Prepared by:

Lesson submitted: March 2010


Forming family rituals is an important part of the development of family cohesion. Family rituals bring stability and happiness to our lives and the lives of our children. Family rituals can be big or small and can involve almost anything that bring people together. Who can resist shared family time especially if favorite foods are involved. Planning a Festival of Desserts can also become a fund raising opportunity for local charities that builds community cohesion.

Objectives of Lesson:

The following five lessons are developed in such a way that each could be delivered in a separate 10-20 minute segment (time varies depending on how much discussion is allowed). If time is limited, Lessons I & IV could be delivered as a coherent 20 to 30 minute lesson. If more time is available, Lessons II, &III could be added based on individual county needs or interests. Lesson V is an outline for a community-based activity that could be a stand alone lesson, or a final lesson in the series.

You will help group members answer the following questions:

  1. What is a family ritual?
  2. How do rituals help my family?
  3. Why are family rituals important for divorce and remarried families? (Optional)
  4. How do I create a family ritual?
  5. How can a family ritual become a community ritual? (Optional)

Topic I: What is Family Ritual?(10 to 15 minutes)


Simply put, family rituals are repeated and coordinated activities that have significance for the family. Family rituals can be yearly, monthly, or weekly events, and can be coordinated around special holidays (e.g., Thanksgiving), celebrations (e.g., birthdays), and special circumstances (e.g., the death of a loved one). They can also be regular activities (e.g., religious adherence or mealtime). Rituals are powerful organizers of family life, supporting its stability during times of stress and transition.

Rituals are different from routines.

Routines typically involve communication that says “this is what needs to be done.” Routines involve a momentary time commitment and once the act is completed, there is little, if any, afterthought. Routines are the same behavior repeated over time.

Rituals, on the other hand, have a practical component of organizing the group but also involve a symbolic communication thatsays“this is who we are” as a group or family. There is an emotional commitment that leaves the individual feeling a sense of“rightness” and of belonging. Rituals often leave an emotional residue.After the act is completed, the individual may replay it in their memory to recapture some of the positive experience. Rituals also create a sense of meaning across generations with the anticipation for repeat performance and an investment that communicates, “this is how our family will continue to be.”

One way to distinguish between routine and ritual is:

  • When routines are disrupted, it is a hassle.
  • When rituals are disrupted, there is a threat to group cohesion.

Consider family mealtimes as an example:

  • A mealtime routine may involve communication regarding who needs to pick up milk on the way home from work. Once the milk is picked up, there is very little thought about the grocery store. This act may be repeated several times a week without much thought unless forgotten when it then becomes a hassle.
  • The mealtime ritual, on the other hand, involves conversation as a group that may include inside jokes, symbolic objects (like grandma’s silver), and things that may only be meaningful to the family (where each member sits). Once the family is gathered for the meal, there is an emotional reaction that may be as simple as a sigh signifying that time has been set aside for the group and other demands are temporarily put on hold. There may also be elements of the gathering that have been passed down over generations including prayers, dishes, and even topics of conversation. If the mealtime ritual is eliminated it may affect how the family sees itself.

*** Emphasize that any routine has the potential to become a ritual once it develops special symbolism or meaning to the group.

Group Activity - Rich’s story (have someone read the story and then together answer the questions):

For many years, on October second my back was sore. That was because every October first our family spent the night on the floor!Spending the night on the floor became a family tradition because many years ago on October first we arrived at our new home in Denver several days ahead of the moving van – not intentionally mind you.Rather than get a hotel room the kids convinced us that we had everything we needed to live for a few nights – a floor, a roof, a fireplace, a refrigerator and stove. So we filled the family room with sleeping bags and camped out in the family room.That would have been the end of the story except the following year, as I was tucking my youngest son into his warm bed, I reminded him that last year at this time we were on the floor in front of the fireplace. “Hey, that’s right! Let’s do it again!” We did and we have and it soon became a tradition. Now every October first we camp out in the family room and tell stories and eat popcorn and remember those first few days “roughing it” in our new home. As I think back, that special time over the years helped us form a special bond that strengthened our family.

What made this event a ritual (below are possible answers, your group may come up with others)?

  • The repeated and coordinated activity that was repeated every year.
  • The symbolism of sleeping on the floor – an act that may have seemed crazy to the casual observer but had meaning for the family.
  • Communicated a sense of belonging, and a sense of togetherness during difficult times.
  • Instilled a family value making the best of an unexpected circumstance.
  • Despite the aching back the next day, it left the family feeling positive about themselves as a group.

How was it different from a routine?

  • It would not be a hassle if stopped.
  • It would have affected the feelings of “togetherness” among the family if stopped.
  • There was a residual positive feeling attached to the activity.
  • The activity was much more (symbolic meaning) than simply sleeping on the floor for the members of the family.

Topic II: How do rituals help my family?(10 to 15 minutes)

Research suggests that families who have established rituals do better in a variety of ways from school performance to mental health issues in children to reducing conflict and divorce in couples. In fact family rituals have even been found to have medical benefits by shortening bouts of respiratory infections in infants and improving preschool children's health, as well as protecting against the transgenerational transmission of alcoholism. Particularly in families who have suffered a divorce or who are navigating a remarriage, developing new family rituals seems to help parents and children adapt to the changes and the stress more quickly and with fewer problems.

Having a number of family rituals will not necessarily determine whether or not your family is successful. However, family rituals do help to strengthen families in four important areas:

  1. Predictability. The sense of regularity and order that families and couples require, especially those with children. There are growing levels of chaos in the livesof American children, youth, and families. Increasingly,children grow up in households lacking in structure androutine, inundated by background stimulation from noiseand crowding, and forced to contend with the frenetic paceof modern life. For example, knowing that mom or dad will talk with them or read a story every night (or on story night if every night is not possible), makes bedtime something to look forward to and savor.
  1. Connection.Family rituals are a time when the family can re-connect and assure one another (without necessarily saying so) of their love and commitment to one another. The presence of family rituals of connection under conditions of single parenting, divorce, and remarried households may actually protect children from the proposed risks associated with going through what can often be a stressful situation. For example, the bedtime ritual may be the primary one-to-one time shared between a father and his child. Additionally, for couples, bedtime rituals may also be an important opportunity to connect emotionally after a busy day.
  1. Identity. Family rituals help to define a family. They provide a sense of belonging and what is special about the family. For example, you may know who your core family members are by who is present on Christmas morning. Including spouses or distant relatives in core family rituals symbolically makes a statement that they are “family,” too. Families who take interesting vacations together acquire the self-image of a fun-loving family. They will say “We are campers” or “We are hikers.” For some couples, shopping for antiques becomes a rituals outing that helps form a couple identity as antique lovers.
  1. A way to enact values.Family rituals allow us to demonstrate what we believe and hold dear. Religious rituals are a good example, as is a family volunteering together for community work, or ensuring that the children join in regular family visits to a grandparent in a nursing home. These activities teach that faith and serving are important aspects of life, and visiting a grandparent teaches that it is important to honor and support this elderly family member.

For example read Ron’s story:

There are many things that I remember about growing up in those cold Michigan winters. However, the one that shines the brightest in my mind has to do with my Dad and how he taught me what it meant to be a neighbor. Every year in Michigan there would always be a few of those menacing snowfalls that made it difficult for people to get home. At that time, we lived on top of a hill that was part of a ridge of sorts that separated the front half of the neighborhood from the back half. When it snowed a lot, almost no one could make it up that hill without a little help. My dad worked the early shift at GM and was usually home by 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon, which was often before the worst of snow had accumulated. On those nights, as the evening progressed and the snow got deeper, I would, without fail, hear the sound of spinning tires followed by, “boy get your boots and your shovel,” and out we would go. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many cars we pushed and shoveled out of ditches and back onto their way home over the years. One thing I do remember, though, the grateful smiles and appreciation of the countless neighbors who were the recipients of my Dad’s sense of community – a sense that later became my own.

Group Activity (included are some possible answers that your group may come up with. Remember, that there could be numerous correct answers given the past experience of each group member and what the activity means to them)

  1. What did the above ritual do for the father-son relationship?
  2. Helped them bond.
  3. Created identity. Taught the son about “whom” the father was.
  4. Transmitted a family value.
  5. How might the son’s life have been different without that ritual?
  6. May not have grown up with the value of serving people.
  7. May have affected his sense of compassion or civic responsibility.
  8. Ask group members to share one of their own family rituals and how it helped their family in regards to one of the four areas mentioned above (this could be a current ritual or one from a time in the past when they were children, or a time when their children were young).
  9. Ask them to identify what were the symbolic or meaningful aspects of the ritual (what did it communicate about their family).
  10. Ask them to share how might their families have been different if they didn’t practice that ritual.

Topic III: Family rituals with divorced and remarried families?(10 to 20 minutes)

Family rituals to a large degree are like writing a new chapter in the book on your family. The “co-creation” of new stories empowers family members to heal the pain of losses and other wounds, connects group members through a sense of belonging, and provides continuity between past, present, and future as people navigate through life’s transitions and change. This may be particularly important for divorced and remarried families.

Refer to the “Do you know this family handout.”

According to national statistics many of you either form part of a stepfamily or will be sharing this lesson with a stepfamily.

Rituals in Stepfamilies

Stepfamilies do not experience a gradual progression of developmental stages as occurs in first marriages. Instead, they come together with children already present from the previous marriage of at least one of the spouses. They also come with a residue of disrupted rituals from the divorce and single parent histories of some, if not all, members of the family. Therefore, stepfamilies must instantaneously function as though they had pattern rituals – at the very least – in place (e.g., daily routines regarding mealtimes, bedtimes, chores and responsibilities, money management, etc.). Functioning as if these rituals were already in place can promote misunderstandings, conflict, and frustration.

In first marriage families rituals of celebration (e.g. Christmas), family tradition (e.g., vacations), or life cycle (e.g., birthdays) are in place and help the family buffer the tensions of everyday life, as well as the pains of family crises, by serving as a source of comfort and a reminder of the solidarity and unity of the family. In stepfamilies – at least in the early stages – they have high levels of stress and none of these rituals in place to facilitate their coping. Furthermore, the rituals they do have come from a previous family history and may be a source of conflict and a reminder of loss rather than a source of comfort.

As stepfamilies do the hard work of forming a new family unit, rituals can be powerful tools that help them overcome the obstacles in their path. However, there are several dangers involved in the process of ritual formation which include:

  1. Remaining “under-ritualized.” Families who are under-ritualized are those that choose to avoid dealing with the difficulties. They maintain distance by not forming rituals. For example, the stepfamily in which a noncustodial father visits with his children only outside of his home or only in his home when his wife – the stepmother – goes out of town for the weekend.
  1. Incongruent rituals. In their efforts to reduce the inevitable chaos experienced in the early stages of stepfamily development, families may instinctively attempt to apply what they know from first-married family life and norms. However, this tactic will most likely result in incongruent rituals, that is, rituals that do not “fit” with the realistic requirements of living together as a stepfamily. It is normal for people charting unknown territory to look back to something that used to work and to try to make that fit their current situation. However, for many reasons this rarely is successful in stepfamilies. For example, expecting children to celebrate their new stepfather’s birthday with gifts and expressions of love just as they traditionally did with their biological father will most likely be met with resistance.
  1. Rigid rituals. Likewise, rituals that are implemented early on in the development of the stepfamily may become too rigid as relationships and situations change and develop. A period of trial and error is often necessary with input from all family members for ritual development to be successful. Rituals need to be modifiable in order to adapt to changing developmental needs as well as respectful of the past histories of all family members and of children’s connections with other households. For example, adhering to rigid visitation rituals regardless of children’s changing developmental needs only invites conflict and rebellion.
  1. Skewed rituals. When the rituals of some family members seem to take precedence at the expense or exclusion of others, an imbalance is created that causes resentment and promotes only a peripheral sense of belonging in the disenfranchised member(s). These rituals are skewed. For example, when only one of the adults brings children to the new marriage, it is easy for rituals to be maintained from the previous family history that creates a sense of “insider and outsider” in the family.
  1. Hollow rituals. Some families, in an attempt to reduce their felt anxiety, try to force the issue of ritual development. However, what they are left with is usually something not very fulfilling to anyone. The danger here is that a hollow ritual accentuates the lack of unity in the family and can do more harm than good. For example, some families in an effort to become a “real” family prohibit their children from using the term “step” when referring to their new parent, siblings, or family in general. Older children may go along with the “farce” but without any positive feeling or meaning being attached to the term. Eventually children will tire of the perceived charade and rebel against what they believe to be hypocrisy.

For more information see the handout “Creating Rituals in Stepfamilies.”