Every morning, I sit on the floor to meditate with my wife and daughter, Julie and Imma. We sit still for seven minutes. Regardless of how busy we are—or in how many directions our various schedules are trying to pull us—when Imma is finished getting dressed, the three of us meet in her room and meditate.
Imma is four. She wiggles. She sometimes has some of her stuffed friends join us. Every once in a while, she sits in a lap instead of on her cushion. But she always joins us when we sit.
This is a family ritual. Family rituals can be essential for the health of your family and for the development your child.
Family rituals take many forms, but they have been disappearing as lives have gotten more hectic. Sitting down together for dinner every night after school, work and play can be a ritual. Doing chores together can be a ritual. Going to a church, exercise or even to the library can all be family rituals. Shared community service can be a family ritual.
A family ritual is something that the family does together, represents the values of that family, deepens connections between family members and is something that has a consistent, fixed place in time (every day, every week, every year, etc.).
So why are these rituals so important?
Family Rituals Teach and Reinforce Your Values
First, a family ritual can clarify your family’s values and instill those values in your child. In our family, being able to sit still and not react to discomfort is a core value. We have seen how reacting impulsively to anger and fear can lead to poor choices. We have seen this in ourselves, among friends and family, as well as in society as a whole. This is not the same thing as being passive. It actually leads to being more engaged in your life and better decision making. For more on this concept, check out these articles on children and fear, boredom and meditation. For these, and many other reasons (brain health, improved concentration, self-awareness, etc.), Julie and I feel that meditation represents a core principle in how we live our lives that we want to share with our daughter. So we ritualize it into a daily practice.
Rituals can encourage a particular behavior, such as meditation. They can also support restricting behaviors by reserving them for rituals only.
For instance, Imma doesn’t watch TV. Each night, if there is time, she watches 5-10 minutes of Sesame Street or similar program. But she doesn’t just sit and “veg out” when it suits her. When she does watch a video, it is always for a short, predetermined length of time.
This is important for us as parents. As owners of a martial arts school, we work in an educational environment where we frequently have parents bringing us their children in the hopes that their concentration will improve. Often when there are concentration issues, heavy screen use is also an issue (learn more about the impact of screens here).
So we wanted Imma to have the opportunity to develop the ability to focus her brain without the distractions of screens. We have been happy with the results. For example, by the time she was three years old, she was doing 100-piece jigsaw puzzles on her own (some times more than one at a time).
Does this make her a genius? Nope. There is nothing special about our daughter outside of our feelings for her. Kids love to learn and explore. If they are given the room, they enjoy using their brains in this way.
So we have a family value of creating space for our brains to grow and be healthy. A ritual that supports this started when Imma watched her first movie at age three-and-a-half. Watching a movie is clearly bigger investment of screentime than a few minutes of video a night. So we made it a big deal. Watching a movie is something that only happens once every four to six weeks for Imma. When she does, it is always with one or both parents. It is something we plan for days or even weeks in advance. We decide what the movie is going to be, what kind of special food or drinks will be part of the experience. By the time we get to movie night, it is a big deal.
It is a basic principle of economics that scarcity increases the value. Diamonds are rare, so they are expensive. In this case, we are emphasizing the value to reinforce its scarcity. By making a big deal about movie night, we positively reinforce that, although movies are fun, they are something that happens infrequently.
Family Rituals Strengthen Family Bonds
Family rituals create consistent, special moments of shared experience between family members. They create opportunities to explore what it means to be a member that family and to have a sense of stability within that meaning.
Imma and I have a ritual around being physically active outdoors. Once a week, we have “Daddy-Daughter Day” and go for a hike or a bike ride. Sometimes, we drive a few minutes to the Greenbelt or to a park with a hike and bike trail. Sometimes, we get more ambitious and will drive a couple of hours to a state park or even plan an overnight camping trip.
Regardless of the specific activity, Daddy-Daughter Day always includes going outside, using our bodies and exploring. We have conversations about life in general (exploring who we are and what we mean to each other). We also discuss things we find in our explorations as well as how our bodies feel when we are using them to hike or ride our bicycles. This last bit reinforces our values and because it is a weekly event, there is a sense of stability in how we connect to those values.
Rituals are also important to family bonding because of the power they have to build a sense of identity within a group. A very interesting recent study from the University of Toronto explored this by creating arbitrary rituals for participants to perform. Part of the experiment included having subjects participate in trust games. Those who performed the same ritual showed a greater capacity for trust than subjects who did not.
Rituals can give a strong, subconscious sense of identity to members of a group and can build trust between members. This clearly can have a powerful impact on the bonds within a family.
A note of caution (or at least of awareness): while rituals create a sense of “us,” they are often also creating a sense of “them.” It is important to monitor these impulses within yourself and your child. How we approach screentime in my family is so important, we felt the need to ritualize it. As a result, it is part of our identity. But in doing so, we do not want to develop contempt for families that give their children much more access to screens than we do.
Rituals Serve As Anchors for Character Development
When I was a kid, I ate dinner with my family pretty much every night, regardless of what I was doing. If I was outside playing, I had to leave my cool friends to sit down with my boring parents. If I was working on something important, I had to plan my efforts around that nightly family ritual.
Having a family ritual requires participation from family members even when they are not in the mood. It requires participation even when there is something better, more fun or more interesting to do.
What it requires from family members is an ability to delay gratification and the grit to do something that you need to do, even if you don’t want to.
Family rituals create anchors in a family’s schedule that require certain character traits in children to maintain (parents too!). In a time when children are increasingly self-involved and over-indulged (read more about overindulgent parenting here), creating rituals can be an important tool for teaching the character skills for children to grow into healthy, happy adults.
Imma does not always want to do meditation with her parents. Sometimes she will complain or try to negotiate with us. But since we have been consistent with this ritual, when the timer starts, she settles into meditation.
These character skills are essential for being successful in school, for getting and holding a job, and for building healthy relationships.
The Power of Family Rituals
Establishing rituals is an important part of a healthy family and an essential tool for the growth and development of children. They tighten bonds between family members, create a sense of identity within the family, communicate values and help to build important character traits towards greater happiness and success.
I encourage you to create rituals for your family and see for yourself the impact they can have!
I have begun to get feedback on using meditation at home that I would like to share so that you and your child can find ways to make these exercises your own.
One mother has used it before putting her child to bed, finding it useful for calming him down.
Several parents have noticed connections between breathing patterns and ADD behavior. These children tend to lose control of their breathing, panting or even holding their breath when concentration is difficult. By taking a moment and focusing on their breath, these children can settle down more easily for activities that require extended periods of sitting still and staying on task. For these children, taking breaks for meditation and activity that burns excess energy are very important for success.
I was very proud of one student who told me that she started using meditation on her own to calm down when dealing with frustration. She has found it helpful when dealing with sources of anger (such as a younger sibling). I would caution parents who want to work with their children in this way to not make this a punishment (like a time-out). We don’t want children to develop a negative association with a positive exercise.
Finally, I would like parents to consider joining their children in meditation from time to time. In addition to the valuable behavior modeling you will be providing for your child, you will gain a deeper understanding of your child’s experience and be better able to offer guidance — not to mention that everyone can benefit from stopping and taking a breath, even Moms and Dads!