Every family has those inside jokes or groan-inducing nicknames that set them apart from the rest of the world. Did you know that those goofy little jokes are actually family rituals? Contrary to what you may think, rituals don't need to be elaborate, fancy or religious, they just need to be meaningful. Even something as simple as a monthly dinner at your family's favorite restaurant or a weekly trip to the park can serve to help your child develop a sense of belonging.

According to Professor Barbara Fiese, PhD., Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Syracuse, simple family rituals serve an important role in creating a child's sense of identity. "For young children in particular, this is really important.. It's sort of the foundation of their sense of identity and it provides a protection from stress," she explains. "All families experience some forms of stress and the expectation for these regular, predictable routines and these meaningful rituals can sort of ease transitions."

Since in today's busy world families face lots of transitions, it's especially important to create some rituals to strengthen a potentially tenuous family bond. "The rituals that we have and that we create are all sort of shorthand for who we are as a group together," says Fiese. So, the jokes that get repeated over and over again until the punchline alone is enough to make your child spurt milk out his nose help your family develop a common sense of humor and history. But those jokes are rarely intentional. Is an artificially-created ritual as powerful as one that occurs spontaneously?

According to William Doherty, author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties, all traditions begin as artificially-created experiences. "The issue," he states, "is whether they fill a need and feel good over time." That's where the idea of simple, but meaningful comes in. If your trip to the park was so much fun that your family decided to make it part of a predictable routine, then you've managed to create a ritual without even trying. Though it won't always be that easy to create a family ritual that stands the test of time, both Fiese and Doherty offer some tips of how to create meaningful rituals. Here are some of their thoughts:

  • Identify a few things your family looks forward to doing together. Sometimes these things are obvious, but sometimes they're not. For example, Fiese points out that many families are "plugged in" to music at the same time, but separately. Her suggestion? Create a family playlist. Once you get over the moans and groans, you'll have a chance to learn about each other's tastes.
  • Preserve and modify the rituals you already have.  If your current rituals are meeting your family's need for connection, and provide a sense of identity, keep those traditions going however you can. Continuing to have a large dinner together over Thanksgiving is a great ritual, but as time goes on, you may need to move it from Grandma's house to your own. This meets the need for connection, but also can help keep the ritual from becoming stressful.
  • Be flexible. Your family doesn't stay the same over time, so neither should your rituals. As Doherty puts it: "Rituals have their seasons for planting, cultivating, pruning, and harvesting."  Evaluate your traditions periodically to see if they meet everybody's needs and have evolved as your family has aged.

Above all, keep communicating with each other. Open communication is what keeps rituals (and families) healthy. Talking to each other about what makes you happy about what you're doing and what you've done is as crucial as talking about what doesn't work. "One of the key elements in healthy rituals is being able to have open communication about how important people are for the group and to really celebrate the symbolism of each family member," emphasizes Fiese. So the next time your child complains about being called "Pooky," you can tell him it's bringing you closer together!