When I tucked my son into bed on Halloween night — his Zeus costume still hanging over the door and his thoughts probably still racing on a Skittles high — he asked me a question that tickled me, but also got me thinking: Mama, how many days till Thanksgiving? One holiday under his belt and he was already clamoring for the next.
My son clearly loves special occasions. As our family grows (he’s now four, and his sister, 10-months-old), I, too, find myself thinking about, planning, and getting extra excited for all that comes with holiday times: food, family and friends, lugging out lights and sparkly ornaments, and reminiscing about year’s past. I’ve always had a vague notion that tradition and rituals were good for kids; I certainly remember how joyful they were for me as a little person. And it turns out that decades of research back up my hunch on this topic. Holidays aren’t just fun, they may actually make our families happier and healthier.
Since the 1950s, researchers have studied the role of traditions and rituals in family life. Not just the ones that relate to holidays (although, holidays are certainly rife with them), but any routine or set of behaviors that has symbolic meaning and says “this is who we are” as a group; family reunions, Sunday dinners, birthdays, or family game night would all qualify.
Psychologists consistently link these kinds of family practices with higher academic success, happiness, and emotional well-being for the whole family. For example, parents of preschoolers who show a stable commitment to rituals over a five-year period have kids who score higher on tests of academic achievement, and mothers of preschoolers who feel that their families have meaningful rituals report higher marital satisfaction overall. When both parents ascribe a high level of meaning to family rituals, kids are found to have better emotional skills and a greater sense of identity. And a review of 32 research publications on the topic found that the frequent occurrence of family rituals was related to parenting competence, child adjustment, and marital satisfaction.
The benefits extend to times of stress, too. In families with kids who have a health issue such as asthma, for example, practicing meaningful family rituals (as well as having consistent routines in the house) has been linked to lower anxiety levels for both kids and parents, and protect teens from risky behaviors and alcoholism.
Why are rituals so powerful? Psychologists offer many explanations. For one, they provide regularity and a sense of order, which in turn makes kids feel safe. When kids feel secure, their anxiety goes down and they can focus energy instead on learning and growing. This could be the case with daily rituals, too, like bedtime routines. When children know what to expect and have the feeling, “this is the way my family does things,” it helps them make sense of the world and create a predictable and soothing system.
Holidays and other special occasions — whether weekly or yearly — also give kids a feeling of belonging, say psychologists, and make them feel part of a special group. That support and sense of identity is like a natural buoy for a child’s emotional health. Nuclear families join with extended families, and the present is connected to the past through traditions, storytelling, and reminiscing. Indeed, research shows that talking about the past with family members (often a big part of dinners, rituals, and other gatherings) makes kids’ memories stronger over time.
Tradition and rituals also take time and effort, so the inherent message in their execution is that family, food, and enjoyment are worth the investment. In fact, some studies have shown that parents who are very deliberate in their planning — thinking ahead carefully about the kinds of family practices they want to have — are more likely to have well-adjusted kids.
Of course it’s hard to say whether traditions help kids directly, or if having strong traditions and happy kids are both natural byproducts of healthy families. Either way, I’m on board to step up the celebrations and rituals in our house. I’m not talking about empty routines or obligations that we follow on autopilot, but fun and meaningful ones, both small and large, that we all look forward to. Some ideas I have are movie night, sleepover the day after Thanksgiving, or leaving carrots and cookies by the fireplace on Christmas Eve.
It’s not just holidays we should inject with tradition, either. Sunday nights we’ll sit around plates of spaghetti Bolognese and talk about our “highs and lows” of the week, and we’ll go out for regular walks by moonlight in our PJs now that the sun is down early. With winter around the corner, I’ll be looking for plenty of ways to make our home feel warm and special, and give the whole family a healthy dose of togetherness.