The comfort of traditions

November 24, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

The suggestion that we “do something different” this Thanksgiving was met by a long silence.

“Why would we do something different?” asked our daughter, her tone incredulous. The start of college this past August has meant a time of significant adjustment for our oldest child. She and our two other children have only ever known “Nerney Thanksgiving,” and it was not a tradition my daughter was willing to mess with.

Long before I came to the Nerney table, my husband’s mother cooked dinner in a two-bedroom apartment near the ocean in Rhode Island, where she and my father-in-law moved when their children were grown. The dinner table spanned the length of the living room, and the traditional feast drew their eight children (seven boys and one girl), along with spouses, significant others, grandchildren, and a dog or three underfoot.

Nerney Thanksgiving moved from Rhode Island when growing families made it next-to-impossible to fit in that two-bedroom apartment. While the location has varied, what has not changed much are the traditions we associate with the holiday.

Activity traditions

There’s always a Thanksgiving craft for the kids and any adult willing to partake. These have included everything from marshmallow turkeys to festively colored place cards; (my favorite was the year one of my young children wrote “MOT” for an uncle named Tom). Thanksgiving morning features a football game for “the boys” and the occasional “girl” who dares step onto the gridiron. On the day after Thanksgiving, before Black Friday devolved into madness, the women hit the shops while the kids went to the movies with their dads and uncles. It was traditional tradition.

I’ve always sensed that these annual rituals are important for my kids, as I know they were for me growing up. It turns out that research backs up my instincts on this. Traditions aren’t just fun; they may actually make our families happier and healthier, and our children more successful.

Traditions help childhood development

In a 2007 report published in “Infants and Young Children: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Early Childhood Intervention,” researchers concluded: “Naturally occurring family routines and meaningful rituals provide both a predictable structure that guides behavior and an emotional climate that supports early development.”

In fact, researchers have studied the role of meaningful rituals and traditions in family life since the 1950s. They have looked not only at holiday-related activities but any routine or set of behaviors that define a family/group – as in “this is who we are.” These can include activities such as bedtime stories, family dinners, family movie night, reunions and birthdays, among others.

In decades of research, psychologists connect these family habits with higher academic success, happiness, and emotional well-being for the whole family. They have seen that meaningful rituals provide children with a sense of order, which in turn leads to children feeling more safe and secure. That security enables children to focus on the tasks at hand, such as learning. The bottom line is, when children know what to expect and have a sense of “this is how my family rolls,” they can make sense of the world and relax in the understanding that things are predictable.

Over the years, the faces at the Nerney Thanksgiving table have aged; some have changed. Grandchildren have grown, married and moved away, a few taking their parents along to start their own family celebrations. The football game has become a bit gentler as “the boys” have aged. Now, many of the grandchildren can drive themselves to the movies, though they welcome the “grownups” to come along.

So perhaps my daughter is right: In a year marked by change and challenges, maybe this is not the year to “do something different.” We can instead embrace the comfort that comes with tradition, knowing we are creating meaningful memories that will last long after the Thanksgiving leftovers are packed away.

Additional Resources

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011. She and her husband are parents of two daughters, 18 and 16, and a son, 10. She is looking forward to hosting this year’s Nerney Thanksgiving, a tradition in which her 92-year-old mother-in-law still plays a significant role.

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