WHEN MY sister's family approaches the altar for Holy Communion, they break out of the single-file line and gather in a group before the priest, and she, her husband and their four children take the sacred wafer in unison.
"It is a symbol of our unity as a family and our oneness," she says.
After church, my family and I go to Fuddruckers, where the kids slurp down too much soda and apply too much melted cheese to their hamburgers and fries.
It is a symbol of our unity as a family and a bribe to get our kids to behave in church.
But I think both would qualify as a family ritual under the definition offered by psychologist William Doherty, author of "The Intentional Family." He writes that it is these rituals -- no matter how rag-tag -- that define your family and hold it together.
"The basic idea is that in the late 20th century, there is a drift of family life toward entropy," Doherty told a recent gathering of marital and family therapists, "a gradual loss of closeness, connection and meaning."
He argues that the tremendous busyness of families with kids and the saturation of their home life with electronic distractions are what cause families to come apart like a wet tissue.
"It is normal. It is the natural pace of families in the 20th century. You don't have to be a particularly troubled family to have less and less connection as the years go by."
Doherty says that starting a family is like putting a canoe in the Mississippi River. If you don't paddle like crazy, the whole business goes south.
His prescription is to initiate or re-enforce family rituals, to celebrate milestones, intentionally to dress up the time you spend together as a family so it becomes your family's signature, part of your family's identity.
"The intentional family is one that takes a mindful, conscious approach to its rituals of connection," says Doherty, "punctuated moments in a family's life when they are aware of each other's presence and of their connection with each other."
He is not talking about the fight you have with your children on the way to church each Sunday. Rituals must be positive. And it must be imbued with some meaning, otherwise it is a routine, not a ritual. Brushing your teeth over the head of your youngest every morning in the crowded bathroom is not a ritual.
Rituals must be repeated, Doherty says, and somewhat scripted so that everyone has a sense of what is expected of them. Confusion causes conflict, and that would diminish any ritual.
"If we don't create these moments, we know we love each other, but our activities are just background noise while we are thinking of something else."
It is risky for a parent unilaterally to impose rituals on the family. There will be rebellion and resistance. But if you examine your family life, you will see that your children have spotted the makings of rituals and are imposing them on you.
My children still want a "secret drive" at Christmas to see the lights, and my sister's children still want to visit Santa in the fancy downtown department store, even though her eldest is old enough to play Santa.
My husband and children still have a "family snugglization" when I am away, the remnants of a time when they were babies and he was too tired to wrestle them to sleep, so he just pinned one under each arm in bed with him. My sister's family still takes what one child calls "our screwy fall trips," weekend car rides to Indian burial grounds or coal mines open for public tours.
Listen to your children talk. They are moles in the families of their friends, and they will report to you ways in which your family is different. Those differences are the seeds of the rituals that will set your family life apart in your children's memory.
Doherty says rituals must have emotional or spiritual meaning. That's a tall order in my house. And it may be that our "rituals" are not so defined as Doherty would require, that they are more vague, more like memories.
But I am aware, thanks to Doherty, that our trips to Grandma's and our summer vacations and our routines on Christmas morning and our menu at Thanksgiving are more than evidence of our predictability, more than proof of our lack of imagination or our resistance to change.
These things are part of what makes this family our family.
Pub Date: 7/15/97