CAST YOUR MIND back over your own childhood years and chances are, certain memories will stand out. For me, it’s biting down on my mother’s home-made toffee on Guy Fawkes’ night, stirring the Christmas cake mix and making a wish, washing the family car on Sunday mornings with breakfast afterwards and driving into the countryside on the first sunny Spring Bank Holiday for a picnic to see the bluebells and the newborn lambs.
“A lot of families are always so busy, rushing about and doing things, but little rituals – saying, 'this is what we do on this day' – is a way of helping to define the family and structure it,” says family therapist Kate Daniels.
Spending fun, quality time together makes families stronger, say family researchers Nick Stinnett and John DeFrain. They dub the families who have rituals as the “we always” family, as in “We always have popcorn on Saturday night” or “We always make snow angels when the first snow falls.” It takes commitment, but it is worthwhile. “Family times don’t just happen,” says Stinnett. “They have to be planned into your busy family life.”
If hand-me-down traditions were thin on the ground in your family, don’t fret – you can create new ones. And don’t feel you have to stick with those traditions that have been handed down the ages if you don’t particularly care for them. Instead, have fun with your children making up new rituals to celebrate, which they can pass down to their children and grandchildren.
Not only can family life be enriched by rituals, but, above all, it creates a sense of identity. Good traditions will reflect the character of your own family so your choice of activity should never be forced. And remember that your traditions can be anything you want them to be – from a once-a-week Sunday roast followed by a board game to a grand gesture annual event involving loads of special preparation and planning.
Here are 15 ideas to get you started:
1. Eat breakfast for dinner Children love the idea of breaking the rules, and you can tailor-make your late breakfast to suit everyone’s tastes – whether it’s a traditional fry-up, a stack of pancakes, or a pile of buttery croissants and pastries.
2. Camp out at home Forget proper beds, it’s time for the family to get better acquainted. Push all the furniture to one side and make space for everyone to hunker down with sleeping bags, camp beds and mattresses. Tell stories, have a midnight feast and be super-relaxed about bedtimes.
3. Mark a special occasion Take time to notice small changes that can get lost in the hurly-burly of family life – like switching from nursery to primary school. Keep it simple, and make a special congratulations card, bake a cake for tea or take a commemorative photograph.
4. See how they grow An annual measure-in is the perfect way to chart growth. All you need is the back of a door, or a length of wood – like a broom pole – on which to mark your annual height measurements. Mark the height of each child, along with their age and the date. You could do the same with hand or foot prints – and see how fast time is fleeing as they grow!
5. Keep a holiday journal When children are small, it’ll be down to the grown-ups to keep a holiday diary, but as the years march on, encourage your child to add her own drawings, mementos and thoughts. A few mishaps tend to be a feature of most family holidays, so these journals can make hilarious reading in years to come.
6. Take a family portrait Choose a location – it could be a favourite place in your local woods or piled onto your sofa at home – and revisit every year for an annual family snapshot. Make sure everyone is in the frame, set your camera on self-timer and ask everyone to say “Cheese”.
7.Plan a ‘spa’ night Break open the bubble bath and face masks and light some candles. Lay out fluffy towels and give each other massages and manicures or makeovers. Make recipes for your own lotions and serve fruit smoothies.
8. Play the Generation Game Book a day for all the females in the family (mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters) and all the menfolk (fathers, brothers, sons) to spend time together. Plan an event – perhaps a hike into the woods, an afternoon in the kitchen learning how to bake grandmother’s favourite recipe, or even a movie-making day where everyone has a starring role!
9. Eat out at home Choose a theme, plan the menu, shop for ingredients and deck out the kitchen so it looks just like a fancy restaurant. Let the children decorate menus and lay the table. Have blackcurrant and apple juice for ‘red’ or ‘white’ wine. See our feature The Great Big Food Adventure on page 48 for more ideas to create fun family meals.
10. Keep an audio diary You may think that you’ll always remember your toddler’s cute little sayings and mispronounced words, but you won’t, so commit them to posterity with a recording. Once a year, update your family audio diary. Keep a special tape or disc and ask children for a contribution. When they are very young record their chit-chat. As they get older, they can tell a story or sing a song.
11. Go on a spring picnic Whether you stick to the second Sunday in May and head out, come rain or shine, or the first sunny weekend, there is something special about the inaugural spring picnic. Children love classic picnic fare, so pack cucumber sandwiches and lemonade, find a grassy knoll, make daisy chains, and if there is a hill, perform endless roly-polys.
12. Throw a film night Just pick a film – a rota will save arguments – and prepare a snack. Now turn the living room into a loungy cinema: scatter cushions, draw the curtains, turn the lights down low and let the film commence.
13. Autumn garden party Many hands make light work, so on with the wellies and out with the rakes and the shovels and pile up the leaves. When fatigue or boredom strike, take a break for some delicious hot chocolate and sticky buns.
14. Go stargazing There is something quite magical about gazing at a night sky – especially when you are all wrapped up in a cosy blanket. It’s even more special for children because they get to stay up really, really late. Start with the moon and the North Star, then progress to the other popular constellations.
15. Learn something new Take turns to teach a new skill. Whether it’s a new card game, or being taught how to create junk art by your three-year-old, it will make every member of the family feel super-valuable.