This is the third in a three-part series on Ritual and Tradition. This third entry is for anyone who shares traditions with children in their lives. Although ritual and tradition have different shades of meaning, for flow and ease, I use them interchangeably.
“Family traditions counter alienation and confusion. They help us define who we are; they provide something steady, reliable and safe in a confusing world.” – Susan Lieberman, Life Coach and Author of New Traditions
I think we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that the children in our lives will not want to continue traditions once they reach a certain age. Sometimes parents and grandparents incorrectly assume that children will grow disillusioned with the charm of a tradition, that they will perceive it as a holdover from their juvenile years, and will want to move beyond it. It might sound something like, “Oh, this time next year, they won’t want to spend time with Grammy baking apple pie [or insert relative and other tradition here] because they will feel ‘too big,’ and Grammy and her tradition will feel old and boring.” Certainly there is a chance that this will be true in a year or two’s time, and some traditions can be retired as children age, but you might be surprised to find that the children in your life want you to continue. They might either express outright disappointment at your attempt to stop or might quietly, silently wish that you would continue the practice. If you need proof of this, think of the child (of which there are many) who never comes clean that they no longer believe in Santa Claus because they don’t want to shatter the magic of the illusion for either you or for them. I was one such child. And I know others.
Think too of the child who, under no circumstances, will allow you to skip their bedtime story or the goodnight ritual of hug, then kiss, then hug again before uttering the routine promise between you of, “I love you more.” Eventually, this child will be ready to do away with these rituals, but don’t assume they are ready unless they tell you or you ask them outright. Our daughters are fourteen and eleven, and I have been waiting for the day when our eleven year-old no longer wants me to read to her at bedtime. I have been wondering when the two of them will no longer remind me to make time to pick chestnuts in October or to wax leaves. I’ve been anticipating that they will stop wanting to clove oranges, dye eggs, or that there will soon be a year when we decorate our tree when they will not bring up the need to sip eggnog as an indispensable accompaniment to that tradition. So far, there is no sign of the waning of their desire to do any of these things.
Your traditions could be camping every year by the same lake, or annually stargazing on a sultry August night over a silent field. Your children might insist that you attend a certain holiday parade each year or that an evening ice cream at the local ice cream stand must follow their springtime sports games. It could be any number of Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa rituals and traditions, no matter how small. I would urge not to assume that your children will tire of these gestures but to keep practicing them unless you ask your children, and they say they’re ready for new traditions or that these no longer resonate.
One reason to continue with traditions as children age is the power some traditions have to tie us to a history: a family history, a religious history, a human history. As the Jewish woman lights candles and recites a blessing, ushering in Shabbat, she positions herself within a long line of Jewish women across centuries who have lit the flames, uttered those holy words, and observed the very same sacred ceremony with reverence. She also becomes connected to those around the globe who observe this tradition. She is part of something larger than herself, something ancient. When we nightly light a candle at dinner time, it might seem insignificant, trivial or wasteful even, but the lighting of a flame to push back the darkness and to usher in a sense of warmth, to soften the edges of a hard day or a difficult life, as the case may be, is a universal human practice. When we bring our attention to this, the simple act of lighting a candle can become hallowed. Children need these opportunities for connection to stories larger than their own. They need to feel a place of belonging and identity within their family, their community, their religion (if they have one), and with humanity. Traditions provide regular opportunities to enter into communion, to gain relief from the sense of isolation that threatens so many of us in our hectic, modern lives.
It is equally important for children to maintain connections with the older generation, even as they become adolescents, and traditions with aging relatives should be prized and honored for as long as possible. Even if a teenager acts less than enthused about going to a great aunt’s house each winter to complete a puzzle with their aging aunt, that does not mean that annual tradition should necessarily be abandoned. Time with aging relatives is important, even if our children do not necessarily understand the significance or the benefits of it at the time. Someday they will understand and be grateful they got to know their aging relatives. Whether they are thrilled by the puzzle creation or not, they are making memories and solidifying family connections. They are having conversations with family members who can teach them more about where they come from, how they belong, and what it means to be fully present with another person, because each person, regardless of age, is valuable and has truths to teach us.
I have found that proceeding as though most traditions will remain for all time, continuing them without discussion, my children continue to participate and crave and extol them. Give the children in your life permission to remain child-like in their love of traditions, their pleasure in simple rituals and gestures, their appreciation for the comfort and reassurance so much of this brings. The complexity of our world, left unchecked, will rend us from these ties to memory, family, faith, and community. Don’t let it. Silently proceed undeterred through the years that come as though each Memorial Day tradition is just as vibrant and necessary as ever it was. As though each letter to Santa is still winging its way to the North Pole. As if Easter morning could not exist without hot cross buns on the breakfast table. Let these simple reaffirmations bind you together with no need for apology, explanation, or embarrassment. Let these be things that you do until the children in your life specifically request otherwise. You might be surprised that they don’t.