“Say our important things,” my youngest child reminded me as I told him to turn off his headlamp and close his eyes to go to sleep.
“Of course! Do I ever forget?” I asked.
“Well sometimes, but not usually. No, I guess not,” he replied, snuggling into his bed waiting for me to begin our little bedtime ritual.
Long before my first baby was born a friend of mine told me that she loved listening to her husband tell his daughter “their important things” before she goes to sleep.
“What do you mean, important things?” I asked her. “Oh you know, he just tells her a few things that matter the most at the end of the day. It’s short, sweet, and simple. But she absolutely depends on it.”
As a soon-to-be-parent I stored this little gem away and couldn’t wait to have my own important things to say. Not that it was easy to figure out what to actually say once I had a child in my arms. What matters most? So many things I could say! What to choose? But I quickly realized it didn’t really matter what I said, just that I said it and kept saying it.
I started when they were babies and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Family Routine vs. Family Ritual
There is a lot of research on the importance of routine and ritual in children’s lives. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, family routines and rituals are “powerful organizers of family life that offer stability during times of stress and transition.” Search Institute found that meaningful traditions are a core family strength that predicts stronger outcomes for kids. Researchers point to the importance of rituals at family meals if you can swing them, cultural traditions and holidays, reunions, or birthdays.
It’s important to note that routines and rituals often overlap but they aren’t exactly the same thing. Routine is about creating some kind of dependable structure (to the degree possible!) so kids know what to expect. Ritual is about a repeated, simple set of actions or words that hold emotions, make meaning, and mark significance. Family rituals are sometimes referred to as the “glue that holds families together.”
Everyday family rituals
We are just coming out of a big holiday season when there are more obvious opportunities for making meaning with our kids. Holidays are often times when many of us practice rituals passed down through generations. But don’t limit rituals to these big holidays. Even small and seemingly mundane parenting rituals can be a way to quickly connect, ground ourselves, and prepare for what’s next. When you think of ritual as formal and practiced only on prescribed days, we lose out on a comforting and creative practice with our kids. Think of times in the day when you might create something special with your family, whether it is bedtime, meals, transitions, certain days of the week etc… Ritual is actually wildly accessible – all we need is ourselves, our child, and a willingness to create something that matters to the two of you.
For example, one of the more mundane daily rituals that has been shown to help small children is a “goodbye ritual.” The idea of a good-bye ritual always seemed tricky and a bit out of reach to me once my kids started elementary school though. Creating a ritual in the morning? The chaotic transition out of the house to school did not seem like the time to squeeze in something emotionally significant or consistent.
Then I realized that this is precisely because of the chaos that we needed a good-bye ritual. We needed a tiny moment to breathe and connect amidst the chaos of starting our day. So I started one and it’s profoundly simple. Each morning, no matter the chaos we leave behind, we squeeze each other’s hands and I remind my kids of the same thing as they head out into the world:
“Be brave, be kind, and be curious.”
Family rituals are about relationship
My youngest child loves this goodbye ritual every morning outside of his classroom. “Let’s go the goodbye bench!” he reminds me, eagerly awaiting my words.
“Be brave, be kind, be curious,” I say. “I will!!” he replies as he turns to head into class. How delightful.
My older boy wants NO PART of a goodbye bench and would rather we not walk into school together at all. He doesn’t say much about it but more often than not, he pauses to listen and nearly always squeezes my hand.
Rituals aren’t something that we force on our kids. They are born in relationship. We modify and change them as our kids grow up and as needs change. Rituals also aren’t something we abandon the moment they don’t play out in an ideal way. Simplicity, consistency, and flexibility makes parenting rituals most likely to endure.
Be creative and create space for the important things
I no longer hold either of my children in my arms at bedtime and it is a rare moment that they even acknowledge their “important things” anymore. Much older and more independent, some nights they are simply more consumed by books, what’s winding down, or what’s to come the next day. Admittedly, some nights we hit bedtime like a freight train, tired, ornery, too-late, and edgy.
But I tell them their important things anyway, knowing that it is as soothing to me as it is to them. I think they are still listening:
“I love you to the end of the earth and back again and there is nothing you could ever do or say to make me love you any less. There is nothing you need to do to make me love you any more. May the moon watch over you as you sleep, may you have the sweetest of dreams, and when the sun comes tomorrow morning we get to start a brand new day together.”
As you consider your own family and your own most important things, what family rituals might you create? Start with something small, memorable, repeatable, and clear. It could be something that you say, a place you go, something you do, listen to, or read together. There is no right or wrong here, because parenting rituals are unique to you.
I love the idea of parenting rituals as “glue,” because it acknowledges just how messy parenting can feel and reminds us that ritual isn’t about perfection. It is about making spaces for relationship and repair – the things that hold us together.
Just get started. Your kids are listening.