Years ago I instituted a family tradition called Adventure Saturdays. Every Saturday during the summer, the kids and I had to do something new: go to a new park or museum, try a new watersport or pool, and so on. When I was in a particularly orthodox mood, we couldn’t even stop along the way at their favorite diner—we had to find a new place and order something new.
Adventure Saturdays ran counter to the kids’ natural tendency to watch Finding Nemo for the zillionth time and eat chicken nuggets at every opportunity. They love to do exactly what they’ve done before; they resist what they haven’t. But I felt it was my job to make them try all sorts of things, if only to turn modern art and kayaking and Ethiopian food into things they’d done before.
In other words, I was determined make my kids’ future comfort zone as large as possible by pushing them out of their current one as often as possible. Not an easy job. Adventure Saturdays helped, because by requiring me to do it one day a week, they also allowed me not to do it on all the other days.
And, although the point was to break us out of routine, Adventure Saturdays paradoxically were themselves a routine, and therefore an easier sell to kids. “No, sorry, remember—it’s Adventure Saturday. We’ll go to the pool tomorrow. Today we’re going to Thomson’s Lake. Don’t make that face.” And then we went.
Kind of like going to church or lighting the Sabbath candles. If it’s just what you do as a family then your kids go along. Of course religions are particularly good at those routines (daily prayer, weekly service, annual holidays); it’s one of the reasons they’ve persisted beyond the need to explain thunder. But establishing your own family traditions is surprisingly easy, since the child’s natural craving for comfort and familiarity works in your favor.
Working against you is the fact that without co-religionists, without the culture-wide consensus that, say, church is just what you do on Sundays, it’s on you to keep your tradition going.
We don’t do Adventure Saturdays anymore. It’s on me. The kids got better at entertaining themselves, I got busier with work, and the weeks started going by so fast that I stopped wanting to do anything on a Saturday morning but drink my coffee and read backed-up issues of . . . everything. First the New Yorker and now even my bimonthly cooking magazines seem to come every day.
I haven’t dropped all family traditions. In fact, I recently emailed the mom of one of Lena’s friends to apologize for what I was about to feed her child:
fair warning: per tradition we are having a School’s Out dinner of french fries and nachos.
Note the use of capital letters to reinforce the official nature of the meal and the word “tradition” to elevate fried potatoes and melted cheese into matters of great import. (Melted cheese definitely helps a tradition stick. It’s no coincidence that our one incontrovertible family holiday is International Pizza Day.)
I’m pretty sure I can keep School’s Out going; annual, I can handle. But I do kind of miss weekly. And I think the kids might too. Not long ago, Noah, organizing a Saturday morning meet-up at the park with some friends, turned to me brightly and said, “This is a good tradition.” He had done it before precisely once.
He yearns for routine, I guess. He also knows a good rhetorical tool when he hears one. To get to the park, he needs a ride; to get a ride, he needs to convince his mom to drive across town on a Saturday morning when, as we’ve established, she would rather be reading Fine Cooking. He’s using the word “tradition” to turn what he wants into a matter of great import.
Clever boy. Now he just needs to give it a name with capitals. And add cheese.
Yes, I was working on a tradition piece that included the Dark Side. The use of the word “tradition” to excuse all kinds of stuff far more noxious than fried food. Maybe that will be Part 2.
That’s a great idea! We were planning something like that for this summer–films with music as the theme–but it’s already July 13. But yes, there’s a shared vocabulary aspect to traditions–homemade and not–that is one of the main attractions.
It’s human nature to crave the predictability and security inherent in traditions, but too many of them are based on nonsensical concepts. One of my “favorites” is the way some cultures are locked in to the requirement of a dowry. That puts a huge financial burden on families, but, rather than change the stupid tradition, they merely murder female babies.
Most traditions are based on myth and foster belief in the absurd so they can be downright dangerous. Traditions, especially religious and patriotic ones, are often a substitute for creative, critical thinking and originality. Therein lies their danger.
Out of the mouths of babes: when my daughter was a child, a friend of hers responded to our question, “what did you learn in Sunday school,” with, “God is very, very good. And very, very boring.” I second that emotion. Going to a fun new place for “Shabbat” is a much better tradition.
Every summer we would have a Film Festival with our kids. One year it was Bogart movies. Another year it was Danny Kaye. Another it was the Marx Brothers. And Mel Brooks. And Errol Flynn. And so on. We acquired these films (on VHS, no less – I’m talking a decade or two ago) and built a film library that we can all refer to again and again (because we still have a working VCR). And we can quote to each other from them too, which gives us another way of connecting now that they’re both grown and gone. We’ll always have Paris – and two hard boiled eggs.