Family Rituals

views updated

Family Rituals

Family rituals have been identified as powerful organizers of family life that provide stability during times of stress and transition (Bossard and Boll 1950). Researchers have discovered that rituals provide access to how the family, as a group, is organized and finds meaning in their collective lives. Such studies have found that there is a developmental course to the practice of family rituals (Fiese et al. 1993); rituals serve to protect mental health under high-risk conditions (Bennett et al. 1987) and vary in significant ways across cultures (Martini 1996).


Family rituals are practiced in different settings and are multidimensional. Steven J. Wolin and Linda Bennett (1984) have identified three types of family rituals that differ by setting and the degree to which they are connected to cultural practices. Family celebrations are holidays practiced and prescribed by the culture, such as Passover Seders, and rites of passage such as weddings. Family traditions are linked to family activities such as birthday customs, family vacations, and special anniversaries and are less culture-specific. Patterned routines, the third category of family rituals, are the least consciously planned but may occur on a regular basis, for example, dinnertime, bedtime routines, and the types of greetings family members make when they return home.

Barbara Fiese and colleagues make the distinction between routines of daily living and rituals in family life (Fiese et al. 2002). Routines and rituals can be contrasted along the dimensions of communication, commitment, and continuity. Routines typically involve instrumental communication conveying information that "this is what needs to be done." They entail a momentary time commitment, and once the act is completed there is little, if any, afterthought. Routines are repeated over time and recognized by continuity in behavior. Rituals, on the other hand, involve symbolic communication and convey "this is who we are" as a group. There is an affective commitment that leaves the individual feeling that the activity feels right and provides a sense of belonging. Furthermore, there is often an emotional residue where once the act is completed the individual may replay it in memory to recapture some of the affective experience. Rituals also provide continuity in meaning across generations with the anticipation for repeat performance and an investment that this is how the family will continue to be. When routines are disrupted it is a hassle. When rituals are disrupted there is a threat to group cohesion.

To illustrate, consider family mealtimes as an example. A mealtime routine may be an instrumental communication of who needs to pick up milk on the way home from work. Once the milk is procured, there is very little thought about the grocery store. And, often as not, this act may be repeated several times a week. The mealtime ritual, on the other hand, is conversation as a group that may include inside jokes, symbolic objects, and acts meaningful only to the family not easily detected by the outside observer. Once the family is gathered for the meal there is an affective reaction that may be as subtle as a sigh signifying that time has been set aside for the group and that other things are put on hold. There may also be elements of the gathering that have been passed down over generations, including prayers, dishes, and even topics of conversation.

Several authors have proposed typologies of family rituals (Bennett et al. 1988; Roberts, 1988). Janine Roberts (1988) has identified six ways in which families approach rituals. Under-ritualized families rarely practice family routines, often ignoring important milestones such as anniversaries or birthdays. Rigidly ritualized families prescribe strict rules for conduct and hold high expectations for attendance by all members. Skewed ritualization is evident when the ritual practices are linked primarily to one member of the family or one aspect of a family's life such as religion or ethnic heritage. Families who practice hollow rituals are characterized by a lack of meaningful affect in their group activities, emphasizing the routine aspect of family rituals without the symbolic component. Some families experience interrupted rituals due to sudden changes in the family such as illness or death. Families who practice flexible rituals maintain the symbolically meaningful aspect of family rituals and are able to adapt the roles and routines across the lifecycle.

Assessment of Family Rituals

Family rituals are assessed either through questionnaires, interviews, frequency checklists, or direct observation. The most frequently used self-report questionnaires are the Family Routines Inventory (FRI) ( Jensen et al. 1983) and the Family Ritual Questionnaire (FRQ) (Fiese and Kline 1993). Interviews have also been developed where families are asked to identify rituals that are important to them and how frequently they practices such rituals (Fiese et al. 1993; Wolin and Bennett 1984). The practice of family rituals, such as mealtime, has also been directly observed though video-taped recordings (Fiese and Marjinsky 1999) and audio-taped recordings of conversations (Blum-Kulka 1997; Martini 1996).

Research on Family Rituals

Systematic research on family rituals has focused on developmental aspects of the practice of routines and rituals, rituals as a protective factor under high-risk conditions, and cultural variations of ritual practices.

Developmental aspects of routines and rituals. During the childrearing years, creating and maintaining family routines and rituals is a central part of family life. Once children are of preschool age, families report an increase in mealtime and weekend routines (Fiese et al. 1993). When the children are in middle childhood, family routines are adjusted to meet the demands of school and activities outside the home. Families that create predictable routines during these years have children who perform better in school (Brody and Flor 1997; Fiese 2000). During adolescence, children may be less directly involved in family routines, but those who have had the experience of a ritualized household are more socially competent (Fiese, 1992).

Family rituals as a protective factor. Linda A. Bennett and her colleagues were the first researchers to demonstrate empirically the protective role that rituals may play under high-risk conditions. In a study of families with an alcoholic member, it was found that the deliberate planning and preservation of family rituals, specifically dinnertime, protected the offspring from developing problematic drinking patterns (Bennett, et al. 1987). Ellen Bush and Kenneth I. Pargament (1997) studied the relation between rituals and family adjustment in coping with chronic pain. Chronic pain patients reported more satisfaction with family life when predictable and organized routines were part of their daily activities. The patients' spouses reported more satisfaction with family life when there was strong meaning attached to the practice of family rituals. Samia Markson and Barbara Fiese (2000) reported that children with asthma were less likely to experience anxiety symptoms when their families engaged in meaningful rituals.

Cultural variations in family rituals. Family rituals are embedded in the cultural context of family life. In an initial report, Mary Martini (1996) found cultural differences in mealtime conversations: Japanese-American families were more likely to discuss group activities and shared experiences at the dinner table, while Caucasian-American families were more likely to discuss experiences that individuals had outside of the home. Shoshana Blum-Kulka (1997) noted a similar pattern in a comparison of U.S. and Israeli families where the U.S. families paid more attention to individual experiences and the Israeli families focused on group experiences during ritual gatherings. In an observational study of mealtime behaviors, Martini (2002) reported that Japanese-American mealtimes were the most "infant centered," with parents responsive and attentive to their infants during the routine meals. Filipino-American families were somewhat less child-centered, with a greater focus on eating rather than conversing. Hawaiian-American mealtimes were the most adult-focused of the three groups, with children nearby and exploring but less the center of attention. These variations in conversation and interaction patterns across cultures suggest that there may be broad system-level contributions to the practice of family routines and rituals that are at times subtle but also consistent with predominant cultural values and beliefs.

Cultural variations are also observed in ritual practices in societies where elders are revered, where the elderly are often the focus of gift giving and personal attention during family celebrations (Ingersoll-Dayton 1999). Korean sixtieth-birthday rituals have become more secular in the United States as a result of immigration (Chin 1991). Rather than preparing elaborate feasts in the ancestral home and engaging in ceremonial bowing, contemporary celebrations are conducted in restaurants with less emphasis on bowing and attention to ancestors. Thus, routines and rituals may not only be affected by cultural heritage, but they may also become altered through immigration and the practices of the host country.

Therapeutic Use of Family Rituals

Family rituals have been a form of therapeutic intervention used by family therapists since the 1970s and by human culture at large for a millennia (Imber-Black, Roberts, and Whiting 1988; van der Hart 1983). Family ritual settings, such as dinnertime, can be capitalized on for implementing behavioral interventions. In this regard, the practice of a ritual in its naturally occurring environment is paired with desirable behaviors. Increasing positive interactions during mealtimes have been found to decrease undesirable behavior in children with disabilities (Lucyshyn, Albin, and Nixon 1997) and facilitate good nutrition in infants with failure-to-thrive (Yoos, Kitzman, and Cole 1999).

Couples therapists examine past and current ritual practices to aid in understanding how couples perceive their problems and how they may best address disagreements (Imber-Black 1988). Through a consultation interview, the degree to which couples have either given up or ignored meaningful rituals may illustrate how the couple has lost touch with each other and are in need of a revitalized relationship. The renewal of wedding vows, deliberate planning of a vacation, and creating a ritual to facilitate forgiveness and healing are examples of therapeutic rituals.

Therapeutic rituals have also been used during the transitions associated with remarriage. Maintaining regular routines in divorced and remarried families may foster better adaptation in children, providing them with a sense of security and stability of family life (Henry and Lovelace 1995). As children are faced with moving in with a new parent and siblings, the role of previous rituals may become particularly poignant. How to celebrate holidays and birthdays and even how regular meals are to be conducted is subject to change. Therapeutic interventions in this case may include an assessment of how rituals were practiced in the past and how different aspects of rituals may be taken from each family (Whiteside 1988).


The steady stream of research and clinical interest in family rituals has been stimulated, in part, because family rituals make sense to families. Family members can identify what rituals they practice and distinguish how important they are to family life. Rituals can be directly observed in their practice. The study of family rituals may allow researchers to break away from the tradition of identifying "good" and "bad" traits and focus on how families find success and meaning in their collective lives.

See also:Circumcision; Family and Relational Rules; Family Folklore; Family Stories and Myths; Hinduism; Home; Honeymoon; Judaism; Marriage Ceremonies; Marriage, Definition of; Substance Abuse; Therapy: Family Relationships; Time USE


bennett, l. a.; wolin, s. j.; reiss, d.; and teitelbaum,m. a. (1987). "couples at risk for transmission of alcoholism: protective influences." family process 2:111–129.

bennett, l. a.; wolin, s. j.; and mcavity, k. j. (1988)."family identity, ritual, and myth: a cultural perspective on life cycle transition." in family transitions: continuity and change over the life cycle, ed. c. j. falicov, ny: guilford.

blum-kulka, s. (1997). dinner talk: cultural patterns ofsocialization in family discourse. mahwah, nj: lea.

bossard, j., and boll, e. (1950). ritual in family living. philadelphia: university of pennsylvania press.

brody, g., and flor, d. l. (1997). "maternal psychologicalfunctioning, family processes, and child adjustment in rural, single-parent, african american families." developmental psychology 33:1000–1011.

bush, e. g., and pargament, k. i. (1997). "family coping with chronic pain." families, systems, and health 15:147–160.

chin, s. y. (1991). "korean birthday rituals." journal ofcross-cultural gerontology 6:145–152.

fiese, b. h. (1992). "dimensions of family rituals acrosstwo generations: relation to adolescent identity." family process 31:151–162.

fiese, b. h. (2000). "family matters: a systems view offamily effects on children's cognitive health." in environmental effects on cognitive abilities, ed. r. j. sternberg and e. l. grigorenko. mahwah, nj: lea.

fiese, b. h.; hooker, k. a.; kotary, l.; and schwagler, j.(1993). "family rituals in the early stages of parenthood." journal of marriage and the family57:633–642.

fiese, b. h., and kline, c. a. (1993). "development of thefamily ritual questionnaire: initial reliability and validation studies." journal of family psychology 6:1–10.

fiese, b. h. and marjinsky, k. a. t. (1999). "dinnertimestories: connecting relationship beliefs and child behavior." in the stories that families tell: narrative coherence, narrative interaction, and relationship beliefs. monographs of the society for research in child development, ed. b. h. fiese, a. j. sameroff, h. d. grotevant, f. s. wamboldt, s. dickstein, and d. fravel. malden, ma: blackwell.

fiese, b. h.; tomcho, t.; douglas, m.; josephs, k.;poltrock, s.; and baker, t. a. (2002). "review of fifty years of research on naturally occurring family routines and rituals: cause for celebration?" journal of family psychology (december).

henry, c. s., and lovelace, s. g. (1995). "family resources and adolescent family life satisfaction in remarried family households." journal of family issues 16:765–786.

imber-black, e.; roberts, j.; and whiting, r. (1988). rituals in families and family therapy. new york: norton.

ingersoll-dayton, b. s. c. (1999). "respect for the elderly in asia: stability and change." international journal of aging and human development 48:113–130.

jensen, e. w.; james, s. a.; boyce, w. t.; and hartnett,s. a. (1983). "the family routines inventory: development and validation." social science and medicine 17:201–211.

lucyshyn, j. m.; albin, r. w.; and nixon, c. d. (1997)."embedding comprehensive behavioral support in family ecology: an experimental, single-case analysis." journal consulting and clinical psychology 65:241–251.

martini, m. (1996). "'what's new?' at the dinner table:family dynamics during mealtimes in two cultural groups in hawaii." early development and parenting 5:23–34.

martini, m. (2002). "how mothers in four american cultural groups shape infant learning during mealtimes." zero to three 22:14–20.

markson, s., and fiese, b. h. (2000). "family rituals as aprotective factor for children with asthma." journal of pediatric psychology 25:471–479.

roberts, j. (1988). "setting the frame: definition, functions, and typology of rituals." in rituals in families and family therapy, ed. e. imber-black, j. roberts, and r. whiting. new york: norton.

van der hart, o. (1983). rituals in psychotherapy: transitions and continuity. new york: irvington.

whiteside, m. f. (1988). "creation of family identity through ritual performance in early remarriage." in rituals in families and family therapy, ed. e. imber-black, j. roberts, and r. whiting. new york: norton.

wolin s. j., and bennett, l. a. (1984). "family rituals."family process 23:401–420.

yoos, h. l.; kitzman, h.; and cole, r. (1999). "familyroutines and the feeding process." in failure to thrive and pediatric undernutrition: a transdisciplinary approach, ed. d. b. kessler and p. dawson. baltimore, md: paul h. brookes publishing co.

barbara h. fiese kimberly howell