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How Holiday Traditions Help Kids of All Ages

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Routines, Rituals, and Families: Staying Grounded

There’s an interesting paradox that’s central to teaching and parenting. In order to do either one effectively, it’s important to keep kids interested in what’s going on by offering new takes on old lessons, inventing fun ways to do mundane things, and finding fresh approaches to regular daily activities. In short, to keep kid’s attention, you always have to be ready to change it up when things aren’t going exactly the way you want them to go. Preschool activities change about every fifteen minutes. Elementary school lessons tend to last 30-40 minutes. High school classes rarely last longer than an hour. If they do, teachers know they have to break the time into manageable chunks in order to maintain their student’s focus.

At the same time, however, the opposite is true, and therein lies the paradox. Almost all parents and teachers know that children of all ages—toddlers to teenagers—thrive on routine and rituals, and can get completely lost without them. Over the past few years, scientific studies have been published which support what parents and teachers know through experience: rituals and routine can have a major impact on the emotional, social, and academic development of children.

Rituals and Routines: What’s the Difference?

Routines are the little sequences of events that make up daily life. Though they may follow the same general pattern, they’re different for every family. Each has its own morning routine, after-school/homework routine, dinner routine, and bedtime routine. These routines help kids succeed in school and establish a firm foundation for their emotional and social growth. When regular routines get disrupted for some reason or other, the result is usually just a little bit of inconvenience, aggravation, or annoyance. No big deal. Things resume the next day, or get back to normal very soon.

Rituals, however, are more powerful. Rituals tend to be connected to the overall identity of the family, and carry greater meaning than daily routines. When family rituals get interrupted or disrupted, the result can mean more than minor annoyance or aggravation. It’s a big deal. Families feel their absence in ways that can rattle their foundations. Rituals tend to take place around holidays, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, birthdays, and anniversaries. Most families have particular ways that they celebrate these holidays. And the traditions that go along with them—the rituals—get passed down from generation to generation.

The Importance of Holiday Traditions and Rituals

Holiday rituals play an important role in the lives of children. For many kids, the holidays are the one time of year when they get to see grandparents, uncles, and cousins. Having contact with the extended family helps to give children a sense of their place in the world. They begin to understand that they’re part of something bigger than their family unit. From there, they begin to understand their connection to society as a whole. For big families with lots of continuity, holiday traditions can help connect kids to their family history. For families who are religious, holiday traditions can help kids connect with their faith. If a family is neither large nor religious, the yearly recurrence of the holidays helps connect kids the ebb and flow of the seasons. Holidays give kids a greater perspective on the cycle of life in which we all participate.

Whatever the specific family situation, holidays come around every year, and every family has a different way of marking the passage of time. Whether it’s setting out spooky skeletons in the front yard at Halloween, making cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, or putting the icing on special cookies during the December holidays, children draw a sense of security from these rituals. They come to appreciate that no matter how much their lives may change over the years, they can always look forward to holidays to bring things back into balance.

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