MEMBERS ONLY: How to Create a Family Tradition That Stands the Test of Time

Last weekend, I went apple picking with my family. We’ve been going apple picking every year since Jordan was old enough to walk. It’s a family tradition and it didn’t happen by accident. It took years of effort and planning and patience to make it something that we look forward to every year as a family. It was worth it because family traditions, when done properly, are the glue that binds us together. But it’s not as hard to do as it sounds.

We pack drinks and snacks, get up early (usually), and drive out into the countryside (we’re city folk) to our preferred orchard. We pick anywhere from one to two bushels of apples, take lots of pictures, run away from bees, and buy local baked goods and treats. Then we drive home, I bake an apple pie for dessert and start peeling apples to make enough applesauce to last us through the winter.

We’ve been bringing Anastasia since she was born. Since we’ve been living in Virginia, Jenny and Maria have been bringing our son Kyle down to go apple picking as one big family. For the last two years, Claudia and Lila, my pseudo-adopted daughter, have been coming with us so we’ve been an even bigger family. It’s a family tradition and every year we do it, it becomes another cherished memory we’ll hold on to forever.

Kyle and Anastasia spend weeks talking about it before we go. Lila, being 10, doesn’t gush quite as much about it but the slightest hint that we weren’t all going together as a family would alarm her. Even Jordan, autistic and not a fan of outdoor activities, looks forward to apple picking in his own way. The adults, of course, were all giddy that we were going because we all know how big a deal family traditions are.

For a counter-example of this, I present my mother-in-law. For years, she imposed holiday traditions on us that felt less like a tradition than an obligation. We had to do this, we had to do that. Why? Because that’s what families do! This is how our holidays became the stereotypical miserable gathering you see in movies. Everyone was tense and uncomfortable and couldn’t wait to leave. It was form over function and we could never make her understand why it wasn’t working.

A Guide To Creating Family Traditions That Last

Family traditions are the foundation of any family and the bedrock of a child’s life. Children crave consistency and repetition and knowing that every year we’re going to do certain enjoyable family activities is a delight to them. They carry that delight into adulthood as a stabilizing influence in tough times, and, if you’ve done it right, they pass that tradition on to their children because they want to.

It’s really not that hard to do. You have to put a little bit of effort into it but not so much that it feels forced and artificial.

1. Start young – Family traditions can happen by accident, of course. You all had so much fun at this one restaurant that you start making it an annual event. Or you find a new beach or park that you all fall in love with and it just becomes a “thing.” But to build a family tradition on purpose that your children will carry with them for the rest of their lives, you need to start young. The younger, the better.

Anastasia won’t remember going apple picking in a stroller when she was 7-8 months old, but we talked about it around her when she was older and that just became part of her life experience. She and Jordan will, however, remember how much fun we had every year for as far back as they can remember anything at all. That kind of thing tends to stay with you.

2. Make it fun and/or relaxing – Good lord is this important. Family traditions that are boring or irritating are not traditions, they’re aggravations. Not every tradition has to be something relaxing like going to an orchard or camping or the Renaissance Faire. Hiking or biking up a mountain, building a house for homeless people, heck, even Spring cleaning can be a cherished family tradition if you make it fun.

But it has to really be fun for everyone involved, not just “fun because I said so.” And that leads us to…

3. Be inclusive – This is just as important as making sure everyone is having fun. Everyone has to feel part of the activity. You have to emphasize the “family” in “family tradition” or else what’s the point? The smaller your family, the easier this is and the larger the group, the harder it gets. Yet, that makes it even more vital.

Let me give you a quick example of what not to do.

In the Winter of 2009, when Jordan was not yet 2 and Debbie was 7 month’s pregnant, Deb’s step-sister decided that she was going to rent a house in Washington D.C. and that we were all going to come down for the holidays and stay together. Except the “together” part was more like “everyone for themselves.”

When we went out, Deb’s stepsister and her family would dash off and leave us behind because with Jordan being a toddler and Debbie waddling with a huge belly, we were moving too slow for them. They also left behind Debbie’s 87-year-old grandmother for the same reason. Classy.

When we were back at the house watching TV, her stepsister insisted on watching sports because she, her husband, and her father, Debbie’s stepdad, were huge sports fans. The rest of us just sat there, bored.

Basically, we were extras to their family gathering and were not made to feel part of it.

Conversely, when we all go apple picking, I make sure to spend time with every child, blood relative or not. I spend time walking around with and talking to all of the adults, regardless if they’ve given birth to a baby of mine or not. We don’t stay together the entire time (that would be awkward when there’s so many of us) but we meet up frequently and that reinforces the fact that we’re together.

And, of course, there are the group photos.

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4. Be flexible – This is another big deal but mostly for the person or persons in charge of putting together whatever the event is. If you demand that everything go just right and exactly according to plan, you’re going to have a terrible time when it doesn’t. Children alone guarantee the best-laid plans will go awry.

Once you stress out that things aren’t going just right, everyone else will stress out because you’re stressing out. And you know who picks up on stress more than anyone else? The kids. They may not know exactly why the adults are grumpy and cranky but they’ll know something’s wrong and that will spoil the memory for everyone.

Not being rigid can be difficult for people who are used to being in control but you have to remember, above all else, this isn’t about you. It’s about family. There’s literally an episode of My Little Pony about this exact thing. Watch it if you need a refresher down the road.

5. Mix it up – Consistency and repetition is something children crave but doing exactly the same thing can get stale and boring. Variety is the spice of life and don’t be afraid to change things up a little here and there.

Change apple orchards. Go to a different theater to see The Nutcracker at Christmas. Make different foods at Thanksgiving. The details can be fluid and still retain their meaning. Which brings us to…

6. Make it mean something – Tradition for the sake of tradition is empty. This was another one of those things we could never quite explain to Deb’s mom. She had the kids hunt for a pickle in the Christmas tree every year but it didn’t mean anything. She never explained where it came from or why they were doing it beyond, “I did it when I was a girl.”

That’s not to say, “I did it as a kid” isn’t a reason to pass on a tradition but it has to go along with the story of what it means to you and why. When I started taking Anastasia to see The Nutcracker, I would tell her all about how I went with my mother and how special it was to spend that time with her. When we started to drive around looking at the Christmas lights on people’s houses, I would explain to both Jordan and Anastasia how my father would drive us all around the neighborhood and we’d oooh and ahhh at the displays while listening to Christmas music on the radio. This way, I gave an emotional connection to what we were doing and it meant something to us as a family.

7. Make it about being together, not the thing itself – This is kind of a culmination of most of the rest of the list. The biggest problem with the “traditions” Deb’s mom insisted on was that they were empty. We did them because we were told to, not because we wanted to or because it was enjoyable. She really did make it into an obligation and that’s not what family traditions are about.

Debbie has been taking Anastasia on “Cookie Dates” on the weekend for the last three years. This is a mommy-daughter time that Anastasia looks forward to every week. It’s Debbie’s way of building a deeper relationship and I have no doubt as Anastasia gets older and outgrows the “cookie” part, it will become a weekly lunch date. I also have no doubt it will continue because Anatasia will want to spend that time with her mother, not because she has to.

A true family tradition is something everyone looks forward to every year (or every week). We all look forward to going apple picking and it’s not because we all love apples so much. The apples are secondary. What we’re all looking forward to is the chance to be together. We love watching our kids pull apples from a tree and hold it up proudly like they just found a priceless treasure. We love stomping through the grass as a group and posing for silly photos. We get to spend a few hours away from everyone else and enjoy each other’s company without distractions.

The love and affection we all have for one another is what our children will remember even if they don’t fully understand it yet. That’s what they’ll want to share, in turn, with their children someday.

That, and my recipe for a delicious apple pie…

I’m a stay at home dad, father to a special needs son and a special daughter, a donor baby daddy, a militantly pragmatic liberal, the president of the PTA, a hardcore geek and nerd and I’m going to change the world. Or at least my corner of it.