Why Rituals Matter

Grandpa, do you remember when…

By Mary Jane Sterne and Peggy EdwardsSeptember 2019

After all these years of grandparenting, we both clearly understand the importance of creating family or individual rituals with our grandchildren. Not only do these special traditions and routines enhance our relationship with them, they can also provide our grandchildren with a sense of stability and consistency. According to Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, the authors of Raising Resilient Children, establishing traditions and shared activities helps children feel loved, special and appreciated. This is one of the guideposts for “developing children who have the inner strength to deal competently and successfully, day after day, with the challenges and demands they encounter.” Who better than grandparents to help children feel loved, special and appreciated!

The rituals we create don’t have to be serious, complex or expensive. They can include birthday, holiday, summer or first-day-of-school activities, or simply meal and bedtime routines. Whatever form they take, these rituals often become the family traditions that both grandchildren and grandparents rely on and, hopefully, talk about and pass on in some form. Indeed, the research indicates that children will remember the activities and time spent with grandparents more than the toys and gifts we buy them.

Traditions are developed over time. They can be as small as always hugging your grandchildren whenever you greet or leave them, or as large as taking annual holidays together. The common element, however, is that both you and your grandchildren look forward to and enjoy participating in these special activities. Indeed, you may not even realize you have a tradition in the making until a young grandson says, “But grandad, you always buy me ice-cream after soccer practice.” Clever, little fellow.

Plan ahead

It is never too early to decide what activities, hobbies and cultural traditions you would like to establish with your grandchildren. Will it be storytelling, baking, fishing, skiing, playing board games, going to the library, going to the movies, or having traditional meals on special days? While many of these traditions will arise spontaneously as you get to know and interact with your grandchildren, we suggest you begin to reflect on the type of traditions you might want to establish as soon as your first grandchild is born. Think back to what made you feel special when you were with your grandparents. What are your fondest memories? What family events and activities gave you a sense of tradition and belonging?For Samantha, it was watching her grandmother lighting the Shabbat candles on Friday evenings and saying the blessing over the bread. For me it was picking snap peas from grandma’s large garden and then sitting on the back stoop with her and eating them all.

Share your interests with your grandchildren

The best traditions often grow out of our own values and interests. As an added bonus, we are sometimes helping our grandchildren to develop new skills and hobbies. Avid golfers, Joan and Harry have taught all their grandchildren to golf. While only one has become a serious golfer, the rest will always be able to pick a club and participate in a game. Marjorie, a hiker, cyclist and keen outdoors woman has taken Nathan on a camping trip every summer since he was four. Now a teenager, and not as willing to share a tent with grandma, Nathan and Marjorie are going on a three-day bike trip in the Laurentians. Bonnie and Dick, who are birders and environmentalists, have exposed their grandsons Connor and Liam to bird sanctuaries and nature walks, as part of their family traditions since they were toddlers. Both have developed an interest in the natural sciences as teens. Peggy taught swimming and was a lifeguard in her youth. She took all her grandchildren to swimming lessons and has had the pleasure of watching a few of them carry on her tradition of working in a family camp. Geoff introduced his grandson Ethan to hockey when he was six. At thirty, Ethan and his grandfather still manage to watch many of the playoff games together “Hey, it is our tradition” says Ethan, who now plays hockey in an adult recreational league.

Holiday traditions

Many of our traditions centre on family holidays such as birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah or Ramadan. Having a unique way of celebrating certain occasions is part of what makes us a family. Special occasions and practices that are passed down year after year, generation after generation, give families a sense of continuity and belonging.

When our adult children get married, maintaining family traditions can become more complex. Now we have new sets of traditions and perhaps many sets of grandparents. Compromise and dialogue are necessary. With input from everyone involved, however, we can establish new family rituals and activities that will still be meaningful and fun. Like many other grandparents, we often celebrate Christmas with our adult children and grandchildren on December 26th or December 27th when we are sure we can all be together. Being together has become much more important than celebrating on the actual day, be it Christmas or Thanksgiving or birthdays.

What is easier to control are the special activities we do with our grandchildren when we spend time alone with them during the holidays. Baking together, making Christmas decorations, decorating the tree, shopping, watching movies or going to a religious service together, can all take on special meaning when they become annual traditions. One grandmother, who always read the hilarious children’s book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever to her own three children in the weeks leading up to Christmas, now reads the same book to her grandchildren. And they find it just as funny.

Some traditions may change as our grandchildren get older

Saying goodbye to a well-loved tradition can be difficult. Our grandchildren learn to read their own books, baking no longer interests the teenage grandchildren and, at a certain age, they have their own money and prefer to buy their parents a Christmas or birthday gift, not make one as was our tradition for many years. The routines and activities we grandparents establish often have a “best before date.” Our challenge is to maintain those traditions that are appropriate and that the grandchildren still enjoy, while developing new ones that will keep our relationship fresh and evolving. This is especially difficult with older grandchildren who have little time to spend with their parents, never mind the grandparents. Traditions at this age are easier to establish if they are based on our grandchildren’s interests, not necessarily ours. Many a determined grandparent has spent time playing video games and watching movies that they find boring or sitting in hockey rinks and outdoor fields watching sports that they don’t really understand or tramping around shopping malls shopping for clothes that mystify them.

The last word

The majority of our grandchildren are now teenagers and young adults. A few are parents themselves or soon to be. Over the years, we have established a myriad of traditions, some more successful than others, some common to every grandchild and some that are unique to specific grandchildren. Too late, we have learned of delightful traditions that we would have loved to implement but the moment has passed. If I had to do it again, I would continually ask my friends and other grandparents about their special traditions, big and small, especially those whose grandchildren live out of province or country. We have a lot to learn from each other and those little rituals and traditions can cement a relationship with a beloved grandchild.