When my husband and I started creating unique and meaningful family traditions, it wasn’t because we’d heard that focusing our lives around experiences rather than things creates more lasting happiness. However the more we’ve incorporated little traditions – like watching home movies on Mother’s Day and making salt dough ornaments together every Christmas – the more true we’ve found it to be true.
According to this study cited in this article from The Atlantic, choosing to focus on experiences, living in anticipation of exciting plans, and “gathering stories and memories” can have a profound impact on how much we enjoy life. It’s part of the secret sauce, it seems, along with a few other essential ingredients.
Why Family Traditions Matter (A lot)
One of my favorite parenting books of all time, How To Raise An Adult, advises parents to do less, not more. I follow that principle with my kids, who are fully capable of helping with laundry, meal prep and household chores. In addition to preparing them for life, it frees up some of my energy to focus on creating and keeping family traditions, which are beneficial in lots of ways:
1. They provide a source of identity
Traditions and rituals often tell a story about a family. On the macro level, traditions can teach children where their family came from or give them insights into their cultural or religious history (e.g. eating tamales on Christmas Eve to celebrate your Mexican heritage). On a more micro level, traditions can serve as reminders of events that have shaped your family and your children (e.g. every year your family rents the same lake house, and each time you go it reminds you of all the experiences you’ve had on previous trips).” (1)
Why does this matter? Because according to 6 Things The Happiest Families Have In Common, one of the strongest predictors of a child’s well-being is whether they know their family’s history. In an interview with The Week, Bruce Feiler, who authored the New York Times bestseller The Secrets of Happy Families, said this:
“…researchers at Emory did this study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.”
The article adds:
“But here’s what’s really interesting: recounting your family history is not just telling kids, ‘Our family is awesome.’
Recounting the tough times, the challenges your family faced and overcame, is key.
‘Understanding that people have natural ups and downs allows kids to know that they too will have ups and downs. It gives them the confidence to believe that they can push through them. It gives them role models that show your family’s values in practice.'” (2)
2. They create family cohesiveness
“Researchers have consistently found that families that engage in frequent traditions report stronger connection and unity than families that haven’t established rituals together.” (1)
3. They provide comfort and security
“Traditions can thus be particularly effective during times of change and grief. Maybe you’ve moved your family to a new state and everything is new and strange for your kids, but at least they know that every Tuesday is still pizza night and every Saturday morning they can still count on going on a bike ride with dad.” (1)
4. They reinforce family values
In 6 Things The Happiest Families Have In Common, Bruce Feiler was asked “what he would recommend if he could only give one piece of advice.”
His answer? “Set aside time to talk about what it means to be a part of your family.” From the article:
Sit down with them and say ‘Okay, these are our ten central values. This is the family we want to be. We want to be a family that doesn’t fight all the time.’ or ‘We want to be a family that goes camping or sailing’ or whatever it might be.
When my family did it, it was literally a transforming experience. We ended up printing it and it hangs now in our dining room.”
One of our family values is that “We are a family that plays together.” Because I am a DO IT ALL kind of person that loves to tackle project after project, I’ve found that creating traditions around play forces me to embrace that value even when I’d rather “just wrap up this one more thing” that, in all actuality, is a never ending list. Whatever the core values are for your family, traditions can help weave them into the family in a fun, lasting way.
5. And of course, they leave us with lasting memories
Interestingly, even experiences that were frustrating in the moment often become beloved family stories. I love to tease my sister about the time she branded my dad on the bottom with a smoldering stick from our campfire, though I promise you no one was laughing at the time.
And of course there are good memories, too. My all-time favorite traditions is taking my kids photos on the same beach every year to document how much they’ve grown. There’s something priceless about having this photo of my oldest son on his first birthday . . .
This one of my second son on the same day three years later . . .
And loads of them together as older boys, all taken on the same beach. I have similar photos of my daughter nearly every year since her first birthday. They’re such a powerful reminder of one of my favorite sayings:
The days are long, but the years are short.” – Gretchen Rubin
20+ Family Tradition Ideas
If you’d like to add some new family traditions, here are a few to consider:
1. Secret Handshake
“Secret handshakes have been used by groups for millennia to distinguish members and non-members. Make one up for your own family. It can be elaborate and complex or simple but meaningful. An example of the latter comes from a family profiled in The Book of New Family Traditions. This family had the tradition of squeezing each others’ hands three times to signal the three words ‘I love you.’ On the day the daughter got married, the father squeezed her hand three times as he walked her down the aisle. ‘Only she knew that this was happening, a tiny personal ritual lodged invisibly within one of the grandest and most public, and she says it was one of the most moving moments of her life.’” (1)
2. Guess who?!?
A couple of years ago on my middle child’s birthday, my mom and daughter suggested that we try a new tradition. Everyone wrote down something they love about our guest of honor . . . including our three-year-old, who needed help. We tossed all the paper into a bowl, then the birthday boy read them aloud and tried to guess who had written it. He loved it and so did we!
3. Yes Day
“Darcie Gore wrote in Family Fun magazine that she got tired of saying ‘no’ to her three girls constantly and decided to declare the next Saturday ‘Yes Day.’ She started a ‘Yes Jar,’ so her daughters could deposit written requests for things they couldn’t do immediately, such as ‘wear my Cinderella dress all day.’ On a Yes Day, the activity requests are read, and all the kids pick one special thing they want to do that day. The first Yes Day began with a breakfast of chocolate milk and donuts, and included such activities as freeze tag, a pillow fight, and the application of toenail polish.” (5)
4. Family Time Capsule
Each family member contributes a few of their favorite things, notes, and present-day period items to a waterproof box that is opened 10+ years later. Including voice recordings and/or video is recommended. (If you move before the ten years is up and you buried it in your yard, make sure to take it with you!)
5. Happiness Jar
One of our simple traditions is the Happiness Jar. We go around the table at dinnertime and share the best moment from our day, then write it down and put it in the jar. It helps our whole family to re-center our thoughts on what we are grateful for and allows us to celebrate the joy of others. (Just a quick note: There are days we forget to do this, and I don’t sweat it. This New Year’s Eve I’ll be relishing the moments we captured, not thinking about the ones we didn’t.)
6. Family Meetings
I love this tip from 6 Things The Happiest Families All Have In Common:
You’re not mom or dad anymore — you’re now co-CEO’s. To find the way to keep a family improving, Bruce turned to the world of business.
Your family needs a weekly board meeting with all the shareholders present. Sound cold and clinical? Wrong.
Bruce’s wife says it’s one of the best things they’ve done to make their own family life happier.
It’s not complicated and it only takes 20 minutes, once a week.
‘We basically ask three questions. What worked well this week, what didn’t work well this week, and what will we agree to work on in the week ahead? And if the kids meet the goal, they get to help pick a reward. And if they don’t, they get to help pick a punishment. They don’t do it without us, but we all do it in consultation.'”
I personally try to focus on the natural consequences of missing a goal rather than punishment, but I like the idea overall.
7. Saturday Mornings In Bed
“Choose a morning on the weekend to spend in bed with your family. You don’t need to spend hours laying around, but 15 to 30 minutes is a nice length of time. Try having coffee, tea, or milk with a couple of cookies. Relaxing and taking a few minutes to connect with your family can be a great way to kick off a weekend.” (3)
8. Have the same meal one time every week
9. Make holiday ornaments together every year
Almost every year since my oldest was born we’ve spent an afternoon making holiday ornaments. Some we keep for our growing collection, and some we give to grandparents. We’ve made yarn balls, salt-dough ornaments, and painted pre-made ornaments.
Other holiday tradition ideas:
- Bake together – sugar cookies or gingerbread cookies are our go-to recipes
- Create a winter book exchange
- Dye Easter eggs together using ingredients from your kitchen
- Throw a costume party on New Year’s Eve
10. New Privilege/New Responsibility Cards
“Amidst all the fun and hoopla, remind your kid that with age comes greater power and with greater power comes greater responsibility. In addition to birthday presents, present your child with two envelopes. One envelope is labeled, ‘New Privilege’; the other, ‘New Responsibility.’ Provide an age appropriate privilege and responsibility each year.” (1)
11. Camping in your backyard
A camping trip in Yellowstone isn’t always practical, but no worries! With a few old blankets and tent, you can give your kids an enjoyable outdoor experience. Tell great stories, make flashlight animals, and make it a night your children will remember.
12. First Day of School Photos
I take first day of school photos even though we homeschool. Nothing marks the time quite like a kid holding up their grade sign with a big grin.
13. Monthly Daddy/Mommy Date
I’ll admit, the whole “dating your kids” idea sounded weird to me at first, but it’s seriously the best. Mom and Dad take one child out on a date to the place of their choosing, then the next time another child has his or her turn.
Each child gets to be the center of attention with no competition for a little while, and at least in my experience it helps them open up and share more about what they really think and feel.
14. Monthly or annual service project
Whether it’s helping out at a local farm or putting together meals for families who just welcomed a new little one, a service day creates awareness of needs outside of ourselves and demonstrates what kindness in action looks like.
15. Valentine Hearts
My kids adore this tradition that Kate shared here. Basically, from February 1st to Valentine’s Day you leave heart-shaped notes on kids doors while they’re sleeping. They can be something you love about them, encouragement, or a fun story about them. Whatever it is, they soak it up even when they don’t act like it . . . I know because one morning I forgot and they all reminded me. 🙂
16. Board Game / Movie Night
Take turns letting a different family member choose the movie or game each week. This simple tradition reinforces the belief that every member of the family is important.
17. Family Walks
Early in the morning or after dinner, family walks open the door for conversation, gentle exercise, and a routine opportunity to experience the calming effect of being outdoors.
18. Bedtime Stories
“Reading to young children stimulates their development and gives them a head start when they reach school, according to researchers who have reviewed studies on the effects of reading. Apart from helping their reading, sharing a bedtime story with a child promotes their motor skills, through learning to turn the pages, and their memory. It also improves their emotional and social development.” (4)
19. Kids make dinner one night a week
Depending on their age it may be something as simple as scrambled eggs and an easy side, but they’ll have the joy of making a meaningful contribution to the family and you’ll have the night off!
20. Don’t say cheese
But do use one of these techniques to get your kids to smile for a “time-lapse” photo series.
Every Mother’s Day since my two boys were born, we’ve taken a picture of the three of us in front of the same flowering tree. This shows how much the boys are growing. We can also see how far along the spring is coming by seeing if the tree is blooming yet (we’re farmers, so we like to compare). I also take a picture of them at our favorite summer holiday location. It’s in the same museum we visit every year. Another idea I’ve heard of is people taking a picture of their child in the same oversized shirt. This shows them growing into it. Very cute!” – Cindy from Alberta
21. Surprise Hooky Day
“One mother I know surprises her kids by ‘kidnapping’ them from school one day a year. She pays attention to when tests and school field trips are scheduled and picks a day when they won’t miss much. The kids go off to school, their mother takes a shower and dresses, then shows up at school and surprises them. Once they get in the car, the lucky kid gets to decide how to spend the day.” (5)
22. Milestone Trips
When I was growing up, my dad took each child on a special trip for two milestone birthdays – age 10 and 16. The trip was a rite of passage and an opportunity share our excitement (and our fears) about the next stage of childhood.
23. The Birthday Hat
“Get a hat that is well suited to your family and make this the ‘official birthday hat.’ The idea is that each person wears it at their birthday dinner, whether that be at home or out in a restaurant. We have a rather large birthday hat in our family – it looks like a cake complete with big felt candles out of the top. It’s ridiculously awesome.” (3)
24. Q&A a Day
This tradition is based on Q&A a Day for Kids. Basically, the idea is that you ask your kids one fun question every day for a year and write down their responses. Then the next year, you ask them all the same questions and see how their responses change as they grow.
25. Cousin Camp
This is a tradition my family came across by accident. Years ago, my sister and I planned family trips to the same beach on the same week . . . without discussing it . . . two years in a row. We live several states away and our kids loved their time together, so now that I live near that shore we’ve made gathering here an annual tradition.
The week is one big glorious “Cousin Camp” sleepover – complete with homemade waffles and early morning fishing trips – and I’m so grateful for the memories we’ve made so far.
Do you have a favorite family tradition? Share it in the comments below!
1. McKay, Brett and Kate (2013) Creating a Positive Family Culture: The Importance of Establishing Family Traditions. Retrieved from https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/creating-a-positive-family-culture-the-importance-of-establishing-family-traditions/
2. Barker, Eric (2014) 6 Things The Happiest Families All Have In Common. Retrieved from https://theweek.com/articles/444395/6-things-happiest-families-all-have-common
3. Oxenreider, Tsh. Small-big family rituals. Retrieved from https://theartofsimple.net/the-importance-of-family-rituals-2/
4. Randerson, James (2008) Benefits of Bedtime Reading. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/may/13/schools.uk4