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What Is a Ritual?

From the time I became a parent, it seems I’ve heard from everyone (family, parent educators, etc.) how important family traditions are.  I’ve already talked about how much I like the idea of starting birthday traditions but now that C is nearly 4 (gulp), I’m really starting to realize the value of the little rituals that make our family unique – our everyday traditions.

That’s why I asked Meg Cox, a journalist, author, and family traditions guru, with the rather impressive credentials of working for The Wall Street Journal for 17 years, to stop by today.  Meg’s latest book which came out this week, The Book of New Family Traditions, is a collection of hundreds of memorable, meaningful ways to celebrate and deepen the love within families.  She recently sent me a copy and it’s really resonating with me.  It speaks to the questions: what is a ritual and why are they important to families?  In it she points out that rituals benefit children by:
  • imparting a sense of identity
  • providing comfort and security
  • helping them to navigate change
  • teaching values
Meg generously agreed to expand on this idea for us with some concrete examples of how to start your own everyday traditions…


The True Power of Rituals: Problem Solving Rituals


If there’s just one thing I wish I could get parents to understand, especially new parents, it’s that celebrations and holidays are only the barest beginning of the uses of ritual.Thinking back to the birth of my son, I recall well that when I considered what our family traditions would be, I thought first of holidays and birthdays. How would we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas? I wondered. But after years of research and personal experience, I’ve seen how much more ritual and tradition can accomplish in everyday life. And I believe that if most mothers did an honest accounting of their daily rituals, they’d find that a majority either are, or started as, problem-solving rituals.

All the little daily routines you go through to calm a cranky baby or toddler fully deserve the name of ritual. You soon learn which transitions, outings and requests are going to prompt tantrums and tears, and chances are, you’ve developed specific ways of easing your child through these rough spots. 

Maybe it’s a silly song you ALWAYS sing to get your baby relaxed and ready for the bath, or the way you add drama to supermarket visits by ALWAYS stopping by the lobster tank in the seafood department and trying to think up silly names for the lobsters. 

For little ones, these rituals can work like the overture to a familiar piece of music: the ritual lets them know what’s coming, thereby giving them a sense of comfort. They can hum along.

As children get older and can deal with delayed gratification, problem-solving rituals can also reduce conflicts by deferring some of their demands to another time and place and making a ritual of this wish-fulfillment.

This is a formula that has worked for us numerous times over the years. In first grade, Max started complaining that he didn’t have enough free time: “I go to school every weekday, then Saturday it’s karate and Sunday it’s church,” he groused, and this didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Thus began Max Freedom Day, a Saturday each month in which he could choose to skip karate, and I could never schedule something loathsome like a haircut.

When it comes to turning lemons into lemonade, problem-solving rituals are the best recipe going. And the lemonade that results is so sweet, that kids often demand more. Many beloved family traditions among families I have interviewed started out as problem-solving rituals.

Such as “Yes Day” in my book, which was created by Darcie Gore when she got tired of saying “no” to her daughters. Every time they want to play dress-up or bake cookies or visit the zoo during “arsenic hour” or some other impossible moment, the girls write their wish on a piece of paper and place it in the Yes Jar. One Saturday a month, the family creates a perfect day to live out these deferred wishes.

One of the secrets of such rituals is that they give kids a real say, making them active participants in their own lives, not passive receptacles of your authority.

I interviewed some scientists who were studying how ritual works on the human mind, and they told me that ritual rewards can psychologically distract kids from scary transitions and help them make the leap to a new status. For example, one mother I knew told her daughter that when she was ready to give up her pacifier, she would have a special big-girl party. The girl couldn’t picture herself as a child who didn’t need a pacifier, but concentrating fiercely on the goal of that party, she was able to forget her fear and make the leap. Once the party celebrated her new pacifier-free self, she could see herself in those terms, and though tempted to sometimes revert, she didn’t.

By using problem-solving rituals routinely in our family lives, we’re providing our children with incredibly valuable training that they can use all their lives, whatever size problems confront them.

Thanks for sharing Meg!  For more on how to use rituals to build quality family togetherness, check out The Book of New Family Traditions as well as Meg’s website.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim @ Little Stories May 21, 2012 at 10:43 am

I couldn’t agree more! I love this post so much and how it highlights how much mother’s are naturally doing this already and encourage them to do it more! I also thing it’s so smart how Meg noted how as children get older they can have more choices within those rituals so that they become THEIR rituals too! At Little Stories, we were talking about many of the same things recently. I wrote about how routines and rituals are the foundation of our relationship with our child, something we can come back to over and over, and the perfect teachable moment! Real interactions and simple moments are where it’s at!


Alison Solove May 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm

The rituals I find the most important are coming-of-age rituals. Our society lacks a real marker of when kids/teens become adults. Is it getting a driver’s license? Graduating from high school? Getting married? Without a clear ritual, many adults still lack confidence that they are mature, capable men and women.

My husband and I are already brainstorming about ways to help our one-year-old son feel a genuine transition into adulthood.


Zina :: Let's Lasso the Moon May 21, 2012 at 5:59 pm

I am going to see if I can get my library to order a copy of the book! Thanks for sharing. I hope you don’t mind that I pinned it: http://pinterest.com/pin/259590365991759011/


Kate May 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Went straight to book Depo and bought this! (incase you haven’t heard amazon is having a problem with credit card hacking at the moment!) Thanks for spotting this awesomeness!


Hana June 10, 2012 at 9:31 pm

I have an older edition of Meg’s book – I bought it when I was pregnant with my eldest daughter – and it is an often referred to book on our shelves!!! When I remember back to my own childhood I have great memories and found real comfort in those little rituals that were part of our family’s story… one of my greatest joys as a mama is creating new rituals and traditions with my children now.


Megan June 6, 2013 at 4:36 am

Just like Hana I also have the older edition and I love it. My husband and I come from different faith backgrounds so there are some holidays we’ve had trouble with; not to mention different families mean different emphases.

There was also a course at my husband’s church which used this book as a discussion point and we were encouraged to start our own family ritual.

One thing we found very helpful was sitting down and writing out our memories for all holidays, birthdays, special days (you get the idea). We then read our lists to each other and decided what these days would look like going forward. It’s resulted in happier celebrations, less disappointments and even some changes.


Chris Cavalieri September 10, 2014 at 5:00 am

Rituals are so powerful, and that power and been well documented.

We use the power of rituals to support the lifelong emotional wellbeing of children and teens whose mother or father has died through our Tradition Program. Family Lives On supports children and families across the country, promotes new practices in the field and strives to change the social conversation about death and grief. Our grief-avoidant culture prevents many families and children from seeking support.

In order for healthy grieving to occur, continuing bonds need to be maintained with the deceased parent and the child must accept and integrate the loss into their life. Our Tradition Program facilitates the celebration of traditions shared with the parent who has died. It fosters positive “post-traumatic growth” experiences.

Children love the unique approach of our continual support program and families “opt in” even if they don’t believe in therapy.- the average child participates for 7.2 years.

If you know a family, particularly one grieving the death of a mother, please encourage them to enroll for these free services.


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