You may have noticed that the children in your life love having things done exactly the same way every time. There is a good reason for this: when we do things the same way each time, it lets children develop competence. They are able to anticipate what will happen next, they know exactly how things go, and eventually they will be able to do it themselves. Children get a great deal of satisfaction in having things done the same way each time. As adults, this can sometimes drive us crazy, either because we’re in a rush, or simply because we get bored of doing the same things over and over again. However, there is a way to do things the same way each time that feels fulfilling to both child and adult: to take our routines and transform them into rituals.
What is ritual? There are six definitions in my dictionary. One is, “Any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner.” If we use this definition, we engage in many, many rituals each day, whether we think of them that way or not. However, the term ritual often has connotations of ceremony, sometimes in connection with religious or spiritual practice. The set of actions is imbued with emotion or meaning. Think about the rituals that you remember as a child. Many people have fond memories of holiday rituals. Whether you are religious or not, holiday rituals often hold a special place because adults do their best to imbue them with specialness, with love and beauty.
When we take our day-to-day routines and imbue them with love and beauty, we transform the experience, and with it we transform our children’s experience of the world. An easy place to start is eating and sleeping. How can you add some love and beauty into these routines? It can be simple, such as saying a grace or lighting a candle before a meal, or saying a certain nursery rhyme as you wipe their faces after meals. As you start to get inspired, your rituals can become more complex. For example, if you like to keep fresh-cut flowers in your dining room (which I highly recommend!), then you might have a little bud vase that stays by your child’s bed. The bedtime routine could start with the child choosing one flower from the dining room arrangement, and taking it upstairs to put in his bud vase. He brushes teeth with you and gets pajamas on, then climbs into bed and you bring the vase over for him admire and smell the flower one last time before turning out the lights, and you sing softly while he falls asleep. Later, before you go to bed yourself, take the bud vase downstairs and set up a breakfast spot for your child: beautiful place-mat, bowl, cup, bib, and the bud vase with the flower, to wait for your child’s awakening. After your child has eaten breakfast, you or he can put the flower back in the dining room flower arrangement, and you put the bud vase by his bed again, to wait for evening.
Incorporating these little pieces of beauty into your day can change things from being ho-hum to being a bit magical. My only word of warning is not to add too much too fast, and not to add so much that you get bogged down going through all of the steps every day. Remember, simpler is often better (notice that there was no story-reading in the bedtime ritual described above; the flower took its place). Try adding one thing at a time, and let everyone get used to it before you add the next piece. So you might start adding beauty to your meals first by getting fresh flowers for the table or sideboard. Then by getting nice place-mats. Then a candle to light at the meal. Thinking about how to add beauty and love to each portion of your day can help keep you inspired in your parenting and home-making.
You can also have rituals which only happen periodically. I knew one lovely woman who would pick up her young grandson from kindergarten every Friday and they would take the city bus to the library, choose one book, and bring it home. That one book would be read every time she saw him (she was a secondary caregiver) until the next Friday. To me, taking the city bus with a five-year-old sounds like torture, but she explained how taking the bus was an integral part of their experience together, and they both looked forward to it all week. So it’s not so much WHAT you do, it’s HOW you do it, and the life you breathe into it. Other periodic rituals can happen inside the home, such as baking bread or making cornmeal muffins on the same day each week, or having certain toys that only come out on rainy days, or singing the same song each time you go to a certain place (My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean each time you go to the lake, or Over the River and Through the Woods each time you go to Grandma’s house, etc.). Giving these activities the regularity and the same-ness that you might not otherwise consider doing can turn them into rituals, and may be the ones that your children remember fondly when they have grown up.