When my husband and I started creating unique and meaningful family traditions . . .
Like, um, this one, 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 them into our life together, 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 Traditions Matter (A lot)
This article from The Art Of Manliness (which I’m sure you read all the time – ha!) perfectly describes some of the reasons that rituals and traditions increase our sense of happiness.
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).” (source)
Why does this matter? According to one of my favorite articles, 6 Things The Happiest Families Have In Common, the number one predictor 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 that:
“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.” (source)
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.” (source)
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.” (source)
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 the Potamus clan’s 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 Potamus tradition is our annual trip to the Emerald Coast, which if you’re connected to me on Instagram you know happened just a couple of weeks ago. 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 then this one of the two of them together.
. . . 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.” ~ Gretchin Rubin
Interested in creating your own family traditions? Here are a few to consider!
15+ Family Tradition Ideas
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.’” (Source: The Art of Manliness)
(This is one of my favorites – working on a potamus handshake now!)
2. 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.” (Source: The Art of Simple)
3. Q&A a Day
This tradition is based on this book that I bought for the potami. Basically, 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.
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.” (Source: The Art of Simple)
8. Have the same meal one time every week
Friday night pizza, Saturday morning pancakes, etc.
9. Make holiday ornaments together every year
Almost every year since the potami were born we’ve spent an afternoon making holiday ornaments. Some we keep for our growing collection, some we give to grandparents. We’ve made yarn balls, salt-dough ornaments, and painted pre-made ornaments. This year we already have plans for a gluten-free version of our salt-dough treasures that I hope to share with you.
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.” (Source: The Art of Manliness)
11. Camping in your backyard
A trip to 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
This one’s become widely popular, even among homeschooling families. Nothing marks the time quite like a first day of school photo where your children hold up signs of what grade they’re going into.
13. Monthly Daddy/Mommy Date
Have you ever noticed how complicated it can be to spend quality time with just ONE child? The rest always want equal time. That’s where monthly dates play a fantastic role in bringing balance and consistency. Mom and Dad take one child out on a date to the place of their choosing. The next month another child has her turn. It’s special because Mom and Dad are focusing solely on one child and the child gets to be the center of attention with no competition.
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 instills the awareness of needs outside of ourselves and demonstrates what kindness in action looks like.
15. 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.
16. Family Walks
Early in the morning or after dinner, family walks open the door for conversation, gentle exercise, and a routine opportunity to experience Mother Nature.
17. 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.” (Source: The Guardian)
18. 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!
19. 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 favourite 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