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Monday, December 26, 2011

Family Traditions & Rituals

The little boy squealed in delight as he ripped open the shiny foil-like wrapping paper. The reflective surface of the metallic sheet had a shimmering effect, which had apparently caught the attention of the little boy. Z , who was voraciously tearing at the paper, paid no attention to what was inside, his first Christmas gift of the year. He also seemed oblivious to the background voices of his granduncle and grandaunts, who were enthusiastically trying to get him to open his present.

It was Christmas Eve, and our family was gathered at Sue's aunts' home, where the extended family normally celebrates the festive occasion with a traditional feast of turkey, ham, and other delectable treats. We had just finished a rousing session of singing Christmas carols, and our son Z still did not display any signs of being tired. This despite him singing and lifting his hands throughout the session, obviously enjoying the melodious voices that were singing song after song about Christmas and the birth of Christ.

Christmas is a special time for our family. It is indeed the most important season for us, especially since almost the entire extended families on both sides share the Christian faith, and we celebrate this special day centuries ago, when humankind was given the ultimate present - the birth of the little boy Jesus, who would one day die for the sins of all humankind.

Given the importance of this occasion, Sue and I decided that we wanted to create a special tradition for our family each Christmas. We want Z and our future children to understand why we celebrate Christmas, and that the festivities are not only about feasting and merrymaking, but also to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Before the arrival of Z, we had already been celebrating Christmas Eve dinner with Sue's extended family and Christmas Day dinner with my extended family. These are traditions that we hold dear, especially since they give us an opportunity to spend time with the people we treasure in our lives.

Last year we celebrated Z's first Christmas with us. We decided then that we wanted Christmas morning to be a special time set aside for the family. One year ago, Z was just a day shy of his 5th month birthday, and he sat quietly on his little Bumbo seat as we opened his presents on his behalf. This year, Z was almost 17-months-old on Christmas Day. We decided that in addition to setting aside Christmas morning for the family, we also wanted to start a new tradition of teaching him about the meaning of Christmas. So I spent a few moments reading the Christmas story before letting Z open his presents. We then gave thanks to God for all He had done for our family, before enjoying a simple breakfast together. Of course the scene was far from the idyllic picture painted here. Z was more interested in running around than in opening his presents, and my wife Sue was also ill, so it was a tiring time for me. But I know at least we have established a tradition that we want to continue for years to come.

Contemporary studies have highlighted the importance of establishing family traditions and rituals. For instance, an article from the online parenting portal Parenting 24/7 by the US-based University of Illinois Extension noted that:

Family rituals and traditions are special ways of doing things that we repeat over and over again. When you use a muscle in your body over and over again in a certain way, it makes the muscle stronger. Likewise, sharing repeated experiences in a certain way strengthens the family.

The article emphasised that traditions give the family stability and provide its members with a sense of belonging. After all, our memories from childhood are peppered with the unique shared experiences of our families - like where we would normally go for our favourite foods, or where we would go for our birthday celebrations. When two single people from two different family backgrounds come together in marriage, they bring with them a myriad of experiences from their birth families. However, what's important is for the married couple to create new traditions for the new family they have created. Marriage books often cite difference in family background as a major reason for arguments and conflict, and it is therefore important for the couple to carve out new traditions unique to them.

Sue has been reading a book, On Becoming Toddlerwise, by Gary Ezzo and Dr Robert Bucknam. The book's basic philosophy is that children thrive on routine and structure; that the younger the child is, the more they need to be guided, protected and supervised by their parents. This is because children without supervision tend to choose what they want to do more than what they ought to do. Another argument for routines, as articulated in the article The Importance of Family Rituals by the US-based Ohio State University Extension, is that children enjoy repeating the same actions each day, and that they feel secure whenever they carry out actions according to a specific routine.

At home we have established somewhat of a routine each morning. Normally I would respond to Z when he first wakes up about 8.30 a.m. each day. I would carry him from his cot and greet him with a "Good Morning Baby! Daddy loves you!" I would then take him to our room, where Z would snuggle with Sue and roll around on our bed before getting down from the bed and taking a walk around the house. This morning I was a little tired from the past few days of caring for my sick wife. She instead took on the role of responding to Z. When they got into our room, Sue informed me that our son seemed disappointed that I was not the one who had carried him from his cot. I quickly snuggled close to him and greeted him, hugging him in the process and telling him that I love him. It was only then that our little boy got down from the bed to proceed with his morning ritual of walking around the house. I have realised how important it is to Z for me to be there for him each day; what more the bigger events of his life - his first day in school, his graduation from university, his wedding day...

It is my desire that our family's Christmas tradition will be something that will be remembered by our son for many years to come. As the years go by we hope to establish more family traditions - such as how we celebrate our birthdays, how we celebrate festive holidays such as Chinese New Year, and how we celebrate special occasions such as successes in school and in non-academic pursuits. Above all, we want our son to know that we love him, and will always love him.

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