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Birthdays and unbirthdays

February 9, 2009


I was fortunate enough to catch up with a number of old friends this weekend. The kind of friends that even if you don’t talk for a week (or months or years), you can easily pick up where you left off. This weekend also confirmed any shred of denial that we are fully enmeshed in “midlife”  – as we  swapped stories of the glory days and our own children, and laughed at the changes time brought to our bodies, minds, and our outlook.  While we’ve all written many chapters of our lives and shared much of it with each other, we also shared a desire to reconnect and seek advice from trusted friends.  But this weekend, what struck me about all of these conversations is the often subtle, but very important,  role traditions and rituals play in the life of both children and adults. One of those rituals was the reason for my weekend travel – the 3rd birthday of my god son – but it was the more common interactions that shed light on the true meaning of family.

For most children, birthdays rank up there with Christmas/Hanukkah and Halloween. Particularly for young children, who are decided and developmentally egocentric, it’s the ultimate celebration of “me.”  The ways in which each family honors and celebrates that child often shape the child and signifies the family’s priorities, as do many of the daily activities of unbirthdays.  There is usually discussion and planning, excitement and wonder of the possibility of gifts, and a circling up of family and a few (or more) close friends.  All of these demonstrate to a child that they are valued and loved by their family – and what could be more important than that whether you are 3 or 13 or 33? And there  is  fun, whether it’s the particular kind of fun the birthday child enjoys often or a novel kind of fun reserved for this special day.   A favorite toy or two given as a gift  is just the icing on the cake!  But what is arguably more significant to a child’s developing sense of self and his place in the family and world, are the rituals and routine of those 364 unbirthday days.

Each day adults hold the awesome power to choose words and conduct themselves in ways that can affirm and empower children to be positive, caring, curious and responsible — now and in the future.  The choices we make for our children and those choices we allow them to make reveal our confidence in ourselves and in their potential.  Do we choose to offer books and toys which allow for imaginative play or do we choose to let them watch a screen because it quickly gratifies them and makes it easier on us? Do we model for them how to care for themselves and their things in developmentally appropriate ways that let them learn to solve problems or do we do it for them, leaving them to feel dependent on us? Do we choose words that provide positive feedback for attempts at these tasks (“I see you are really trying to put all those crayons back carefully”) or do we offer our own judgement (“good job”) ?  More importantly, do we look them in the eye and tell them what we value in them and love about them, even  after a day in which they were riding on that very last nerve?  Do we build predictable routines into daily life that provide a sense of solidarity and fun within a family?  Things such as special meals, prayer or conversation around the table, crazy songs or antics that bring levity and laughter, weekly events, seasonal or annual traditions all  lay the foundation for the strong feeling of family that stays with us for a life time.  In fact it is often the memory of these traditions  that sustains individual family members in trying times.  Stephen Covey calls this process “making deposits in the emotional bank account our children.”  You need to build up the reserves so that when life throws them a curve ball, they’ve got the resource to handle it.  And if you are an adult who is worried or stressed yourself, you might find these traditions help re-calibrate you, too,  as you’re engaged in one of the most challenging, important and rewarding jobs of your life and find assurance in these traditions.

It’s often  those rituals  of daily life which shape us and allow us to grow into healthy adults – with or without therapy and/or bad habits.  Knowing that family will be there on good days and bad and an awareness of what is important in life are all rooted in tradition and daily interactions.  Many of us grew up with pretty unremarkable childhoods – no wars, no abject poverty, no hobnobbing with celebs or royalty, no major illness or globe-trotting travel.  We  got what we needed and much of what we wanted (that’s a topic for a later blog…) and now as adults and parents, we recognized how truly remarkable that is.   As I listened to my really strong, caring and productive friends talk, what I heard was their appreciation for  the unyielding love and structure they felt in their own childhood and the desire to provide that for their own kids in these challenging times.    All families have their dark days or their sordid chapters, but what stabilizes young and old and provides the breeding ground for resiliency, is what good parents throughout the world know.  By maintaining a sense of belonging and significance to family, establishing and upholding boundaries which frame predictable structure and routine,  and providing unconditional love you are providing the basic necessities of life.  Alongside, or concurrent with traditional basic needs for food, shelter and clothing, these are the touchstone  for young children and families on which everything else is built.

The economy may be precious, your village may be susceptible to attack, your health may be compromised, your mood unpredictable.  Traditions and rituals balance those unpredictable and often undesired elements we all face in life, and even when life is good, they provide reminders of all that we have to be grateful for in our lives.   We often cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our reactions and our outlook, and what a gift that is to share with our children.  If you can start the day among the smiles of the folks you love,  and keep your eye on your priorities and goals, and then go to sleep among those same smiles knowing that you’ve done your best all day, then that is  cause for celebration whether  it’s your birthday or unbirthday.

Recommended Reading on Rituals and Traditions (titles are currently available at or your local library or book store)

The Joy of Family Rituals: Recipes for Everyday Living by Barbara Biziou

You perform rituals with your family every day. Thursday night, you order pizza; Sunday morning, you make French toast. Before bedtime you read to your child. During the holiday season, you ask your children to donate some of their toys to the homeless. But while most of us participate in rituals regularly, many of us fail to recognize the significance of the ritual. In The Joy of Family Rituals, Barbara Biziou demonstrates how these moments can enrich our families if we take the time to reflect on how they are beneficial to our lives. Rituals provide the foundation that today’s families need to feel secure and grounded. Making these simple rites part of your family will foster communication, nurture children’s self-esteem, and help maintain a sacred and spiritual connection among family members.

Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel

Frustrated with a therapeutic practice that “shifted too frequently to be an anchor” for parents struggling with issues like overindulgence and over scheduling, clinical psychologist Mogel turned to her religious heritage for ways to help her clients and her own family “find grace and security” in an increasingly complex world. “In the time-tested lessons of Judaism, I discovered insights and practical tools that spoke directly to these issues,” writes Mogel, who left her psychology practice in order “to help parents look at their children’s anxieties and desires using a different lens.” Digging into the rich traditions of the Torah, the Talmud and other Jewish teachings, Mogel builds a parenting blueprint that draws on core spiritual values relevant to families of all faiths. With warmth and humor, she offers strategies for encouraging respect and gratitude in children, and cautions against overprotection.

Shelter of Each Other by Mary Phiper

In even the most dysfunctional families, she discerns threads of connectedness that have led to empowerment of her clients as they became more capable of handling their own lives. Pipher recommends an empathetic approach to families’ efforts to survive in a difficult era, one that parallels the homesteading years of her grandparents earlier in this century. She offers plain and practical talk for beleaguered parents and the families they are trying to protect.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Families by Stephen Covey

“What is ‘effectiveness’ in a family?” asks author Steven R. Covey. He promptly answers with four words: “a beautiful family culture.”  Covey reinterprets each of his now famous “habits” to apply to parenting and family-life issues. Covey suggests writing a family mission statement, implementing special family times and “one-on-ones,” holding regular family meetings, and making the commitment to move from “me” to “we” as techniques to improve family effectiveness. Covey is a brilliant storyteller. By weaving the voices and anecdotes of his wife and children with his own inspirational and informative stories, exercises, and parables, he has created a book with something for all parents interested in enhancing the strength and beauty of their own families.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 9, 2009 12:32 pm

    Lisa, thanks so much for this wonderful blog! I greatly appreciate the helpful resources as I am just starting to navigate the wonderful world of children. Having you as my Obi Won is such a blessing. I look forward to the next entry!

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