Blue Toenails and Other Rituals
Rituals help kids build good manners, self-help skills, and emotional security.
Posted Feb 04, 2020
Our week-long family gathering is coming up. I text my granddaughter: “What color toes this year?”
“Blue!” she texts back.
Painting our toenails blue or purple or orange is our annual ritual to kick off the Florida trip with a flourish.
Each year, Grandson #1 enjoys the ritual of lighting the sabbath candles, and in 2019, the Hanukah candles, too. Grandson #2 and I have our annual basketball “tournament.” We always call it a tie because we talk so much during the play that we lose count. He says, “It doesn’t matter who makes more baskets, because we’re on the same team.”
Grandson #3 and I concoct guacamole with our secret ingredient—mucho garlic! A ritual with Grandson #4 is lying on his bed before he dozes off. I used to read to him; now I read beside him. Sometimes we play a game we made up a few years ago, in which “Jimmy Fallon” is the right answer to random questions, such as, “Why is grass green?” The answer, Jimmy Fallon, makes no sense. We laugh and hug, and then he falls asleep, smiling.
Children need rituals, whether they are once-a-year events like painting toenails blue, or daily activities like bath/book/bed. As shared experiences, they strengthen children’s certainty of who they are and how to be. Here's how:
1. Rituals civilize children. Everyday rituals like shaking hands and writing thank-you notes instruct children that fulfilling social obligations is expected if they wish to be a part of society. This goes for typically-developing kids as well as kids with special needs, who should not be excused from behaving courteously. Rituals provide structure for children who need to be reminded, “This is how we do things.”
2. Rituals promote self-help skills. Daily routines, like setting the table with plates and cutlery; setting up the dental floss, toothpaste, and lip balm in a row on the bathroom sink; or setting out tomorrow’s clothes before bedtime, are all ways to teach self-care. Especially for children who are inattentive or dyspraxic—i.e., clumsy and uncoordinated—practicing these tasks regularly is constructive.
3. Rituals develop emotional security. Rituals connect families and communities. They provide opportunities for children to think about significant moments of their cultural and historical pasts. Children can dress up in Grandmother’s shawl, or see the lunar eclipse through Great-uncle Joe’s army binoculars, or wave a flag at an Independence Day parade. Knowing where they come from helps kids develop a strong sense of belonging, and meaningful memories reinforce their resilience when times get tough.
4. Rituals heal. When I was small and got sick, my mother put pink “princess” sheets on the bed and brought me chicken soup in a china bowl on a painted tray. Naturally, chicken soup made me feel better; even more therapeutic was the ritual of pretty sheets, bowl, and tray.
One of my sons taught me his own get-well ritual when he was five. He liked to be tucked in with his favorite blanket placed just so. Assured that the blanket was in the correct position, he listened to me chant, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” This ritual was especially soothing when he got the flu.
Eventually, I got the flu, too, and took to bed. He dragged his blanket to my room, placed it over me just so, and said, “Look, Mommy, here’s the special corner. I’ll show you what to do. You put your hand under the corner, and you go pat, pat, pat. So, good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. Okay? Now you’ll get all better.”
And I did, because family ritual is restorative.