Small Rituals Shown to Have Big Effects; Family Events Influence Well-being.(NATION)

Article excerpt

Byline: Jennifer Harper, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Five decades of Sunday dinners at Mom's and bedtime stories can't be wrong.

A group of psychologists pored over 32 clinical studies of family rituals published in the past 50 years to determine what Mom probably knew all along: All the little, intimate events of our lives have a profound influence on our well-being.

They are, in fact, "powerful organizers of family life" that offer solace, continuity and contentment in good times and bad, says Syracuse University psychology professor Barbara Fiese.

There is a reason to hang those traditional stockings by the chimney, get out the good china and sing "Silent Night" once again. The research found that even modest rituals hold positive sway over family stability, children's health, academic achievement and personal identity.

With five other researchers, Mrs. Fiese methodically catalogued details from scores of scientific examinations that defined family rituals through diaries, interviews, memorabilia and questionnaires. Holiday moments, reunions, childhood chores, family prayers, old recipes, conversations, heirlooms, birthdays, Sunday dinner all came under scrutiny.

The team made an important distinction: There's a difference between mere routine and a genuine ritual in the domestic realm. It's the ritual that garners the permanent spot in our memory.

We routinely celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, but it's those customary cookies and a candle-lit caroling service that resonate over time. Regular bedtimes are important for children. A hushed nighttime prayer and that reassuring kiss on the forehead are remembered for a lifetime.

"Rituals involve symbolic communication, and convey, 'This is who we are,'" Mrs. Fiese said. "There's often an emotional imprint once the act is completed. The individual may replay it in memory to recapture the positive experience."

Simple routines shouldn't be dismissed, however.

"Any routine has the potential to become a ritual once it moves from an instrumental to a symbolic act," Mrs. Fiese said.

The rituals also jump-start a sense of heritage, offering insurance that "this is how our family will continue to be," she added. …