Routine comfort

Learn how to respect your child's need for rituals without becoming overwhelmed.

Learning Stages

Rituals are important to children. They help to give them a sense of belonging—to a family, a group, a religion, or a country. Children seek out rituals, especially in holidays and birthdays. They find comfort and joy in celebrating the same way every year.

Children inherit some rituals and create others. They are set by parents or community or religion. But after a few exposures, children become ritual-bearers as much as the generation before them. Trick-or-treating, lighting Hanukkah candles, fasting at Ramadan, marching in the Fourth of July parade—children quickly make these theirs. And they soon feel a sense of entitlement that the rituals should be perpetuated.

Soothing Little Routines

The same is true on a daily level. Little routines can also be soothing; they can help children make the transition from one thing to another. Rituals of bedtime are a prime example. They prepare for sleep by going through the same activities, in the same order, every night. Variation in the order, or skipping a step, can be unsettling. Parents quickly learn that the ritual serves everyone.

Keeping Rituals Under Control

But sometimes children can turn ritual into obsession—bedtime becomes too many stories, too much checking under the bed. And sometimes the usual routine is too much for a parent who has had a long, difficult day at work. If you feel the need to shorten the bedtime or other routine, the more notice you give your child, the more likely he can accept this change. Tell him when you pick him up from child care or arrive home that you won't be able to read three books tonight, just one, and explain why. Most children will try a little bargaining: "Okay, but will you read me an extra one tomorrow?" If you expect another long workday tomorrow, you may suggest the extra reading be saved for the weekend.

It may be difficult for working parents to pull off extravagant rituals. Baking and cooking party foods from scratch or making elaborate decorations may not be possible when you're working. Maybe your family's ritual is not baking three kinds of cookies but going to the same favorite bakery and picking out some from the case. This kind of mid-point gesture is less demanding than the from-scratch cookies but more special than buying boxes at the grocery store. Before you eliminate too time-consuming parts of celebrations, look for compromises.

Dealing with Expectations and Changes

Sometimes children can have such a high expectation of upcoming rituals that the cancellation, or alteration, of them can cause an emotional breakdown. For example, a child may have a very strong, detailed picture in his head of how a birthday or Halloween should go. A child may cling tightly to his memories of previous years' celebrations and become very upset when this year isn't done the same way. Even what seems minor to you can throw a child into a tizzy: you bought the wrong paper plates! or trick-or-treat bag!

When you know that a change in a big celebration is in your child's future, prepare him well in advance, a little at a time. "Last year we had your whole class to your birthday party, but this year, it'll be different. Just five friends. Start thinking about who you'd like to invite." Explain the reasons for the change. Find something for him to focus on that will make the change in ritual palatable.

Recognize the importance of ritual and routine in your child's life as a good thing, a very good thing. It signals his participation in family and community life.