Rituals and routines

Thoughts on how language, experiences, and traditions help create a family’s collective memory.

Every family has its own language, its own customs and traditions. Some of that vocabulary evolves from the unconscious rhythm of everyday life; other words and phrases are deliberately crafted.

It can be simple differences over simple things. In my home growing up, “hand-wash time” meant that the table was set and dinner was ready. This works pretty well if you and your brother never helped your mother with dinner preparation. In my house now, we’re a little looser. “Get your hands washed” means just that, then help with whatever needs doing. It’s a little more chaotic, but a little more communal. But, I still have to remind my brain not to expect a fully set table when I hear those words.

One of the favorite treats is when my mom makes me Cereal Snack. It’s not Chex Mix, it’s Cereal Snack. It is still made with branded grain cereal squares, but has a lot more butter. The best parts are the crispy pieces. When a care package of Cereal Snack arrives, it goes on top of the refrigerator, and the children occasionally get some. To them, it will always be Cereal Snack, and that makes me happy.

You also get to pick what your kids call their grandparents. We asked the grandparents what they wanted to be called; my mom is Gramma Susan, my dad is Grandfather. Kat’s mom was indecisive, so I said, “If you don’t pick anything, we’re just going to have them call you Grandma Pooh.” And it stuck.1

— ∮∮∮ —

Routines come and go. Right now, the bedtime routines have settled into a nice groove. The three-year-old will cuddle under my arm, and shortly before falling asleep will ask me “Will you stay until you have to go do chores?” The answer is yes.

The six-year-old requires a very exact procedure:

  1. Enter bedroom and close door.
  2. Dad turns on iPhone flashlight.
  3. She climbs into bed.
  4. She then requests “Still Alive”, “Touch Your Heart”, and “Butterfly Kiss”.
  5. Then she tells me to turn out the light.
  6. I sing “Still Alive”.
  7. I recite “Touch Your Heart” and “With a Butterfly Kiss”.
  8. “Goodnight Daddy.”

I know that at any time, she could have an idea to add to this routine. Do I allow it because it is easier in the moment, or do I say no and risk the whole routine crumbling to dust? I fear the scope creep of bedtime, but also don’t wish to return to the indecision of “I don’t know what song I want!”

— ∮∮∮ —

The holidays lead to more deliberate traditions. Where is Thanksgiving celebrated? Do you invite family to your house? Is there a rotation between sides of the family? Do you forget completely about Thanksgiving every year until your brother invites you to his house?

If you celebrate Christmas, when are presents opened? Are stockings filled? Do grown-ups get them? Recently, my six-year-old saw a billboard for The Nutcracker along 195. Last year she went with my wife, Kat, and had a great time2 and wants to go again. Is this a tradition-in-the-making? How do we make sure we keep doing things because they are enjoyable, not because it is what is always done? Eventually the children won’t want to do things because they are LAME. How do we drink up their childlike wonder like Essense of Gelfling?

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Sometimes, things that are worth doing require planning. Because I am so inertial, I mask my lack of planning in “let’s just see what happens.” What actually happens is “we should have done that.” Traditions can help with that inertia. We need to do this thing because we do this thing every year. This thing is a thing that we do. The trick is being able to let those traditions go if they stop bringing joy. But more often than not, I find myself enjoying the things I force myself to do.

I love my little family, and I love all the little things that make it ours. It will shift and change over the years, but I love that we will own this collective set of experiences, language, and memory.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. Until recently. She’s now Nana. 
  2. Except for the simulated cannon fire. 

Photo by: popofatticus

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Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the father of two daughters (ages five and eight) who lives in Northside Richmond. He and his wife Kat are trying their best to not raise sociopaths.

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