Family routines and rituals are an important factor in strengthening families. Family rituals help family members feel good and create a sense of belonging by letting everyone know what’s important to the family and giving members’ a sense of identity. They offer stability during times of stress and transition and are associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction, adolescents’ sense of personal identity, children’s health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships.

Psychologist Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., and colleagues at Syracuse University distinguish the difference between a family routine and a family ritual. “Routines involve instrumental communication conveying information that ‘this is what needs to be done’ and involve a momentary time commitment so that once the act is completed, there is little, if any, afterthought,” says Dr. Fiese. “Rituals, on the other hand, involve symbolic communication and convey ‘this is who we are’ as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations. Also, there is often an emotional imprint where once the act is completed, the individual may replay it in memory to recapture some of the positive experience.” Any routine has the potential to become a ritual once it moves from an instrumental to a symbolic act.

During infancy and preschool, children are healthier and their behaviour is better regulated when there are predictable routines in the family. Children with regular bedtime routines get to sleep sooner and wake up less frequently during the night than those with less regular routines. Other studies have examined whether the effects of regular routines are restricted to two-parent families. “The presence of family routines under conditions of single parenting, divorce, and remarried households may actually protect children from the proposed risks associated with being raised in non-traditional families,” according to Fiese and colleagues.

There are numerous opportunities for families to cultivate routines and rituals, however much research has focused on the importance of family meal times. Other rituals may include sharing a silly breakfast song, cooking special foods on celebratory occasions, returning to a favourite holiday destination, sharing a bedtime head tickle, creating a games night or even exchanging a secret family handshake.

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Fiese, Barbara H.; Tomcho, Thomas J.; Douglas, Michael; Josephs, Kimberly; Poltrock, Scott; Baker, Tim Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 16(4), Dec 2002, 381-390.

Special Section: Family Routines and Rituals.

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