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Rich in tradition

I was eight months pregnant on the December morning when my mom, grandmother, aunts and cousins gathered around a kitchen table—as we do every winter—to make tamales. As I spread corn flour dough onto papery husks and dropped spoonfuls of chili meat onto each one, all I could think was that the next time we...

I was eight months pregnant on the December morning when my mom, grandmother, aunts and cousins gathered around a kitchen table—as we do every winter—to make tamales. As I spread corn flour dough onto papery husks and dropped spoonfuls of chili meat onto each one, all I could think was that the next time we were together to make tamales, I would have a new baby in my arms.
Then, a year later, just as I had hoped, I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen, this time with a baby girl on my lap. She wasn’t old enough to make tamales alongside us, of course, or even to taste them, but she had taken her place at the table and was part of our family tradition nonetheless.
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Planning the customs we hope to share with and pass on to our babies—deciding how we will celebrate holidays and birthdays and other special events—is one of the most exciting parts of new parenthood. And rituals, those meaning-filled activities we observe over and over, play a powerful role in establishing who we are and what we stand for. In some ways, they are what turn a group of individuals into a family.
“The power of ritual and the need for it are stronger than we realize,” according to Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day. “Anthropologists have never found a culture without ritual, and psychologists say it’s the early comfort rituals we perform with our infants that give them the sense of security needed for human growth.”
A growing body of research also suggests that children who are raised with rituals develop the resilience it takes to meet and overcome life’s challenges. “Family routines and meaningful rituals provide both a predictable structure that guides behavior and an emotional climate that supports early development,” according to researchers at Syracuse University in New York.
Starting in infancy, you can guide your children toward a successful future by becoming a family that embraces tradition, whether generations old or brand-new.
Source of strength
Rituals and tradition provide children a source of security, especially when those rituals start at an early age, says Susan Stone, a marriage and family therapist in Beverly Hills, California.
“Children find comfort and stability in the repetition,” says Stone, who also authors the blog Practical Parenting (practicalparenting.org). “Everything is new to them. It feels like a fairly unpredictable world. When you set up rituals and traditions, they become touchstones on which children can rely. They give life rhythm.”
Rituals nurture a sense of belonging, something all kids, and even adults, crave. They also help deepen children’s relationships to their culture and to their elders, notes Stone.
Kristine Taylor Lu, mom of one in Orange County, California, wanted to honor her newborn daughter’s Chinese heritage, so she and her husband hosted a Chinese “one-month celebration” when little Kailey was about 4 weeks old. Traditionally, the one-month celebration is a time to introduce a newborn to extended family members and to wish her future health and prosperity. “I researched the celebration online,” Lu says. “We knew it would make her great-grandparents happy.”
Starting something new
Not everyone has cultural traditions to draw from—or perhaps the rituals of your childhood aren’t experiences you want to pass on to your baby. In that case, suggests Stone, developing new traditions is a way of creating a new beginning. “You can write your own family history with the traditions you are creating,” she says.
When deciding which traditions to start or preserve with your baby, Cox advises that you and your partner first think about the values you most want your children to absorb. Your traditions should be a reflection of what matters most to you.
Start with a blank sheet of paper and spend a few minutes listing every ritual your family already practices: What do you do at family meals? Holidays? Birthdays? How do you say “hello” and “goodbye” to each other?
Then, imagine a total stranger looking at your list. What would that person conclude was really important to you based on the rituals you observe? Spirituality? Family together- ness? Sports? Nature? Do your rituals express and reflect your core values, or do you need to adjust them a bit?
“When you’re a new family, take a moment and ask yourselves, ‘What are the values and messages we want to transmit to our kids?’” Cox says. Once you can answer that question, she explains, you can create rituals around your values. For example, perhaps you want your children to develop an appreciation for philanthropy and service to others. In that case, your holiday traditions might include volunteer work. Or maybe what matters most to you is raising bilingual children and preserving your family’s heritage language. In that case, a family ritual might be setting aside Sunday evenings as a time when everyone practices that language around the dinner table.
For Cox, instilling a love of books and reading was of vital importance. Thus, in her family, a December ritual involved wrapping 25 picture books like presents, and counting down to Christmas by unwrapping and reading one together each night. “Defining your values will really help you to focus your rituals,” Cox explains. Just remember, she adds, that not every new tradition you attempt to start will last, and not every ritual you undertake will come off as flawlessly as you envisioned. Try not to force things. “Being a ritual dictator,” she warns, “doesn’t work.”
Give and take
Parenthood often marks one of the first times couples must contemplate changing, or even letting go of, traditions they grew up with—traditions that have become a treasured part of their identities. And it can be challenging.
Perhaps you grew up in a family that celebrates birthdays with loud and lavish parties, while for your partner, birthdays were quiet occasions spent at home with simple cake and ice cream. Again, Cox suggests, agreeing on the values you hope to communicate to your children can be a first step in figuring out which of those two very different traditions to embrace. “What are your top values? What do you feel most strongly about? You can’t do everything. Start by asking, ‘What is the most important thing?’”
But even then, Stone notes, compromise can be difficult. “Putting together the backgrounds of two different parents is not an easy task,” she says. “Negotiate openly about how you want to do it, what you want to hold on to. It has to be an open, conscious negotiation where both people walk away feeling heard and respected.” This can be especially important when it comes to holiday traditions, which are so tightly packed with emotion and memories. “You don’t want there to be an underlying unease, or even resentment,” Stone says. “Just remember that you are creating a new family, and it’s going to be slightly different than the one you came from.”
And even though rituals, by nature, remain constant and predictable, you should still expect them to evolve over time as your family grows, Cox says. In fact, observing the way your traditions change subtly year after year can be a special way to keep track of the ways your baby is growing and changing too.
In my case, my older daughter, Alice, is a preschooler now, and has come with me to make tamales at my grandmother’s house every winter since she was born. At first, she was just a babbling observer of the tradition. This past year, though, she was able to make tamales with my help and guidance. After a few more years, she’ll be folding them on her own.
“Rituals can serve as rites of passage,” Cox says. “As you get older, there are things you can do that you couldn’t do before. You hear children saying, ‘I can’t wait until I’m old enough.’” You might even consider starting a family ritual that’s designed on purpose to mark the passage of time: Starting when your baby is first born, or even while you are still pregnant, write her a letter every year, describing milestones she has achieved, progress she has made, and your hopes and dreams for her. Then, when she graduates from high school—a bittersweet milestone marking the end of childhood— present her with all of the letters in a keepsake box. Cox, who maintained a similar ritual for her son, describes, “It’s about celebration and memories and thinking ahead.”
Daily rituals
While holidays, birthdays and major family events such as weddings and graduations might be the first occasions you think of when planning new family traditions, don’t discount the power of everyday rituals, especially when caring for a newborn. The way you sing your child to sleep can become a calming nighttime ritual. Meanwhile, the special words you use to soothe your baby when she is scared or unhappy can provide the foundation for a long-lasting ritual of comfort.
“Babies have no idea what’s going to happen to them,” Cox explains. “Doing these little things over and over starts to give them a sense of security.”
These simple daily rituals—Cox calls them “problem-solving rituals”—can be particularly useful in easing babies through difficult transitions, such as bath or bedtime.
“Anytime you have a rough transition, you create a little ritual, maybe a song, maybe a little back rub,” Cox says. “It’s kind of a distraction, but it also lets your baby know what’s going to happen next. That predictability is incredibly powerful.”
In addition to helping keep your little one content, everyday rituals also strengthen the mother-baby bond, according to research from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Like many working moms, I sometimes wrestle with guilt over leaving my children, ages 3 and 5 months, at daycare. A little ritual I started with my older daughter and now share with her younger sister, Soledad, helps: Every afternoon, after picking up Soledad and taking her home, we spend a few minutes cuddling in my bed. I sing a couple of songs and tell her how much I missed her during the day. This quiet time between the two of us helps us reconnect, strengthens our bond, and over time will reassure and remind her that I always come back for her after we part.
Your traditions don’t have to be complex or extravagant to be effective and memorable, Stone says. What’s important is that the activities you repeat have meaning and purpose for you and your family. “Don’t think that you have to create elaborate celebrations, birthday parties, outings or vacations in order to have traditions,” she notes. “This misses the point entirely. The activity you select to make a tradition isn’t important—choose what you value and like.”
Never too soon
It’s true that your baby won’t remember the traditions you celebrate during the first years of her life. She won’t recall the holiday dinner you spent all day cooking, the songs you sang, or the gifts she received. But that shouldn’t stop you from starting new family rituals early. Until your baby can form memories of her own, preserve those stories to share with her later. You might keep a journal, jotting down short notes about all the family traditions in which she is taking part as a baby. Then add your photos of special events and activities.
Lu, the California mom, says she and her husband are already creating computer slide-shows of the family rituals they have started with their baby Kailey. When Kailey gets older, they’ll use the images to tell her about important occasions in her family’s life—and she’ll get to see that she was a part of them from the beginning.
Children enjoy looking back and hearing about things they have said and done, and the act of storytelling is itself a key part of ritual-making, Cox says. Talking about shared memories cements a tradition as part of your identity and strengthens the family bond. One of the holiday traditions in her own family, she says, is to set aside some time each night to gather quietly and reminisce. The family turns down the lights, turns on some music, and sips hot chocolate while smiling over old holiday memories. “It’s a reflective, quiet part of the season,” Cox says. “We remember this and that. It’s very personal.”
And while they’ll enjoy hearing and learning about their earliest family traditions in the future, babies can absorb much of what makes rituals so precious even now. They might not know what exactly is happening or why, but signals embedded in what you do and say will tell them something special is going on.
“Infants might register the tone of an event,” Stone explains. “They sense whether something is a happy time or a stressful time. When something special happens, it registers.” The sensory details of a tradition will catch baby’s attention too—the smell of incense during a religious ceremony, or the flicker of candles on a birthday cake.
Over time, your little one will start to recognize those details and begin to understand the meaning behind your traditions, Stone says. “She’ll think, ‘There’s that song again, Happy Birthday,’ and ‘There are those candles again. We must be celebrating someone special.’”