Building Traditions

Occasions that involve traditions and rituals are well represented in the childhood memories of many adults.  The reasons for this extend beyond the excitement involved with holidays or special occasions, rather they have to do with the power of tradition itself.

In the mental and emotional world of a young child, the notion of time is not well defined, nor are concepts such as holidays or symbolic observance. Depending on the age of your child, using words to explain the meaning of a holiday such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah will get you only so far, if it gets you anywhere at all. But traditions transcend language; and they transcend the limits of cognitive understanding. Having a family tradition where everyone can participate offers children two unique possibilities: a sense of importance and a marker in time.

Children spend so much time being junior partners in adult activities, but participation in traditional observances are equal-opportunity events. Whether it be stating what you are grateful for, making a drawing or pasting a picture in a family holiday memory book, or collecting pinecones for the table, traditions give children an experience of participating beside loved ones in an observance of something larger. These activities become mechanisms by which children trace their own growth against the backdrop of the repetition of the yearly cycle. Telling a young child “you’ve grown so much in the last year” will mean very little to her – but from a very young age children will be able to link performing an activity in the current moment with the last time they preformed the same activity (especially with the help of photos and stories from parents). Think of traditions you had growing up and bestow those upon your children.

Rituals are fundamental, action-oriented, and involve repetition (a theme anyone who has ever parented toddlers knows well). They build consistency and predictability; and they connect these things to something meaningful. So, from a developmental point of view, they are wonderful tools. Perhaps most importantly, rituals and traditions provide a model for setting aside time and investing energy in the shared practice of finding and observing meaning in life, which is one of the richest gifts a parent can give a child.

By Lele Diamond, MFT & Noelle Cochran, PsyD. Symbio offers services geared to meet the real-life needs of modern families as they move through the early years of child rearing. For more information, visit To get questions answered regarding child development and family psychology, email Lele or Noelle here, or call (415) 648-3243.