Everyday rituals provide children with sense of connection

The summer wind-down has begun, and back-to-school season is shifting into high gear.

Whether the end of summer inspires dread (hectic mornings and homework struggles) or glee (more free time while the kids are in school) – or both – the start of a new school year is a good time for parents to pause and think for a moment about family culture and how to give children a sense of being supported and connected.

One of the best ways to provide this sense of security is to build little rituals into everyday family life – something that provides a momentary oasis of calm and predictability before (and after) your child goes out into the world.

Just about every family has holiday traditions and rituals for special occasions, whether it’s “we always go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving” to the ceremonial carving of the Easter ham.

But what can we do to make the mundane and everyday special?

In some homes, the morning ritual begins with the wake-up. I have heard of families that play the same personalized music mix every morning, or even sing their own family version of Reveille with silly lyrics incorporating the kids’ names. (The music mix can also act as a motivational aid, letting the children know – without parental nagging – that by the time a certain selection plays, they need to be dressed or at the breakfast table.)

At breakfast, rituals can include the usual items such as a prayer or blessing; a piece of cinnamon toast bearing a happy face; or a greeting using the child’s pet name (I used “Lee-Lee” and “Laniebug” for my daughters Leah and Lanie) or silliest nickname (“Hotdog” for Jackie, my daredevil child).

Even a silly morning joke (“Will you be having giraffes or elephants sprinkled on your cereal today?”) can become a cherished ritual, as well as a source of creative, get-the-juices flowing conversation as kids seek to come up with ever-more-absurd comebacks. (“No, I’m more in the mood for aardvarks today.”)

Another great way to make children feel a sense of security and belonging is to reminisce about their babyhoods – a subtle reminder of their rootedness in the family and the way they have been loved and cherished since birth.

One of my favorite stories about daughter Jackie recalls her habit as a one-year-old of waking up in the pre-dawn hours and letting me know loudly that she was ready to start her day. On one such bleary-eyed morning, I pointed to her bedroom window in desperation and told her that once the sun was up, she could wake me.

The next morning, I could hear Jackie stirring before dawn and knew she was standing in her crib, searching for that first sliver of sun edging over horizon. Sure enough, I soon heard her crow proudly, “Sun’s up, Mommy! Come get me!”

Oh, how I loved to remind Jackie of this in her middle school days, when she would have preferred to sleep in. And even on her grouchier mornings, greeting her with a “Sun’s up, Jackie!” almost always drew a sheepish smile.

Send-off rituals
As for goodbye rituals, I know parents of younger children who give them special wallets with family pictures inside to start the school year, and send them off every morning with the reminder that “I’m in your pocket” and that the wallet can be patted whenever the child feels the need.

Other parents may choose to send their children off with a one-sentence Prayer of Protection, while still others might like to count a few kisses into their child’s palm and add the words, “Now close up your hand, and keep those kisses close all day!”

In my own family, we had a “squeeze you to pieces” ritual that sprang out of a random affectionate moment when I told my toddler daughter, “Oh, I could just squeeze you to pieces!” After a few such hugs, the literal meaning of the statement suddenly dawned on her one day, and she looked alarmed. “Mommy, put me back together!” she demanded.

After that, the squeezing ritual always ended with exaggerated slapping and patting moments as I picked up the “pieces” and put her back together – and even now, the phrase can still elicit a laugh with my grown-up girls.

At the end of a long day, the best homecoming rituals are calming ones, of course. As a tea lover, I can’t think of a better calming ritual than tea time.

When my daughters were in preschool and elementary school – before the after-school sports began – we did tea almost daily. At that age, a simple box of sugar cubes and a pair of silver tongs (only seen at tea time) was a much-anticipated treat, as was the ceremony of steeping and stirring and plunking in the cubes – and talking about our days.

But don’t think for a moment that tea time only works with girls. I had friends who raised two sons with a daily tea time ritual that took place when Dad (an Anglophile) arrived home at 4:30.

From the time they could toddle to the table, the boys were expected to sit in for at least a few moments of the ceremonial pouring and sipping, and to join in the adult conversation. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that both of these boys grew up to be not only the most polite and gentlemanly young men that you could ever hope to meet, but also articulate, accomplished students.

Some parents save the most precious after-school treats for rainy days, and keep special books and games in reserve, only to be used when weather is dreary and children are feeling confined. Or they bring out the special snacks and activities for rainy days, like popping popcorn (the old-fashioned way).

Random moments
Among the best everyday rituals, in my opinion, are those that are unscheduled and take place at random moments throughout the day. One of the coolest random rituals I’ve heard of is the family dance break. In this musical family’s home, whenever a good dancing song comes on, any family member can call out “dance break!” – requiring everyone to drop what they’re doing and meet in the den for some spontaneous dancing and laughing.

In my own family, we had a random ritual known as the hug alarm. Anyone who had a sudden need for a hug could simply start making a noise like a fire engine siren or other alarm, and everyone was supposed to drop what they were doing and come running to supply a hug.

As for bedtime and dinnertime, we will have to save those those rife-with-rituals times of day for separate columns to allow enough space for the topic. As always, I hope readers will write and share some of their family rituals, and perhaps help other families who are searching for inspiration to develop their own.

And as you develop these rituals, keep in mind that some will grow out of spontaneous moments (like squeezing to pieces) and some might be developed by your children themselves.

One of my favorite ritual stories is about the harried single mom who came home from work one day to find that her preteen sons had, on a whim, set up a “happy hour” of lemonade, cheese and crackers.

Now, at the end of a bad day, she will call and ask her boys, “Could we have a happy hour today?”

Reynolds CC to host sculptor Paul DiPasquale

Reynolds Community College will host Richmond sculptor Paul DiPasquale Sept. 28 as he shares his presentation “Art Talk, Why Art Matters” from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Conference Center Gallery of the Workforce Development and Conference Center on the Parham Road Campus, located at 1651 E. Parham Road in Richmond. This event is free and open to the public. > Read more.

Free children’s clothing for those in need

The Children's Clothing Closet at Highland Springs United Methodist Church will be open Saturday, Aug. 27 and Tuesday, Aug. 30 to provide free new or nearly new children's clothing for families in need, prior to the start of the school year. The Clothing Closet will be open from 10 a.m. to noon both days. The church is located at 22 North Holly Avenue. > Read more.

Theme for this year’s Dominion GardenFest of Lights at Lewis Ginter announced

The theme for the annual Dominion GardenFest of Lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Lakeside has been announced.

This year's event, which opens Nov. 25 and will continue through Jan. 9, will explore "Living Color" and show how the world's kaleidoscope of colors speaks to people, impacts nature and influences culture, according to Garden officials. The event features more than a half million lights, botanical decorations, trains, holiday dinners, family activities and more. > Read more.


Reader Survey | Advertising | Email updates


Place an Ad | More Classifieds


Children ages 2-8 and their families are invited to Henricus Historical Park at 3 p.m. for Haunted Henricus, Jr.: Things That Go Bump in the Afternoon. There will be stories, a treats tour and make-and-take 17th-century crafts. Admission is $5 each; free for Henricus patrons. Register by Oct. 26 to 748-1611. For details, visit http://www.henricus.org. Full text

Your weather just got better.


Henrico's Top Teachers

The Plate