Simple Gifts

Small rituals can build strong memories

Posted Feb 24, 2010

I spent Sunday afternoon watching little girls dance with their fathers.  It was a yearly father-daughter affair and I was playing in the band.  The kids were having a great time doing allemande lefts, swings, and promenades.  It had all the elements that make things fun.  There was music and easy, swinging dance moves.  It was corny, with the caller telling old jokes and teasing people who were getting out of line.  There was the dress up part with cowboy hats, bandanas, jeans or prairies skirts and boots.  And most importantly, there was just being together with dad.

I had seen lots of the kids the year before at the same dance.  Nothing fancy, but the girls were all giggling and reminding their dads about the mistakes they’d made last year, and how they’d stopped for ice cream afterwards, and how they remembered the Virginia Reel and how it was so much easier doing a bridge now that they were a little taller.

A lot has been made of recent studies showing that kids who eat dinner together with their families do better on a range of outcomes, including school performance.  Some of those benefits are probably due to increased monitoring and just more time for parents and kids to check in together.  Some of it is almost definitely due to the fact that families who can organize themselves to sit down together are healthy in lots of other ways too.  But part of it, I suspect, has to do with the simple pleasures of just being together regularly with people you care about. 

Rituals are important.

Our own family has tea together every Sunday. When I tell people I have to be home for tea, people always give me this kind of “OOOOOOOOh” look, as if we were aspiring to the British gentry.  But for us, tea is a very simple affair.  We started doing it around 10 years ago now, when my youngest was still small and my older son just starting high school.  Sometime between 4 and 6, every Sunday, we brew a pot of tea and lay out our eclectic collection of saucers and cups.  My love of baking and my kids’ love of anything that’s sweet often results in cookies or scones or cake or a custard.  But sometimes it’s a fast trip to the bakery or some grilled garlic bread.  It could be what my kids call ‘tea dinner’ – or what my mother would just call Sunday dinner – where we make something special that takes a bit more time than we have on a weeknight.  All that really matters is that we have something to munch on when we sit down together and chat.   But the food is important.  The kids start asking days ahead of time what we’re going to have.  They sulk if things come up and we cancel.

When I was growing up, my family did something even simpler, but just as regularly.  On the way home from church, we’d stop at the bird sanctuary and go for a walk.  It could take an hour or a couple of hours.  If it rained or snowed we might go home and play a game instead.  The key thing was just stopping, slowing down, and mixing together something familiar with something a little new. 

My sister's family is fanatic about watching sports together on tv every Sunday.

The activity doesn’t matter.  The ritual does. 

Many family rituals have things in common. 

First, they tend to be low key activities that everybody likes and can participate in.  Walking, eating, dancing, bowling.  You don’t have to be talented or special or learned to do any of those things and have fun.

Second, they allow time to talk and socialize, but they don’t require you to maintain a deep conversation.  Think about bowling.  You can watch the person up and comment on their technique or the score or the game.  You can tease each other about your shoes.  Or you can slip in something that’s bothering you and ask for sympathy or advice.   When you run out of things to say, you can just watch the game.  Watching sports on tv has many similar elements.  Watching a movie – something parents often do as a special activity with the kids – can be fun and great time together – but doesn’t lend itself to chatting.  That requires shaping the time before and after the show.

Third, ritual activities need to be done regularly and predictably.  Research on the elderly has suggested that weekly visits are good, but they are especially beneficial when they are scheduled in advance.  While half the fun is being there, the other half is the anticipation and just knowing it's coming up.  I suspect it works the same way with kids. 

Finally, I would argue that for shared activities to become a treasured part of a family’s life, they need to balance regularity with flexibility, so they continue to fit into the busy schedules that all of us have.  So right now, our tea tends to be at 5, because my youngest has orchestra practice until 4. But last week, we did at 6, so I could play at my dance.  The important thing is that everyone shares the commitment to make it happen. 

Often when parents try to plan something special with their kids they think about big, wonderful, memorable things like going to Disneyworld or that perfect magical Christmas.  But our lives are made of many, many small memories as well.  Remember the movie, Up, which played last Fall?  When the little boy talks about what he missed most after his parents divorced, it was sitting on curb with his dad after his scout meetings, eating ice cream, and counting red and blue cars. 

I hope my kids have things like that to hold onto.