Rituals and traditions build happy children

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WITH the passing of another Deepavali, Christmas and Chinese New Year, I found myself thinking a lot about the significance of traditions for families. I think traditions tend to take on a new and different meaning when you have a little one in your life, as you now have someone to carry on the legacy that you leave behind.

Traditions these days tend to be tied less to their true cultural meanings and religious roots, and more to commercial concerns due to the power of advertising. Deepavali is linked to fancy Indian-inspired garments and gold. Christmas is all about large Christmas tree displays and presents. Chinese New Year revolves around big reunion meals and ang pows. Hari Raya focuses on Buka Puasa feasts. Even a religious celebration like Easter is affected, as it is now mostly associated with the Easter Bunny and chocolate eggs.

Due to the lack of exposure and real experiences as well as good storybooks with Asian content, many Malaysian children are also unfortunately more familiar with Western traditions and culture. Ask any child here, and they could probably tell you more about Halloween than our own Hungry Ghost Festival.

Children in Malaysia and Asia certainly need more cultural role models and references that they can relate to. They need frequent reminders of the rich living culture that exists in our midst, to ensure that our unique collective Asian heritage remains in circulation and is not forgotten by future generations.

Having kids has helped bring back some of the excitement I used to feel as a child during festive periods. Now that my sisters and I are married, have our own families and live in different places, the Chinese New Year reunion dinner at our parents’ home in Johor Baru has become more meaningful. It is rather comforting to have this tradition to look forward to annually. It’s like pressing a pause button, so that we can take a break from our fast-paced lives to be together to enjoy each other’s company and feast on good food as a family.

These days, our reunion dinners are smaller and more intimate, only with the immediate family. When my paternal grandparents were alive, reunion dinners used to be very large affairs. There would be many tables set up in my grandparents’ spacious back porch. Most of the food would be home-cooked and made together. All our granduncles, grandaunts, uncles, aunts and cousins from, not only Malaysia, but also abroad, would make time to attend this dinner.

I have many great memories of these dinners – looking out of the old-fashioned wooden louvre windows of my grandparents’ house, waiting to see who would arrive next, observing the many shoes and slippers strewn haphazardly outside, playing traditional games with all our cousins, and listening to the adults tell stories about old family memories.

I’ve always had a vague inkling that traditions are good for children’s healthy development beyond the usual argument of passing on our cultural values but was never sure exactly why. I did some online research that surfaced interesting evidence that traditions do in fact make our families happier and healthier.

Researchers have apparently studied the role of traditions and rituals in family life since the 1950s; not just traditions that relate to festive holidays but any routine or set of behaviors that has symbolic meaning to the family such as family reunions, birthdays, special family nights or weekly Sunday lunches.

Research by a group of psychologists (http://journals.lww.com/iycjournal/Fulltext/2007/10000/Family_Routines_and_Rituals__A_Context_for.2.aspx) links these kinds of family practices with higher academic success, happiness, and the emotional wellbeing of the whole family. For example, parents of preschoolers who show a stable commitment to rituals over a five-year period have kids who score higher on tests of academic achievement, and mothers of preschoolers who feel that their families have meaningful rituals report higher marital satisfaction overall.

Whether they are listening to bedtime stories every night, going to their grandparents’ home for lunch every Sunday or baking cookies to celebrate Chinese New Year every year, young children are very aware of the daily, weekly, and annual rhythms of family life and as they grow, they are eager to participate as active players.

Rituals and traditions are really powerful as they provide regularity and a sense of order that helps children feel safe. When children feel secure, their anxiety reduces and they can focus their energy on learning and growing. When children know what to expect, it guides their behaviour and helps them make sense of the world.

Traditions practised during festive celebrations help us bond with those we love and anchor family members to each other. Studies show that traditions give children a strong feeling of belonging and sense of identity, as they tell children a story about who they are and what is important to the family. This feeling of being part of something unique and extraordinary can boost a child’s overall emotional wellbeing. Smaller nuclear families join with larger extended families, and the present forms a bridge with the past through traditions.

Storytelling and reminiscing about the past with family members creates and strengthens positive memories for children over time. Psychologist Marshall Duke discovered that children who have an intimate knowledge of their family’s history are typically more well-adjusted and confident than children who don’t (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-p-duke/the-stories-that-bind-us-_b_2918975.html). They have higher levels of self-esteem, fewer behavioural problems, and better family functioning.

As parents, we are the guardians of family traditions and our children’s first cultural role models. Yet, if you are a parent like me, a half-cooked Chinese who is not so well versed on cultural traditions, you may find yourself bumbling through some of these experiences. I think that’s part of the fun though. We should look at it as a shared inter-generational experience where we can learn and grow alongside our children.

In the end, having meaningful shared experiences with our little ones where we can model a sense of wonder and cultural appreciation is more valuable than knowing all the answers. I will definitely be looking for ways to inject more traditions into our daily lives, and introduce brand new traditions that celebrate our family values and serve as touchstones for my children to return to year after year, even when they are all grown up. What about you?