Children's Hospital Colorado

How to Create Meaningful Family Traditions

We asked Harley Rotbart, MD, Vice Chair of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital Colorado, and the author of No Regrets Parenting - Turning Long Days and Short Years into Cherished Moments for Your Kids, for advice on creating memorable traditions with your family.

What should parents know about creating family traditions?

There are two keys to establishing family traditions: repetition and anticipation. When you find something that brings excitement and smiles to your kids, keep doing it - not so often that it becomes mundane, but on a regular and predictable enough basis that it becomes part of the family repertoire.

How can we get the kids excited?

Start talking about the traditional event days ahead of time so by the time it finally happens, your kids are beside themselves with excitement. Anticipation can be as much fun as the tradition itself.

8 ideas for special family traditions

There are big traditions (Thanksgiving, December holidays, birthdays, etc.) and small traditions, and both are important in the legacy of a family. Even with the big traditional events, personalize them for your own family. Here are fun examples, big and small:

  1. Make Thanksgiving your own. Volunteer at the food bank on Thanksgiving morning. Play backyard football before dinner to work up an appetite or after dinner to work off the turkey.
  2. Turn birthdays into unique celebrations. Hang balloons in the kitchen the night before a birthday so the family arrives at a party room in the morning. Eat pancakes in mom and dad's bed on birthday mornings. Sing "Happy Birthday" in the most silly, off-key way possible.
  3. Double the number of birthdays in a year (or quadruple them!). Serve half a cake on half-birthdays and a cupcake on quarter-birthdays. You don't need gifts on these birthdays… just laughter, singing and fun. Celebrate your pets' birthdays, too!
  4. Do quirky things that only your family shares. Make a funny noise in the elevator when it's just your family taking the ride, or give a whoop every day when the clock strikes your exact address (if you live at 720 Elm, give a cheer at 7:20 every morning and night).
  5. Have a special dinner on special occasions. Designate your favorite foods for different events, like Chinese food for every anniversary, Indian food for good report cards, hot dogs on opening day of the baseball season, etc.
  6. Celebrate the seasons. Have a family leaf fight every fall, go sledding the day after the first snowfall, and eat fruit salad in the garden to celebrate summertime.
  7. Candlelight dinner. Once a month, for no special reason, everyone dresses up and eats a fancy meal at home, by candlelight. Soft music, the good china, and restaurant table manners.
  8. Activities just for your family. Have a family comedy night or a talent show; make holiday cards from scratch; write personalized lyrics to an old song and karaoke your new composition together; do "family university" trivia contests on the patio after dinner on warm summer nights.

Only you know the chemistry of your own family and which traditions will resonate. Try a lot of different ideas. There's no such thing as "failure." If an idea doesn't work, you've still spent wonderful moments with your kids and given them something to tease you about for years to come ("Remember when mom thought it would be cool to have all of us wear costumes to surprise dad at dinner?").

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