8 nights of family rituals make best gifts for kids

During my family’s annual Thanksgiving beach road trip, my kids showed remarkable stamina for tolerating monotony as they voluntarily watched the same Rugrats Chanukah video 12 times in a row without ever coming up for air. I was about to inquire how it was that they could manage to consistently laugh like fiends each time they saw Stu dress up like Latke Man or Angelica spew out ominous warnings about the Meanie of Chanukah. I stopped myself short upon realizing that they could easily turn the question back on me. After all, I’m no stranger to repetition myself, having managed to spend the Thanksgiving holiday on Hilton Head Island, S.C., taking part in the same quirky rituals every year since I was in first grade.

Routine and ritual, you see, are not simply hard habits to break; they are, many psychologists believe, the very fabric of the human existence. For it is in the simple repetitions of life — not the grand black-tie events — that we find the sense of stability and continuity we need to thrive in an unpredictable world.

In Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century, Tevye the Milkman touted tradition as the fundamental means of holding family life together in a new rapidly changing world. In America at the turn of the 21st century, this basic premise still holds true, and perhaps exponentially so, as many experts believe that the demands of today’s fast-paced, technology-based, achievement-driven, media-ridden society have transformed the overall childhood experience from playtime to pressure cooker.

My kids look forward every year to our Thanksgiving return to Hilton Head Island where they unfailingly celebrate the holiday on Friday rather than Thursday, abidingly make like Pilgrims and Native Americans and hunt for their supper (albeit searching out the frozen turkey and cans of cranberry sauce their parents hid outside) and play Michigan Rummy late into the night. But this annual pilgrimage to South Carolina represents far more to my family than just fun. It is the makings of our greatest memories, the links between our past, present and future and the safety net that is woven out of knowing where we have been and where we are going. For in this longstanding ritual my children learn about the continuity of life, formulate a sense of connection and belonging and gain the security that comes along with believing that no matter how crazy their world may feel the other 51 weeks of the year, they will spend that one glorious week that happens to include the third Thursday in November, embedded in the familiar, the mundane, the somewhat bizarre traditions that weave our lives together year in and year out.

Perhaps our richest sources of ritual can be found in Judaism, as the passing of longstanding traditions from generation to generation, L’Dor Va Dor is at the very core of our religion. Jewish life is rife with ritual by definition. Saying the weekly Shabbat prayers, eating sweet apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, booing Haman on Purim, and lighting the Chanukah candles all combine to help our children cope in an predictable world.

Even if your child is convinced, therefore, that the only present he wants for Chanukah is a new updated video-game system to replace the his old new updated video-game system, you can rest assured that what he really wants is something far more abstract. So this year on Chanukah, give your kids an extra present, one that will last far longer than the batteries in their hot new toys.

Here are ideas for eight nights of rituals to help you begin to weave a lasting emotional safety net for your families, leaving them feeling as warm as the menorah’s glowing flames and strong as the courageous Maccabees for many Chanukahs to come.

• Treasure Hunt Night: Make a treasure map for your kids to follow in order to find their loot for the night.

• Tzedakah Night: Give your children a set amount to spend and take them to the toy store where they can pick out a gift for a needy child, and let them personally deliver it to a children’s hospital, homeless shelter or charity drop-off point.

• Latke-Making Night: Whether it is peeling, washing or frying, making latkes is almost as much fun for kids as eating them.

• Homemade Present Night: Stock up on art supplies, have family members draw a name and proceed to make a special gift for that person. This tradition is sure to be as meaningful at it is messy.

• Dreidel Showdown Night: Your family will have a “geltload” of fun taking part in an annual family dreidel tournament.

• Big Present Night: OK, I may get some flack on this one, but I support this unabashedly materialistic ritual, nonetheless.

• Book Night: This one is self-explanatory, but you can make this Chanukah experience memorable by baking cookies together and then spending time as a family reading your kids’ new books aloud.

• Friends and Family Night: The stories and memories swapped at these meaningful gatherings will ultimately mean far more to your kids than the presents that will undoubtedly swapped, as well.

Sharon Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of a nationally syndicated Jewish parenting column.

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