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."

The most powerful of family traditions counter alienation and instability, Erickson said. Strong traditions instill a strong sense of identity and belonging.

Rasmussen, the mother of the three teens in Salt Lake City, has created traditions that revolve around things her daughters love to do. Pizza parties and crepe nights are a common tradition.

Creating bonding traditions

There are many tools families can use to create those bonding traditions, said Meg Cox, author of "The Book of New Family Traditions" and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

"There's this void, this vacuum that gets created when people are bored and they will fill it their own way, on their own screen," Cox said. "Give them an attractive alternative."

The Cox family enjoys football games when board games are out, food is made, the kids have something to do and the television is low enough for conversation.

Cox suggests involving the kids in the events. If they complain about who is coming, have them make the guest list. If they are against the meal, ask them to make their favorite side dish, Cox said.

Establishing a routine of traditions when the children are young can help them learn to rely on and look forward to them, Erickson told the Deseret News. "Though it's worth the effort, there will be more resistance if you jump in later."

In such a consumerist society, holidays can become materialistic and greedy, Muelle said. Make your holidays an adventure, a project, an experience.

"We fill our computers with memory," Muelle said. "We've got to fill our children with memories."

Holiday traditions can be fun, said Chris and Kristin Drysdale, parents of four in Salt Lake City.

"We don't have to twist our kids' arms to join in family traditions. In fact, we fear there may be an uprising if we don't," Chris told the Deseret News.

Connecting to the things that they love as a family has helped them develop a strong family culture, the Drysdales said. Chris went on a Dutch mission and each Christmas Eve, they put wooden shoes out. Kristin's grandparents are from Norway, so they celebrate with Norwegian meatballs and cabbage. "These things have become uniquely us."

Adapting traditions for teens

Some traditions must evolve and adapt to kids' changing interests, Cox said. Part of it is respecting that some of the things they loved to do as kids, they don't do anymore.

For Ortiz, the battle to continue family traditions began when her two boys hit their teen years. "As soon as those pesky teenage hormones rear their ugly head, family activities your child used to enjoy are suddenly too childish for them," Ortiz wrote on FlawedMommy.com. "It used to bother me until one day I realized that at that age, I had more important things going on in my life than hayrides and pumpkin picking."

Letting children make the decision as to whether or not they want to be part of family functions is important, said Ruth Nemzoff, author of "Don't Roll Your Eyes" and "Don't Bite Your Tongue."

Teens interpret high levels of control as indicating that they matter less as individuals, according to a study published in the journal Child Development.

Since Ortiz gave her boys the option, they've learned that they don't like missing out. By being inclusive of the boys' peers and open to creating new traditions as the children outgrow old ones, Ortiz has found that she has facilitated their cheerful compliance.

"These traditions have been the glue that holds our family together," Rasmussen said. "They have spawned a strong family culture that is unique to us and gives us something to look forward throughout the year."

Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at rachel.lowry@gmail.com or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.

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