- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

Five decades of Sunday dinners at Mom's and bedtime stories can't be wrong.
A group of psychologists pored over 32 clinical studies of family rituals published in the past 50 years to determine what Mom probably knew all along: All the little, intimate events of our lives have a profound influence on our well-being.
They are, in fact, "powerful organizers of family life" that offer solace, continuity and contentment in good times and bad, says Syracuse University psychology professor Barbara Fiese.
There is a reason to hang those traditional stockings by the chimney, get out the good china and sing "Silent Night" once again. The research found that even modest rituals hold positive sway over family stability, children's health, academic achievement and personal identity.
With five other researchers, Mrs. Fiese methodically catalogued details from scores of scientific examinations that defined family rituals through diaries, interviews, memorabilia and questionnaires. Holiday moments, reunions, childhood chores, family prayers, old recipes, conversations, heirlooms, birthdays, Sunday dinner all came under scrutiny.
The team made an important distinction: There's a difference between mere routine and a genuine ritual in the domestic realm. It's the ritual that garners the permanent spot in our memory.
We routinely celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, but it's those customary cookies and a candle-lit caroling service that resonate over time. Regular bedtimes are important for children. A hushed nighttime prayer and that reassuring kiss on the forehead are remembered for a lifetime.
"Rituals involve symbolic communication, and convey, 'This is who we are,'" Mrs. Fiese said. "There's often an emotional imprint once the act is completed. The individual may replay it in memory to recapture the positive experience."
Simple routines shouldn't be dismissed, however.
"Any routine has the potential to become a ritual once it moves from an instrumental to a symbolic act," Mrs. Fiese said.
The rituals also jump-start a sense of heritage, offering insurance that "this is how our family will continue to be," she added.
And although the lore of television or pop culture might indicate otherwise, Americans are serious about both their family rituals and time spent together.
A Harris poll released earlier this year found that 98 percent of American adults think children should know their relatives and family history; 90 percent said the family get-together was of supreme importance.
Likewise, a recent Gallup poll determined that 90 percent of the respondents "prefer home-based activities to a night on the town."
The researchers also found that families get fierce about their rituals and hurt plenty if they diminish or cease all together.
"Even in case of late-life divorce [after age 50], offspring reported that the impact of the divorce is keenly felt in the disrupted practice of traditions such as Christmas, birthdays, vacations and Thanksgiving," Mrs. Fiese wrote in her findings, which were published this month by the Amercian Psychological Association.
Families challenged by divorce, illness, remarriage, single parenthood and other stress factors fared better if they preserved some of the old rituals, she found. They improved, among other things, "maternal self esteem" and "may actually protect children from the proposed risks associated with being raised in nontraditional families."
Rituals also influenced "lovability" among husbands, wives, children and relatives who felt an undeniable sense of belonging once they were treated to "the symbolic features of family rituals."
In a separate study of 120 couples last year, Mrs. Fiese found that the couple who trimmed their Christmas tree together actually strengthened their relationship by "reaffirming their beliefs and their marriage."
And though Mrs. Fiese calls the scientific study of routine and ritual "relatively immature" and undeveloped, she urges her fellow therapists to gauge family well-being by looking to the rituals no matter how trite or subtle.
"We have discovered that routines and rituals are important purveyors of culture," Mrs. Fiese said.


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