Before my husband Tom and I had kids, having any sort of tradition was not our thing. We craved the new – the latest restaurant or the coolest new place to travel to. Doing the same thing over and over just struck us as boring.
Then, when we had our daughter, I began to feel a little depressed about our freewheeling, tradition-free lifestyle. I thought about when I was little, and how I looked forward to our family’s corny but fun little rituals, like Pizza and Movie Night on Fridays.
I realized that I could just make up traditions. Many of our official-sounding rituals are ones that I hastily crafted on the spot when Sylvie was three or four. All I had to do was state it in an Official Announcement voice, and it became gospel (oh, how I miss those gullible days when she actually believed my declaration that toy stores were closed on weekends, and the iPad stopped working after sundown).
Once when Sylvie came down with a stomach bug, I tried to make her day home from school special. I rummaged around in my cabinet and found a plate with a bunny on it that I had completely forgotten about - my mother had sent it to me and I had absently stashed it away. I brought out the plate with a flourish, piled crackers on it, and announced that Sylvie could only eat from the special bunny plate when she was sick. After that, every time she was sick, she reminded me to bring out the plate.
Small gestures can take on huge importance in a kid’s mind. One night when I was fried after a grueling day, I asked my husband and daughter if they could pile into bed with me and do a “sardine can.” Being squished close together was goofy and comforting. Now, if one of us has a bad day, he or she can request a “sardine can” and we all race to the bed. (I never need an excuse to crawl into bed at any time of day.)
Another time, when Tom was away one weekend on business, I woke to the sight of my daughter Sylvie standing by my bed at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, smiling and ready for the day to begin. I just didn’t feel motivated to leave the house or, to be honest, to put on shoes or pants without an elastic waist. Or to stand upright. Or to eat any food containing fiber or vitamins. So instead I issued the proclamation that it was a “Lazy Saturday,” and we were fully authorized to stay in our pajamas all day, make cookies, and loll around watching "The Sound of Music." Some on-the-spot rebranding transformed my slothfulness into a hallowed family custom. Now Sylvie and I regularly have Lazy Saturdays.
Being sluggish together builds some downtime into our busy week, which benefits us both. In the first-ever study of what children think of their working parents, child development researcher Ellen Galinsky talked to more than one thousand children ages eight to 18 about their family relationships and their parents’ work lives.
She found that what parents believe their children think and what their children are actually thinking can be markedly different, the most telling example being what she calls the “one wish” question. She asked the child ren, "If you were granted just one wish that could change the way your mother’s or your father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?"
She then asked adults to guess how their child would respond. Most parents guessed that their kids would wish for more time together. Not so. Their most ardent wish was that their parents would be less stressed and less tired. Only two percent of parents got that one right. When we are frazzled and racing from one thing to the next – when even weekends have become a strain – our kids notice and become distressed.
What often compounds working parents’ tension is the pressure they put on themselves to create Memorable Moments on their few days off. But research tells us you do not need to jet to Disney World for the weekend to wow the kids. As Galinsky found, you don’t even need to go to Uncle Stinky’s Unlicensed Fun-Plex off the highway.
She also asked the children what they would remember the most from their childhoods and had their folks predict what the kids would say. Parents almost always guessed the five-star big event or vacation that took meticulous planning and buckets of cash. But Galinsky says that instead, kids specified the small, everyday rituals and traditions that said, “We’re a family.”
One girl mentioned that every morning when she left for school, her father would say, “You go, tiger, you go get them.” This seemingly insignificant, throwaway ritual, which brings a lump to my throat every time I think about it, was singled out as the experience this child would remember most vividly from childhood. As Galinsky discovered, those little things matter so much more than we think they do.
This essay is adapted from Dunn's book "How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids," published by Little, Brown.