a timely question, with Christmas approaching. What good is the family
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
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."
Take home message
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...
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...
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.
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
Finding Meaning in Religious Practices: Relation to Marital Satisfaction, Barbara Fiese et al, Journal of Family Psychology, 597-609, 2001.