Professional Learning

A Time for Family Traditions

April 14, 2009

April is indeed a special time for strengthening social and emotional and character development (SECD). Reflecting on this past week, I've had some pertinent thoughts to share with students and their families around this time of the year. Feel free to use, adapt, or create your own.

This is a time of year when many of the world's religions are celebrating important holidays. These holidays also are times when families come together and share their company and stories. These gatherings get more and more difficult in our very busy world. Sometimes, they seem like more trouble than they are worth. However, there is probably no more important thing we do than come together at holiday time as families. During these times, we renew our traditions.

What exactly are traditions? Traditions represent a set of shared memories. They contain the values, ways of thinking, ways of dressing, and ways of relating to one another that have been a part of families over the generations.

Some of us have traditions that include certain kinds of religious worship during the holiday, and those types of worship themselves are rich in tradition. There are tunes that we sing in certain ways. There are stories and inspirational messages that come at a particular time of year that remind us of the importance of our faith and our connection to a larger spiritual world.

Traditions Speak About Who We Are

Those who do not follow any organized religion still establish their own sets of traditions with friends and families. Traditions are a basic part of what it is to be a human being and what it is to be a family. With them, we stake our claim. What is important to us? Which stories do we tell over and over during the holidays? What are our traditions around helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

As young children get older and go beyond being the little bundles of joy who enjoy only play, they become more inquisitive. They ask questions about why we are here, what we are doing, what these traditions mean, and why we take part in them. Parents and other adults in families then have to provide answers to these questions, and, in doing so, they often rediscover the answers for themselves.

Some of our traditions are so subtle that outsiders to our family would hardly notice them. In many families, including mine, we "arrange" the guests' seating during the holidays. Far from a nice convenience, those colorful name cards at peoples' seats speak volumes about the current status of family relationships. Who is it that we absolutely cannot have sitting next to each other or even have on the same side of the house? Which people get on other people's nerves, and who are the good storytellers who really help keep the table lively? Who are the people who love to help out in the kitchen year after year and therefore need to have special seating?

Many families have certain foods they serve. These foods are rich with meaning; some may not be served much, or at all, at other times of the year. Someone just arriving at the house for the first time would have little way of knowing that, but family members know it. There are traditional prayers, traditional garments, and sometimes the tradition of getting fine new garments. These are reminders of special connections we have to our families and to the many people who share our beliefs.

Don't Lose the Purpose in the Preparation

Traditions are part of what makes us human beings. The ways we choose to observe has great meaning for us and declares our special quality as people. During hectic holiday times, try to not get so caught up in the preparation that you lose the purpose. Some families question whether we should risk breaking the positive mood by talking about the meaning of the holiday, even at our dinner tables. Families can be greatly enriched by taking the steps to show that we're not just here to simply have a meal but also for a larger purpose as well.

By bringing the meaning of the holiday into homes, restaurants, hotels, or wherever we happen to be celebrating, we take a big step in showing our children that our ideals and traditions are a true part of our everyday lives, even if we do not visibly celebrate them every day. Think about asking several guests, including children, to prepare in advance something to share about the holiday, its meaning, or their own favorite ways of celebrating.

Remember Those Who Are Not Present

Often, there is also hesitation about spoiling the positive mood of the holiday by bringing up negative events, perhaps the passing of loved ones the previous year or difficulties that have occurred among members of our extended family. It's important to show that we can handle both the positive aspects of life and the unpleasant ones. You can do so with balance. For every friend and family member able to be with you, give thanks. Remember those who have suffered misfortune through special prayers or other recognition, stories, or pictures. This will not be a downer, and ultimately, it will enrich the experience of the people who attend.

It's the Meaning, Not the Meal -- Mostly

After all, what we really want to convey is that it's the purpose and not the food that matters, right? Well, we know that although it may sound good to say, it's not the truth. So, let's rephrase: It's the meal that matters, but there's no reason we can't season the meal with a little meaning.

As we do so, we may find that we rediscover some of the pleasure and warmth of the holiday. We reinforce old traditions and create new ones as children ask us questions. In answering questions for and with our children, we bring traditions visibly into our present lives and affirm that we are human beings with dignity and depth, creators of higher moments we can aspire to repeat during the months ahead.

How do traditions enrich your life, your curriculum, and your interactions with students and parents? Please share your thoughts.

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