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We Need Rituals Now More Than Ever

Posted on: June 8th, 2020 by Anne Fishel, Ph.D
I believe that we’ve never needed rituals more than we need them right now. I’m not talking about rituals as elaborate religious ceremonies. I’m talking about the quirky ways that you come together as a family, like over a meal.
Rituals can be defined like this: They’re repeated pretty much at the same time (dinner is usually 8 PM in my house); and place (usually around my kitchen table, the same place I ate for 20 years when my sons were growing up); with parts that are the same every night (I always ask my husband, what do you think our sons are doing right now? ); and with parts that are different each night (my husband’s suspenseful account of watching baby robins flop out of the nest this morning).
The big thing about rituals is that we feel terrible if they get disrupted. We count on them. Rituals provide an anchor when the seas are rough, and they remind us that we are part of a family when life feels topsy-turvy. Research shows that regular and dependable rituals can help families remain resilient during difficult times.
Rituals are different from routines. Routines help us get done what we have to get done, making sure there is time set aside for working, playing, eating, teeth-brushing, showering, checking social media, and other important activities. Routines give structure to the day, while rituals offer connection and meaning. Routines tell kids what to expect and plan for, while rituals help kids feel at home, feel that they belong.
A really good ritual is flexible, so it can hold up during times of crisis like the current pandemic. While staying at home over the past 3 months, most families have shared more meals than ever before. The sheer volume, and tedium of having to plan, prepare, and clean up so many meals is itself a big change — not to mention new menus concocted from pantry staples. And it’s not easy to get the conversational ball rolling by asking “How was your day?”when you’ve been home together all day long.
When Monday feels like Tuesday which feels like Saturday, the sameness can be numbing. And the summer is going to present another challenge. Without the routine of school and with many camps shuttered, it’s even more important to have strong, flexible family rituals to give kids and adults something to look forward to. To help with giving some feeling of transition from the week to the weekend, I’ve been asking families in my therapy practice if they’d like to create a new ritual to mark the end of the week and the start of the weekend.
  • Growing up, were there things you did with your family to mark the end of the week?
  • If you were to create a new ritual, what kind of feelings would you want it to evoke—gratitude, relaxation, healing, letting go, something else?
  • Are there any symbols that could help express your feelings or make it feel special, like lighting candles, making a collage with things you’ve collected over the week, putting on dancing music, singing, reading a poem, eating a particular dessert?
  • How long do you think it should last and how will it end?

The answers I’ve gotten have been varied and fun. Now the Family Dinner Project has created some rituals for summer weekends you might like to try.

Every Friday night, starting June 5, we’re going to be sharing a new family picnic idea: a summery dish like a Raggedy Ann salad; an easy dessert like banana boats; a game, like dink, dink, dunk (yes, it involves getting wet); and a playful conversation (what day in your life would you like to do over and over?).

If your family prefers a terrific weekend breakfast ritual to remind you to have a more leisurely start to the day, we’ve got those too. Every weekend this summer we’ll be offering new breakfast rituals: Stay tuned for recipes like overnight oatmeal and savory mug cakes that each family member can customize, and activities to jumpstart the day like morning yoga poses and origami love notes.

Something tells me that as this pandemic grinds on, we’re going to want both our old trusty rituals as well as a few, fresh, light-hearted ones. We hope you’ll join us for summer picnics and family breakfasts and make these new rituals part of your family life.


by Dr. Anne K. Fishel

Anne FishelAnne Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has lectured and written about the benefits of family meals.

Her book about family dinners, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for Happier Families and Healthier Kids, is available through Amazon.