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A power tool in your parental toolbox
I’ll be honest, the modern version of Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Families and friends come together. People give thanks. People remember, for however short a period of time, that they are fortunate in what matters most.
Traditions are powerful beyond compare, yet far too often, as parents, we fail to use them to their full advantage.
Let’s look at traditions, and what we can do to add this power tool to our toolbox not as a hand-me-down list of holiday-centric obligations, but as a critically important opportunity for year-round strengthening of our family identity and culture.
Traditions Handed Down
We all have traditions we love. For example, I remember as a child sneaking out to the sunroom at my grandmother’s house, which was where she kept the holiday goodies. They closed the inside curtains after dark, making the process even sweeter, as there was a sense of collaborative conspiracy with anyone else you found out there, stealing a late-night treat.
Other traditions we endure, yet still we participate. That is the power of tradition.
We do it for our grandparents. We do it for our parents. We do it for communities that we feel part of, and friendships that matter enough for us to subjugate our personal preferences, at least for a brief while.
We also have the power to stop traditions in their tracks.
Traditions may be powerful, but they are not all-powerful. As parents, it is our duty to actively think through the traditions that flowed into us, and decide whether and how we allow them to flow into our children.
As your own traditions race around in your memory, let’s be intentional about our remembering. Grab a piece of printer paper and pencil, and fold the paper into thirds.
In the first third, write down all the traditions you love, even if you are not currently practicing them.
In the middle, write the traditions that you might not love, but you value enough to continue them.
In the final column, write down any traditions you need to end, even if you do not know how to make that happen, yet.
This intentionality might seem like overkill to some, or you might be inclined to try to do the exercise in your head, but I promise you that making the time to reflect will be worth it. You’ll think of more than you would otherwise, and there is a power to committing things to writing.
For those traditions you are not currently practicing, but want to revive with your family, think of one concrete step you can take. Make it is as simple as picking a date, sending a text, or raising the idea with your family. Take that step, and remember what physics teaches us: there’s a power to objects in motion. Generate some motion, today.
For those traditions that need to end, I can only offer the comforts of compassion and solidarity, as the management of the details will inevitably require navigating challenging emotional landscapes unique to your circumstances. Remember: you are stronger than you think.
A final note is to think about each tradition and why you do it, particularly for that middle column. Consider this the gold star option, for those that can make the time to go above and beyond.
Far too often, the why of traditions are lost to time. For the sake of your children, fight that trend. Ask grandparents and other elders why, even if you think you already know the answer.
Some of the answers might change your perception of the traditions, but that is why I suggested using a pencil. Your opinions are allowed to change, always.
To be clear, not every tradition needs a clear why to survive. Happiness and joy, for example, are perfectly good reasons, if you want to continue the tradition, even in the absence of a clear why.
Where the why exists, however, capture it. Capture it for your children that may not have the opportunity to ask the questions before those sources are no longer around to provide a full, rich accounting. Capture it for the grandchildren that someday will follow. Capture it for yourself, because in capturing the why, you will deepen your own connection to the tradition, as well.
The best part? That list is just the beginning.
Traditions Made Up
I was fortunate to be raised in a family that had space for new traditions.
For example, one year for the random reasons life puts in our path, we weren’t able to do Thanksgiving with our extended family. We were an industrious family, however, so we pivoted to making the meal for ourselves.
What we realized in discussing it, however, was that turkey wasn’t what any of us were most thankful for. We were most thankful for tacos and enchiladas, and a new family tradition was born.
Using the same paper (unless you filled it up), draw a line below your previous work, and start adding. What are your family’s traditions? Not the traditions of your extended family, but your immediate family’s traditions.
If you are coming up short, do not worry. Truly. We are, all of us, running around like chickens with our heads cut off more days than not.
Instead, bring in additional brains. Add traditions to your family meeting agenda, or convene a family meeting, if you don’t normally do them. Make the brainstorming a family affair, and make it fun.
The key, however, is to look beyond the holidays, where we far too often relegate tradition. Tradition is a powerful tool year-round, so let’s talk about how to make it work for us on all the other days we could use help building a strong family culture and identity.
Traditions Beyond the Holidays
In this day and age, our families are buffeted by impossibly strong forces, mostly working against the strong bonds we hope will define our family now and into the future.
Technology, for example, has demonstrated the power to erect walls between individuals sitting on the same couch, and social media contributes to a sense of isolation even in a world filled with eight billion people.
We need the power tool that is tradition to help us combat these trends, and the best part is that it is a fun tool to wield, once you get the hang of it.
For this one, let’s turn over that same piece of paper, and re-use our three columns, but do this part with your family! You don’t have traditions without their buy-in, and trust me, you want the benefit of their creativity!
In the first column, think about traditions you can create throughout your day-to-day routine.
For example, in our house we always ask my daughter if she’s put in / taken out her eyeballs, as a code for asking about her contacts. It brings a smile to her face every. single. time. and shows just how small your traditions can be.
Family reading time.
A family walk after dinner.
Build traditions into your day-to-day routines, and watch how they bring your family together. They help define this is how WE do things, and are a powerful contributor to a strong family identity and culture.
In the middle column, consider special days.
The first day of school is an easy one, but what else can you add? First snowfall? First day of summer? Firsts of all sorts are easy fodder. What else?
Growing up, in my family, it was donuts on Sunday, bought by my father.
Maybe you have a game night.
Maybe you have themed meal nights.
Maybe you have a family outdoor day where you bike or hike or whatever.
You get the idea.
One of ours is a weather contest each year, where we guess when the first snowfall will occur, and the first freezing day (i.e., the first day when the temperature doesn’t rise above freezing).
We also have leadership day, yellow climb day, and a bunch of others that would make no sense without the explanations that go along with them, but what matters is that my children know the why, and because they do, the traditions bring us closer together.
You might need to defend your special days from encroachments, particularly to start, and likely for the entirety of the teenage years.
For example, you might need to banish cell phones, or put bright red lines around family time. That part might not be fun, but consider weathering the complaints an important investment, because even that choice is a tradition for your family: In our family, we do not transgress on family time. In fact, device-less family time may well be one of your most important family traditions, and a foundational tradition, at that.
In the final column, add traditions that are just for fun.
Remember, not every tradition needs a profound why. These traditions are for you, for your family, and to promote a sense of who your family is, your family identity and culture.
For these, I find my kids put me to shame with their creations, and all I need to do is step back and make space for the quirky magic they bring into everything they do.
For example, my kids now love making custom, really cute countdown creations for just about everything. That’s just our thing, now.
Random fake snowball fights are another tradition for us.
We also have a million songs that are our songs, and no matter where we are when we hear them, we feel immediately closer as we look at each other with recognition.
Remember that the bar is anything that brings your immediate family together, so have fun and color outside the lines in whatever way works for your family.
The Ultimate Why
As mentioned, not every tradition needs a specific why, and part of the reason I’m comfortable making that assertion is because the ultimate why is like an umbrella, justifying all of the traditions you choose, together with your immediate family, to make your own.
The ultimate why is simple: the stronger the family culture and identity, the stronger the family, so long as everyone buys into them, and as already discussed, these days we need strong families.
As such, give yourself a lot of permission to define as a tradition anything that makes your family stronger, and more connected. Make space for new traditions, and stop relegating tradition to holidays and special events.
Get a journal to write them down, or better yet, set your children to the task of making a family journal.
Again, you get the idea.
Traditions are your power tool, so let’s use them!
Sure, me writing and you reading technically count as a form of communication, but it’s more fun to truly connect. Let me know what you are thinking, and until next time, keep moving forward.