When most of us hear the word ‘ritual’, we think of religious traditions and customs or strange cult practices. Rituals have been an important part of human culture for thousands of years. They have been used to establish, maintain, and continue shared (or imposed) values and beliefs. These rituals were sometimes used to reinforce political power and institute conformity by imbuing them with supernatural or spiritual meaning.
But the power of ritual is not only seen within religious or political contexts. It can be used to express and reinforce the goals and values of any social group – fraternities, corporations, and families. Rituals ensure continuity, encourage stability, provide a sense of security and create greater cohesion between its members. Rituals also help the members of the group embrace life cycle transitions by guiding them through a pre-established path that connect its members to their ancestors. If the rituals are seen as arbitrary, lack personal relevance, and are exploitive, they may lose their influence and therefore their power.
In our rapidly changing society, many people have abandoned many traditions and customs. But today families can use the power of ritual to create a more supportive, cohesive, and secure environment for their members. Ritualizing simple activities such as Sunday dinners, birthday celebrations, holiday customs, and even daily routines such as reading before bedtime can become a wonderful way to transmit and establish important habits, values, and beliefs.
Rituals are a form of reverence that just basically means that we are making a commitment to an idea, goal, or belief. By setting aside time and making the ritual a priority we are communicating our values. It is a tangible manifestation of our beliefs but because it is repeated and is associated with something pleasant or useful; it leaves an emotional imprint that is more powerful than many other forms of communication. Within the performance of these rituals, we can convey such ideas as our family values cooperation and helping each other, we take pride in who we are, and prize loyalty. These shared values and sharing of common history builds a sense of team or community, and teaches that, when appropriate, putting the best interests of someone else ahead of our own is a positive attribute – encouraging empathy and social responsibility.
Where the real magic of family rituals emerges is when these family experiences become family stories that build identity, cohesion, and a sense of belonging. For all members of the family, but especially children, this sense of security is critical in building confidence that allows them to go out into the world, explore, learn, and take reasonable risks to achieve goals because they know they are being supported and have a place to return to if things get too difficult (physically, emotionally, and psychologically).
One of the most basic rituals that previously served to bind family members together is mealtime. According to the Food Marketing Institute, approximately 40% of American families eat meals together and even among that group, it usually occurs only two or three times per week. Ten percent of parents confessed that they eat only one or no meals per week with their children. Why are mealtimes important? This simple ritual represents more than a prescribed time to eat. It can actually define and/or reflect the importance of the family unit within the lives of its members. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommended shared dinners as a way to strengthen families and ensure healthy development of children. Because it increased children’s sense of belonging and stability, less stress, depression and feelings of isolation were experienced, especially in teenagers.
Strengthening the spirit (inner strength) of our children requires us to build an infrastructure within our families that supports this growth and development. Rituals can still be seen as a form of magic that help infuses family life with greater meaning and power to nurture and support it’s members.