Mortal Rituals

How social norms make us human

Cultus Familiae: The Key to Domestic Harmony?

Family rituals and their connection to social and academic success.

Often we look for ritual in temples, cathedrals, arenas, and other ornate public gathering places. However, the most common and important ritual setting is the home. Family rituals — cultus familiae – are the ones that have the most profound and enduring impact in shaping how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. In ancient Rome, household shrines dedicated to Vesta (the goddess of hearth and home) or other ancestral or domestic deities were commonplace. In Virgil’s Aeneid, as Troy burns all around him, Aeneas races back into his house to fetch the ancestral icons before fleeing. Saving his own life would have been of little value if he could not preserve his identity — an identity intimately entangled with the ritual expression of his familial heritage.

Even today, family rituals are powerful mechanisms for creating a sense of belonging and identity. Family rituals come in three types: celebrations, traditions, and daily routines. Celebrations are usually highly organized family events that often correspond with but are distinct from larger religious or social occasions, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, or graduations. Traditions are more family-specific events such as birthdays, vacations, reunions, visits to relatives and so forth. Daily routines are patterned daily activities that both accomplish utilitarian ends (doing laundry, washing dishes, etc.) but can also serve to reinforce important familial values such as fulfilling one’s responsibilities, working as a team, or expressing love and respect for others (such as in mealtime, bedtime, or ‘welcoming home’ routines).

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The importance of family rituals and routines has been underscored by decades of research showing their connection to social adjustment and academic success. While the data are largely correlational, their message is consistent: a higher frequency of and commitment to family rituals predict more socially competent, confident, and successful children. For example, a five-year longitudinal assessment showed that children whose families were more committed to their domestic rituals had higher scores on standardized tests of academic achievement. In another study, ritual commitment was found to be associated with higher academic achievement among low income African Americans in both urban and rural settings; and for boys, was directly related to increased self-regulation as well.

The exposure to language inherent in many family rituals, such as those associated with mealtime or book reading, undoubtedly plays an important role in later academic success. Family rituals, however, are also important in preparing children for the transition to the structured school environment. Rituals and routines regularly practiced in the home provide children with an awareness of orderly temporal structure and culturally-based behavioral expectations associated with that structure. In other words, children learn that they must take turns; that others may not be able to attend to their specific needs immediately, and therefore they must exercise patience; that they must complete one task before moving on to another; and that they must follow directions and observe temporal contingencies (“you must do your homework before going out to play”). 

Indeed, a lack of daily routines has been found to be a significant predictor of behavioral problems in children and conduct disorder in adolescents. When children engage in more daily living routines, parental reports indicate that they have fewer behavioral problems. Adolescents whose families have a strong emotional commitment to their rituals have a more positive self-identity and fewer anxiety symptoms, especially under high-risk conditions such as divorce, domestic illness, or substance abuse. Among Spanish adolescents, those referred for mental health services were significantly less likely to have regularly participated in family rituals and celebrations. Strong family rituals may offer some protection to children in homes with alcoholic parents.

If genetics alone were enough to create enduring emotional bonds among family members than Shakespeare would have had scant material upon which to base his most wrenching tragedies. Genetics gives us proximity. Ritual builds the home.

 

For more see:

Fiese, B. (2006). Family routines and rituals. Yale University Press

Rossano, M. J. (2013) Mortal rituals (chapter 4). Columbia University Press.

 

The family cult
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Matthew Rossano, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University.

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