Skip navigation
This routine's not grinding (title reads over closeup of Grosvenor Christmas dinner photo from below)
POSTED 13 DEC 2002



Related Why Files:
Science of loyalty
A blue X-mas
Emotions 'n health
Rituals of cannibals

  Here's a timely question, with Christmas approaching. What good is the family ritual?2 young pajama'ed girls grin for the camera. Christmas tree behind them, presents surround them. Do you really need to watch -- yet again -- Aunt Emily wash the family linens in public while Uncle Ernie guzzles the schnapps?

To pin down the impact of family ritual and routine on physical and emotional health, Barbara Fiese, a professor of psychology at Syracuse University, looked back at 32 studies from the past half-century.

The good news was that routines and rituals do help. The bad news is that the research base is fragmented and inconclusive, so it's impossible to say that routines and rituals actually cause any benefit.

A route to routine
In performing the study, Fiese and her colleagues tried to distinguish routine from ritual, while recognizing that the definition may vary among families. Routines, she says, are day-to-day activities that keep a family functioning, things like making dinner or washing the dishes. Rituals -- holiday dinners, marriages and funerals -- have a symbolic value and tend to explain, "this is who we are as a family."

When routines are disturbed, it's a hassle. When rituals are disturbed, the sense of identity is undermined.

The literature search, Fiese says, showed that routines "may be related to markers of physical health, such as infants being able to soothe themselves to sleep or have shorter bouts of respiratory infections." Rituals, in contrast, "are more related to mental health outcomes, as well as the overall emotional connections to the family."

A bunch of old-timers gathers around the table, with the kids in front.
The Gilbert H. Grosvenor family gathers for Christmas in Washington in 1921. From the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Take home message
Fortunately, effective routines and rituals needn't be all-consuming, Fiese adds. "One of the misperceptions is that ... you have to eat dinner together so many times a week."

That idea, she says, reflects overexposure to 1950s sitcoms, where families "ate dinner together seven days a week, regularly at 5:30." Such a pattern, she observes, is "not consistent with today's family life. ... It's helpful to have predictability, but what is important is to find the time, three to four days a week, to take 20 minutes or so to be together as a group."

If you do the math, you'll see that this takes no more time than a couple of sit-coms.

Nonetheless, she says, eventually, "that probably evokes some strong emotional feelings," especially if you imitate Ward or June Cleaver...

family sits around breakfast table, eating
February 1940: Oklahoma, the family of Pomp Hall, a tenant farmer, eats breakfast of corn flakes, biscuits, fried bacon, milk and coffee. USDA photo by Russell Lee.

Religious rituals are also important, says Fiese. Indeed, a study she published in 2001 showed that marital satisfaction was more commonly associated with a couple's joint practice of religious rituals than to the intensity of their religious belief.

We should probably mention...
Wiggle-words like "probably" and "should" tend to crop up in this discussion, because data on routines and rituals are limited, as Fiese admits. "We can't say much about cause and effect, most of the research is correlational, and we're not at the point where we can say one thing causes the other."

It's possible, for example, that families that start out in better condition are more likely to practice family rituals, in which case rituals would simply be a marker, not a cause, of family health.

several generations pose, smiling for a family portrait
The Christenson family reunion (1999) represents the kind of ritual that helps tell people "who they are." Photo courtesy ©David Tenenbaum

However, Fiese adds that some studies do show that routines and rituals have potential to "protect infants, children and couples during heightened stress." During the inevitable changes after a divorce, maintaining rituals can help family members retain a sense of belonging.

The current study may be surprising in a period when the American family is supposedly coming apart, Fiese says. "It should reinforce the notion that routines and rituals are very much alive and well today, and they can have positive benefits for parents, children and other family members."

-- David Tenenbaum


A Review of 50 Years of Research on Naturally Occurring Family Routines and Rituals: Cause for Celebration? Barbara Fiese et al, Family Psychology, 16:4, 2002.

Finding Meaning in Religious Practices: Relation to Marital Satisfaction, Barbara Fiese et al, Journal of Family Psychology, 597-609, 2001.


Credits | Feedback | Search

©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.