I wonder what my children will think of when they reflect on their childhood. “Use your germ pocket when you cough. Make your bed. Did you wash your hands? Look people in their eyeballs when you’re talking to them.” With any luck, they will remember the good habits that I drilled into their heads, those things that I hope will fall into the background and make their lives more efficient without needing much thought. But equally memorable, I hope, are the rituals, those acts and events that are far from being mindless or passive, and that shine a spotlight on what is most important to our family. Habits for ordinary lives made easier, rituals for extraordinary lives made more meaningful.

What is it about rituals that makes them so very powerful? I smile nostalgically and feel deeply connected when I think back to the rituals of my childhood. The memories don’t hang on the stuff like presents or chocolate eggs but on something more fulfilling; it is an emotion that I can’t really explain. But perhaps therein lies the strength of rituals. They are a language for what we can’t express. They tap into our subconscious and awaken the virtues within: joyfulness, appreciation, purposefulness, reverence, unity, humanity. Rituals add depth to our lives and substance to our experiences. They provide us with a sense of belonging and help us to feel a part of something that is larger than just ourselves. Through ritual we carve out time to stop and appreciate the bounty of our life and/or the lessons that we are meant to learn.

Rituals force us to show up, for our children and for ourselves. Each time I pass our local track and field, my mind lingers on the past when I spent every Tuesday morning there, sneaking in a run while my three youngest children played next to the track. First we would drive around until the baby was asleep. Then off to the track we’d go. Set the kids up on a blanket by the long jump sand pit with a special snack and digging toys and/or bicycles. Kids play independently while Mama runs around the track for 20 minutes. Baby awakes. We all play together at the park followed by a picnic lunch.

That was a year ago and since then, my son has started kindergarten and my baby is now a year and a half old. I so miss those days because, despite the sleep deprivation and the general haziness of that particular year with a new baby, and regardless of my regrets for what I didn’t do or what I should/could have done, this was something that I did do for myself and for my children without distraction. It was fun time mind- fully spent together that my children could depend on at least once a week.

Well-known calendar holidays are ex- amples of rituals that help children gain a sense of time and structure in their lives and meet their need for predictability. In our home, no sooner is Christmas over than my children start to ask, “What’s next?” Our year-at-a-glance calendar is speckled with pink highlighter that marks special occasions: Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, throw in a few birthdays, followed by Mother’s Day, then Father’s Day. These rituals are a cause for celebration that offer our lives some hope and optimism of things to come.

Our lives are filled with rituals, and not just at certain times of the year. We celebrate new babies and graduations and commemorate the loss of pets and other loved ones. These are often times of transitions during which rituals play an important role. When my third child was born, my son who was two years old at the time, would repeat- edly fling himself on the floor exclaiming, “I’m dead! I’m black!” The dramatics were morbidly funny yet somewhat concerning. Deep down, I believe my son’s actions were an unconscious manifestation of grief, a “little death” in the face of his changing life and role in the family.

Transitions can be overwhelming for children. Rituals are valuable in helping children negotiate the humps in their lives. They are “space holders” that enable chil- dren to explore and process their emotions, positive or negative, either consciously or subconsciously. During trying times, rituals can keep us from getting stuck—they are almost a tactful way of honouring feelings while acknowledging that which must continue, particularly when words seem awkward and unavailable. I think back to when our dog Atticus died and how the ritual of burying him in our yard with his toys was such a beautifully peaceful way of coping and helping our children work through feelings that they perhaps did not quite understand. In hindsight, when I think back to the example with my “black” son, while I had prepared him for the joyfulness of a new baby, I wish I had thought of a ritual to help my son address the grief that he felt over the change in his life. Perhaps I could have helped him express his feelings in words or drawings on a piece of paper that we could have then burned as a cathartic release.

It is important to remember that rituals are not reserved only for yearly events or transition times in our lives. In our everyday life, some of the simplest acts mindfully performed can prove to be intuitively symbolic. We shake hands when we meet someone new as a symbol of respect. In our families, sitting together to share a meal or enjoying storytime speaks to the virtue of unity. For us as parents, ritualizing some of our daily chores and tasks can make the rote and the humdrum seem more purposeful. My father would always say, “Whatever you do, do it with love.” When my days seem to be overcome with sweeping floors, folding laundry and making meals, I try to hold onto those words and recognize that what I do for my children and family are symbols of love, caring, service and responsibility.

And yet for all the benefits that rituals hold, I wonder whether many of them begin to look like mindless habits after a while. How often do we find ourselves simply going through the motions, putting up balloons or buying presents because we feel we have to? What does it really mean to light candles on a birthday cake?

We can keep rituals from becoming habit by pausing to reflect on the substance behind them. Rituals have everything to do with intention and hold no meaning unless we recognize the intention.

Are there important rituals in your family life that are becoming more like habits? How can you return to meaning? Do your rituals reflect what is most important to you and your family?

Here are some ideas worth trying:
1. Commit to sharing at least one meal together as a family and save a place at the table for lessons in thankfulness and generosity. Invite awareness by saying “grace” however you define it, and/or have each person take their turn sharing one thing that they are grateful for.

2. As a parent, enjoy your shower or bath, not just as a means to physical cleanliness but as a way to purify your mind and soul and a way to capture some peacefulness in your day.

3. Make up special rituals that cultivate meaning and bring mindfulness to those things that are important to your family. One of the things that we have created in our family is a weekly “Gem Ceremony” where each member of the family receives a gem and an acknowledgment for those gems/virtues (for example, kindness, respect gentleness, generosity) that they have “polished” over that week.

4. Use rituals as a way to remember the joyfulness of life. Every March 17, a sneaky Leprechaun finds his way into our home, turning our milk green and flipping our house inside out and upside down. And what a great occasion to capitalize on the one-day appeal of otherwise unappreciated green foods.

5. Appreciate and acknowledge important life events such as the birth of a new baby and the death of a pet. With each new baby in our family, we had fun getting our hands messy making a piñata, a belly cast and big brother/big sister T-shirts. As the big day ap- proached, we put out pink and blue balloons at the end of our driveway for neighbours and friends waiting on tenterhooks. We’ve popped a lot of blue balloons over the years.

6. Make it a ritual to reflect on rituals. Look through old photographs, photo al- bums and baby books. Document important memories. For Christmas, my daughter received a recipe box with index cards as a gift. Now, whenever we cook or bake something that she loves, we put the recipe in her box. It is a keepsake that I hope will remind her of our special time together. Perhaps it will be a springboard for future rituals that she does with her children.

7. Create rituals that are special to each of your children individually to acknowledge their unique importance to you. When my eldest daughter turned three, she asked for a bouquet of pink roses for her birthday. It has become her special tradition ever since.

Rituals are about many things, but under- lying it all, they are about connection and relationships. In a world where children face so many conflicting signposts, rituals provide an anchor and a compass that secure our attachment to them. With my school aged-children, while I know that I cannot control what happens during their day, I be- lieve that something as little as the secret that I whisper in their ear each morning before they go to school and the snuggle time that we share at bedtime bracket their day like bookends that provide them with stability. They are small yet thoughtful gestures that embrace their lives with a boundary within which they can feel safe and secure, no matter the uncertainty or chaos that may arise in between.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator, trained Virtues Project facilitator, and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM.