The Importance of Family Rituals

Tips For Building Children's Self-Esteem  MN Children Youth and Families Consortium Electronic Clearinghouse. Permission is granted to create and distribute copies of this document for non-commercial purposes provided that the author and MN CYFCEC receive acknowledgment and this notice is included.

How can parents and professionals help ensure that children will be responsible for their education, leisure time use and overall well-being? Dr. Robert B. Brooks, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, believes that adults can help by fostering children's self-esteem. And he says that children will have greater self-esteem if they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for their experiences. Many children don't have that feeling. "They think in terms of 'I have to go there. I have to do this, I have to do homework.'" It is important to their success and self-esteem that they feel they have a personal, vested interest in their activities. He offers three tips for fostering self-esteem.

Freedom to Make Mistakes.
One roadblock to feeling vested is not having the freedom to make mistakes. Brooks wishes that adults would admit that they make mistakes and talk about the nature of making mistakes - the fear, the intimidation and what it does to people. He says it is a fear that interferes with emotional development and with trying new things. Brooks recommends that adults ask children what they think are appropriate actions to take when people make a mistake. "Ask them, should we insult them and make fun of them?" Chances are children will answer no. An open discussion of their fears can serve to teach children that mistakes are normal and are part of learning. Children with good self-esteem seem to believe that mistakes are experiences to learn from rather than be defeated by, he notes. Children who do not perceive mistakes that way feel helpless, Brooks says. Thus, their mistakes really do turn out badly. "They become class clowns, class bullies, they retreat, they use drugs, they become self-destructive. . . It's learned helplessness - that feeling that regardless of what I do, I cannot bring about positive change."

Making a Contribution.
Self-esteem stems from feeling valued. "Many children and adolescents are drowning in an ocean of inadequacy. They feel they are not competent," Brooks says. "I believe every child in the world has at least one small island of competency, one area which can serve as a source of pride." Finding that island of competency and offering ways for children to contribute can help them build self-esteem. "The feeling that you are contributing is very powerful," he says. Brooks tells about a little boy who sat in the bushes every day and refused to go into the school. The boy said he liked bushes better than he liked school. Says Brooks, "I had a choice of either getting into a debate about the relative merits of bushes versus school, or I could find his island of competence, so I asked what he enjoyed doing." The boy said that he really liked caring for his pet dog. Soon the school principal invited the child to care for the school's pet rabbit. "This kid who thought he had nothing to contribute wrote a manual on taking care of pets," says Brooks. "By the end of the school year this kid had lectured to every class in school, and he told me the bushes were not exciting any more."

Giving a Choice.
A third strategy for fostering self-esteem is giving choices. "Anything can be a choice," Brooks points out. "Anything can be a decision. I read one article that said if you give kids a choice of writing in blue ink or black ink they'll write more than if you just tell them to write." Children surely will not develop a sense of ownership and responsibility if other people always decide what children will do and when and how they'll do it. Real choices, appropriate to 5-3 children's ages, also permit them to experiment, make mistakes and learn in nonthreatening situations.
Source: Adapted from the Brown University Child Behavior and Development Letter, 1991.

Family Rituals give children a sense of belongingness and a feeling of being worthwhile. They also promote a sense of identity in the child which will later serve as a basis for adult development. The importance of recurring family rituals, from the simple decision to enforce an attendance policy for evening meals to more complex family gatherings, cannot be over emphasized. 


 Creating Your Own Family Rituals by Gordon Simmons. Reprinted from Dads newsletter for Father Times, Winter 1994, Volume 3 Issue 3

For millennia family rituals have helped tie lives together; whether springing from religious rites, societal mores, or family cohesiveness, rituals have helped us maintain a consistency and order by providing the motivation and discipline to do the things we want to do but sometimes find difficult to begin or maintain. And yet, the word ritual invokes a sort of solemnity that most of us relegate to the status of "duty" or "obligation".

But if we look at the possibilities in ritualizing some of our current family experiences, we begin to see ourselves, our families and our time with them in a different light. Through the use of rituals, (and here the meaning of the word simply implies repeated enjoyable activities, held not necessarily on the same date or time but with the same attitudes, goals and expectations in place) we can help ourselves find the time with our kids we often feel we lack. But before we discuss establishing the rituals themselves, some time reflecting on the attitudes, goals and expectations that we and our kids have are in order.

A commonly held misconception, especially among those of us who feel as though we don't already have a solidly built relationship with our kids, is that we always have to be entertaining or fun or high-powered or exciting when we're with them. We often neglect the idea that our children want to spend time with US, often without the distractions of planned activities or unfamiliar surroundings. Taking them to the park on Sunday afternoon may sometimes be contradictory to what they need from us. Perhaps their idea of a great day with dad is one in which we're available to them, but not necessarily directing them or the activities involving them. In short, we should try to avoid "activity based" interactions with our children as our ONLY way of spending time with them. One of the pitfalls of always DOING with our children is that it allows us to pull ourselves out of the role of parent and place ourselves in the maybe too familiar role of manager and director instead. Of course, children need us to manage and direct sometimes; it is extremely important that we do our jobs as parents and set appropriate limits and expectations. It is equally important for us, however, to allow ourselves the joy of shedding our other personas and being only fathers for a while.

The rituals you do create need to be tailored to the needs, attitudes, personalities and limitations of your family. As much as possible, try to work within the framework of your "real" life. Weekly white water canoeing may be a great adventure, but is probably not a practicable ritual. You'll do best if you keep things simple and tailored to your family's lifestyle. Another misconception about establishing family rituals is that there must be a big time commitment. This is simply not the case. Ten minutes a night reading to your daughter before bed is one ritual you may wish to consider. Fifteen minutes after dinner to play catch or color or do a puzzle together can mean worlds to you and your child.

You can develop rituals and activities that take little time to carry out, but which can yield a lifetime of memories and closeness for you and your child. All rituals items have similar components, and you should keep them in mind when shaping your family's rituals. If it's not consistent, its an activity, not a ritual. Consistency does not have to mean daily, however. You may even choose to hold your family ritual at varying times. As long as the same elements are there, and done the same way each time, you should reap the benefits of this closeness building experience. Arrange the ritual around mutual interests and desires. The last thing you want to see is your son choosing not to participate because he doesn't feel the ritual means anything to him. And you can't be expected to be eagerly engaged in an activity you don't enjoy.

One handy ritual that is losing some of its potential family power is meal time. Everybody has to eat. Why not make meal time a special time? 


Family Meal Feature Story from Father Times. Whatever Happened to the Family Meal? Here's What and How to Save It. by Rebecca Sweat

I can remember few evenings growing up when we didn't eat dinner together as a family. Our 6 p.m. gathering was the "glue" that bonded five very different people together. Dinner was the time for slowing down, sharing stories, discussing the day's events and talking about tomorrow. We'd laugh, we'd listen, and we'd encourage each other.

For many years it was like that for most American families. Today moms and dads both spend full days at the office, take night classes to get their M.B.A.s, and work weekends to meet deadlines. Kids have after-school jobs, go to cheerleading practice and play in soccer matches. We rarely eat at home and even if we do, our meals are the microwave kind, eaten alone and in shifts.

According to the Food Marketing Institute, just 40 percent of American families eat meals together, and then, no more than two or three times a week. Is that bad? Is the family meal worth saving? Or is it destined to become a thing of the past, something left for "Leave it to Beaver" and "Waltons" reruns?

Nutritional reasons alone make the family meal worth saving. Kids left to themselves to find something to eat are likely to choose a diet of toaster pastries, potato chips and frozen pizza. When parents present kids with a variety of foods at regular mealtimes, they better their chance of developing good eating habits in their children.

But perhaps most importantly, the family dinner gives family members a chance to reconnect with each other after a long day at school or work. "Families need good, quality time together and shared meals are a great way to accomplish that goal," says Barbara James, an associate professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University Extension. "If you don't spend regular time together, family members grow apart. They begin to feel more like roommates sharing a house together rather than members of the same family."

Clifton Saper, Ph.D., a family psychologist in Evanston, Illinois, says family dinners are very worthwhile, as long as the interaction is kept positive. "The family dinner is the place to report on what you're doing, what you've been up to, what you're thinking. But sometimes the whole focus is on manners and "Eat your vegetables" and then the meal becomes a negative experience for both the parents and the kids," he says."But if parents can get beyond that, if their focus instead is on open communcation and creating an atmosphere that's relaxed and comfortable, then the meal is going to help strengthen family ties." Here are some suggestions for restoring this endangered tradition and making mealtime a positive family experience:

*Get everyone involved. *
After a long day at work, making dinner may be the last thing Mom wants to do. James says a solution is to make dinner a family project. "The whole family can be in the kitchen together, one person setting the table, someone else doing the stir-fry, another making a salad, and everyone can help clean-up afterwards," she says. Not only does this take the load off Mom's shoulders, it's also a good opportunity for communication and for teaching children how to cook. If your child is a fussy eater, getting him or her involved with cooking has an additional benefit. "Trying new foods is more palatable for the child if the child has helped prepare that food. A child is more likely to try creamed spinach if he had part in stirring the sauce," James says. You may want to set aside one day a month when your teenage children are totally in charge of the meal. Let them plan the menu, put together a shopping list, go to the grocery store and cook the food. Your kitchen may get messier than you like, but remind yourself this is a good way to get your teens excited about family meals.

*Turn off the television. *
You may think your kids will hate you if you tell them there will be no t.v. during dinner, but assure them you are going to abide by the same rules yourself. If there is a favorite television show which comes on during the dinner hour, be willing to tape it with your VCR to watch later, maybe while the family eats dessert. It's not bad to watch t.v. during dinner "on occasion", just don't make it a part of your routine, James says. "You could make it a family tradition that one night a month you rent a movie and eat dinner in front of the television," she suggests. "Afterwards, you discuss the movie as a family_What did you think of the ending? How do you feel that family could have handled the situation better?" Choose movies appropriate for family discussions such as "Fiddler on the Roof," "Little House on the Prairie" and "Our Town."

*Take phone messages. *
It never seems to fail, but the minute you sit down for dinner is when the phone starts ringing. If you have an answering machine, let it record messages for you during mealtimes so you can eat your dinner without interruptions. Or you may want to assign one family member each meal to answer the phone if it rings during dinner. That person's job would be to say something like, "We're eating dinner right now. Would you mind calling in about an hour?"

*Create a warm atmosphere. *
The family meal is not the time for disciplining, lecturing, putting pressure on family members or discussing controversial issues. Conversation should be light, happy and upbeat. Some families have a different person each meal be responsible for bringing in a funny joke, story or cartoon to keep the atmosphere light. "Family meals are a good time for telling your children how much you appreciate and care about them. Bring up your kids' positive qualities and let them know you think they're neat," James says. Show your children you're proud of their accomplishments. "Boy, you really did a nice job on that science project," you might say. "Wow, your report card was really great this time." Don't think you have to fill every moment with conversation. Your children are bound to have days now and then when they don't feel like talking. If you try to force them to talk by playing "20 Questions", you will make the atmosphere tense. Let conversation come naturally and give your children time to open up when they feel comfortable.

Give everyone a chance to talk. *
"What happens in a lot of families is one or two people dominate the dinner conversation, typically the oldest child," Saper says. "This person feels really good because he has all these listeners, but for the others who can't get a word in edgewise, it's not fun." He says a solution is to have 5-7 one family member each meal be designated as the chairperson. The chairperson makes sure everyone has a chance to get their "two cents" in. If someone has been talking too much, the chairperson might say something like, "Look, you've had your chance. Now let's hear from somebody else." If the conversation topic is something only a couple people are familiar with, leaving most of the people out, the chairperson's job would be to steer the talk to broader issues.

*Be creative. *
Prime rib and baked potatoes may sound wonderful to you and your spouse, but your children may be less than excited. Be creative with your menus. Get some input from your kids to see what they'd like to eat. Backyard cookouts and picnics in the park are enjoyable meal alternatives for the summer months. Try ethnic food themes. One night everything you serve might be German and another might be Italian or Chinese. Fondues, making mini pizzas together and Mexican dinners with plenty of tortilla chips and salsa are also fun, and they slow mealtime down, allowing for more time to talk. If your evenings are booked solid, get together with the family for after-school snacks, late-night desserts or Sunday brunches instead of dinners. If you're not much for cooking, pick up a giant submarine sandwich at the sub shop and a ready-made tossed salad at the grocery store. Or buy some croissants, sliced meats and cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, and arrange everything on the table assembly-line style. What matters most is that the family gets together, not that is has to be at dinnertime or everything you serve has to be homemade.

*Use family meetings. *
If an occasional mealtime is the only time you see your kids, you may be tempted to unload your frustrations at the dinner table. But if you jump on your teen with something like, "I've been angry at you all week for not taking the laundry down," you will put your child on the defensive and turn the family meal into a big gripe session."Save problem-solving and serious family discussions for family meetings," Saper says. "If one of the kids brings up some kind of complaint during dinner, maybe he can't sleep because there's too much noise coming from his brother's bedroom every night, this is a good time for him to be heard but then tell him you'll discuss the problem later on at a family meeting."

*Build family traditions. *
By creating family traditions, you give your child a sense of unity and stability for the present and memories he'll carry with him the rest of his life. Traditions can be simple, like every Saturday morning you have blueberry pancakes or on Friday nights you have banana splits for dessert. Maybe Sundays after church your family always has a formal dinner with the good china, candles and a fresh flower centerpiece. Some families begin their Sunday dinners by going around the table, each person choosing a poem or verse from the Bible to read. Another enjoyable mealtime activity is called the "Red Plate" tradition. "This is an early American custom in which a red plate (or any specially-colored plate) is set at the place of the family member who has had a very special day, such as a birthday or good grade in school," James says. "You do not need to do it every meal. Maybe you'd just do it on a weekly or montly basis or whenever something exciting happens to someone in the family." Lifestyles may have changed a lot in the last generation, but the importance of the family meal is one thing that has remained constant. Make shared meals a tradition in your household. Give your children warm family memories that hopefully someday they can pass on to their own children. 


Back to Syllabus