by investing in them emotionally, conveying the scope of that emotion to their children, repeating them in a timely and consistent manner, and passing them down to subsequent generations. This “emotional residue” gives meaning to family life across years and decades. It also creates and defines the nature and scope of the family culture.
Here are two ways of summarizing the bullets above:
Routines help the days run smoothly, while rituals help the years pass meaningfully.
When a routine is disrupted, it’s a hassle. When rituals are disrupted, family cohesion is threatened.
That’s why we want you to keep your family holiday traditions alive: they’re rituals that help keep your family unified. This year – because of the stress, the unpredictability, and everything else – we want your family to stay unified, cohesive, and emotionally connected. That’s good for you, and it’s also what’s best for a developing teenager.
The Power of Tradition
When we think of rituals, big picture, we often think they’ve been around forever. Take the rituals related to spirituality, for instance. In some instances, rituals are elaborate and filled with pomp and circumstance. Some take place in buildings built specifically for those very rituals.
But before the pomp and circumstance developed, and before the purpose-built buildings existed, how did those rituals survive?
It’s safe to say that they survived because the people that believed in them committed to them. People imbued the rituals with emotional significance, which made them durable. Their durability, in turn, came to define them. They’re rituals because they last – and they last because they’re rituals.
That may feel like a conundrum, but it’s not.
Rituals are defined by the fact that the people who believe in them keep them alive from year to year and from generation to generation. They keep them alive because the rituals give their lives meaning, help them make sense of their existence, and give them a sense of their place in the grand scheme of things.
That’s exactly what your holiday traditions do for your kids, whether you realize it or not. And that’s why you should try to keep them alive during this COVID-influenced holiday season in whatever way you can. Have that extended family Zoom meal – and make sure your teenagers see their relatives. Share a picture of the pumpkin pie with Aunt Gayle. And make sure she gets a chance to see and hear your teenager. These holidays come around every year, and our kids count on them. They draw a sense of security from them. They know that no matter what happens, they can look forward to the holidays to remind them who they are, who they love, and what’s most important in life.
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Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.