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Linda & Richard Eyre: Use traditions to teach kids about values

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2010 3:26 p.m. MST

Traditions are the "glue" that holds families together, and of all of the times of the year, it is Christmastime when family traditions really take center stage.

Every family has their own … from how to trim the tree to reading from the second chapter of Luke to leaving cookies and milk out for Santa.

Most often, family Christmas traditions are built on the things we did as children in our own families, "back in the day."

Even as adults, we want to hold onto the traditions of our childhood. In our case, it took the first few Christmases of our marriage to work out whose method of decorating the tree was the best (Linda won, by the way.)

But as time went on, we developed a lot of Christmas traditions of our own, and two of them actually helped us answer two of the toughest questions we had about Christmas:

1. How do we get our kids to focus more on giving and less on getting?

2. How can we help our kids concentrate more on Christ and less on Santa?

Our breakthrough came when we finally got realistic enough to just give up on changing anything on Christmas morning — Santa and "getting" were too strong. So we shifted our attention to two Christmas Eve traditions:

1. Dressing up in "Bible Clothes" and having a "Jerusalem Supper" on Christmas Eve, eating fish and dates and unleavened bread by candlelight and each taking the role of someone in Mary's family, talking about her departure the next day with Joseph to go to Bethlehem.

The ad-lib lines got better every year. "Mary, are you sure Joseph knows the way?" "Is the donkey up to it?" "Do you have a reservation anywhere?"

Then after dinner we adjourn to the living room to read from Luke and act out the Nativity.

2. After the Nativity on Christmas Eve, the kids give their gifts to each other and to us, with each child taking his or her turn as the giver and us heaping the attention on.

"Wow, you picked that yourself?!" "You are so thoughtful!" "You made that?!" "You are the best giver!"

Now move beyond Christmas and think for a minute about the power of traditions in general.

Strong traditions exist in every lasting institution — in schools, in fraternities, even in countries. And almost all families have traditions, at least subconscious ones, often centering on holidays or special occasions.

But some parents come to realize the importance of traditions and the ability of good traditions to teach values to improve communication, to give security to kids and to hold families together. Such parents can refine and redefine their family traditions and give them true and lasting bonding power.

Here's an idea for a New Year's resolution: Start by doing a little assessing and analyzing your own family traditions.

What do you do on each holiday? On each family birthday? Do you have some weekly traditions, such as a special Sunday dinner? Are there some monthly traditions, such as going over the calendar and the family's schedule for the month ahead? If you have time, make a list of your yearly, monthly and weekly traditions.

Then ask yourself three questions: How much joy or how much fun comes from each tradition? What values are taught by each tradition? Are there some gaps — some months without a holiday or birthday tradition?

With these questions in mind, revise and redesign your family traditions. Formalize them a little by writing them on a chart or in a special book.

Here's a sampling of what happened to us as we went through this reassessing process:

1. We revised some traditions. For example, our Thanksgiving tradition had essentially been to eat way too much and watch football all day on TV. We decided to shift the emphasis to thanks by making a collective list, on a long roll of cash register tape, of all the little things we are thankful for. Each year we try to "break the record" for the number of things listed.

2. We decided it would be good to have at least one major family tradition each month, to look forward to and anticipate. Most of these centered on a birthday or holiday, but there was nothing in May or September, so we started a "welcome-spring day" (a hike) and a "welcome-fall day" (a picnic).

3. We listed all the traditions, by month, in a big, leather-bound book. A little description of each tradition appears on the left and a child's illustration of that activity appears on the right.

Think about trying something similar. Improving and institutionalizing your family traditions could be one of the most important things you do in 2011!

New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors Linda and Richard Eyre are the parents of nine children and, by coincidence, the authors of nine internationally distributed parenting and life-balance books. They lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Their new book "5 Spiritual Solutions for Everyday Parenting Problems" will be released this coming March. Visit the Eyres anytime at www.TheEyres.com or www.valuesparenting.com, or see their blog at www.deseretnews.com/blog.

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