The Importance of Rituals and Routines for Families

One of our first jobs as the adults in charge is to create a sense of order, because order implies safety. Good family routines and rituals are important ways of accomplishing this.
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I love the movie, "The Blind Side," about Michael Oher, a teenager who becomes homeless and is then welcomed into the Tuohy family. The Tuohys are upper-middle-class, and it is the mother, Leigh Ann, who is the main catalyst in the family's decision to reach out and help this young man.

There are so many great scenes in the movie, but one of my favorites is one that takes place on Thanksgiving Day. Leigh Ann, played by Sandra Bullock (a role for which she won an Academy Award) has prepared a delicious traditional Thanksgiving meal for her family, and they all line up, pile up their plates and sit down... in front of the television set to watch football. Michael, however, takes his plate and moves over to the dining room table, where he sits alone, eating his meal. The camera then shifts to Leigh Ann, who watches him do this. In the next instant, the film cuts to the entire family sitting at the table with Michael. The food is spread out, no television blaring, everyone laughing and eating.

I saw that and thought, "Bingo. Good for Michael. Good for her."

I also thought about Dr. Howard Polsky. He passed away in 2003, but I was lucky enough in my career to be trained by him. Dr. Polsky taught in the Columbia University School of Social Work for 42 years, and in the field of working with troubled youth, he was a legend. His book, "Cottage Six: The Social System of Delinquent Boys in Residential Treatment,," written in 1962, was a standard text when I was learning how to work with youth who had been gang members, living on the streets or in trouble with the law. In the early '90s, I ran a residence for homeless teenage boys in Brooklyn, and Dr. Polsky was brought in to do some training for our staff. One of the things he would repeat over and over again was, "Rituals and routines are important because they mean safety to these kids."

I knew he was right, because most of the kids at that Brooklyn residence had grown up in chaos and disorder; in fact, most of the kids I have worked with over the last 30 years have grown up in chaos and disorder, coming from backgrounds of extreme poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, alcoholism, addiction and absent parents. And one of our first jobs as the adults in charge is to create a sense of order, because order implies safety. Good family routines and rituals are important ways of accomplishing this. What was good about the scene in "The Blind Side" is that the Tuohy family is an upper-middle-class, emotionally-thriving family, but even here rituals are still really important. Michael Ohler knew that, and in short order Leigh Ann knew it.

And if you are a family that follows any kind of religious faith, those rituals are important, too. I just read an interview in the National Catholic Reporter emphasizing this. The interview was with Thomas Groome, director of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College and author of "Will There be Faith?" Mr. Groome insists that too many families have relied on church schools or one-morning-a-week religious education programs to impart a faith identity to their children. In his opinion, it should be that "parents are the primary religious educators." When asked by the interviewer how parents are to do this, he gives a variety of ways, but emphasizes family rituals:

The family table is ideal. We can begin with a meal with a simple prayer exercise like this one: "Let's all pick one thing to say thank you to Holy God for." ... Very simple rituals can be creative ... How long would it take every night before your kids go to sleep to go to their bed and put your arms around each one, saying, "God loves you. I love you. Sleep well"? Do that every night for the next ten years, and you'll have children knowing they are deeply loved by their parents and by God. Any parent can put in a good word into a kid's life at any moment. You can do it a dozen times a day The key is that it is done intentionally and consistently.

Mr. Groome is so right. Rituals, whether religious or not, are vital to family life. Having dinner together every night -- without any television, cell phones or e-mail present -- is extremely important. Bedtime rituals are also important. And making a big deal about birthdays and anniversaries and holidays -- all important. Again, if you are a family of any faith, going to church/synagogue/mosque together is important, as well.

As Dr. Polsky told me 20 years ago, these routines create safety in the minds of children, and the present younger generation, which knows so much external uncertainty and fear, certainly needs to know and feel safety.

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