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When family traditions become 'uncool': Creating holiday traditions teens can be excited about

Published: Monday, Nov. 12 2012 4:32 p.m. MST

Carley, Ken, Shawna, Allie and Kate Rasmussen (left to right) as they continue a family tradition of making crepes and decorating cookies Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Three brunette teenage sisters stand huddled together against the seasonal lights of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, teeth chattering against the knitted scarves their mother gave them years ago.

"My friends are waiting to hang out tonight," says one, 15, reluctantly ignoring her vibrating cell phone.

"Just try handing these out," says their mom, Shawna Rasmussen, handing each a small silver bell. "You give it to a stranger you want to start a conversation with, then we'll meet back here in an hour."

The girls begrudgingly walk off, stifling the ring of the bells within their coat pockets.

While adolescents desire close family relationships, they strive to establish identity and independence apart from the family through school and friendships, according to a study conducted by The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life. And yet, studies show that a strong family culture is crucial in grounding teens in a sense of security and identity. As families come together during the upcoming holiday season, parents can instigate powerful bonding traditions even their teens can be excited about.

As the sky darkens, the girls come back together with smiles on their faces, "Wow, who would have thought that would have been such fun?"

Protecting family rituals

Between the 1950s and '80s, there was sharp drop in the number of families having dinner together at least three times a week, Jenet Erickson, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, told the Deseret News. "The breakdown of family traditions paralleled a decline in family structure."

The advent of central heating is among the many contributing factors, Sue Palmer wrote, citing an anonymous teacher in Talk to Me, a project teaching parents how to talk to their kids. When it is no longer necessary for families to huddle together in one room for warmth, conversation is replaced with television and video games.

That number since then has increased from 47 percent to 59 percent of families eating dinner together between 1980 and 1998, Erickson said. "What we saw was a reactive upward shift, as families became intentional about protecting their traditions."

Most significant has been the change in the way holiday traditions are approached, Erickson said. As children grow older, it's easy to squeeze family time out between to-do lists because each member is burnt out and family gatherings are difficult to arrange, so families go shopping instead of caroling.

Americans spend more time in department stores than connecting with loved ones, with 30 percent of Americans reporting they failed to devote enough time to family during recent holidays, according to a survey conducted by independent market research firm Toluna and VTech Communications.

"The effects are huge and the loss of that is significant," Erickson said.

What makes a tradition powerful?

Certain traditions are more powerful than others, said Joanna Ortiz, a mother of five in Audubon, Penn.

"My teenage sons find hay rides with mom to be childish, but they would do anything in their power to avoid missing Christmas dinner," Ortiz said.

Meaningful traditions encapsulate a familial bonding element, said Gertrud Muelle, author of "To Dance With God." Each participant must play an integral part in the family gathering.

The strongest of traditions have a rite-of-passage element built into them, Muelle said. "They're age-old, sacred even. They're grounded in historical context but always feel new because they're being carried out in the present."

For Muelle, a powerful tradition can never be outgrown. "Give your children things that only get deeper with age and understanding."

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