Family Interaction Patterns: Norms
and Networks, Routines and Rituals,
Stories and Secrets
Many people claim to be in the constant pursuit of more “family time” (Daly, 2001). Each year people make a (New Year) resolution to spend more family time together: to eat dinner together more often, to spend more time talking to their children, to take a family vacation. Some dual-earner couples go to great lengths to rearrange job schedules in order to spend more time with their children. People even turn down jobs to spend more time with their families. As Rivenburg (2002) argues, the “family thing” is so revered in our society that people have invoked the “more time with family” excuse as a face-saving way to quit a job before getting fired. Even if it is only an excuse, the fact that people view more family time as a viable excuse reveals that our society at least claims to respect family time. But are people spending more time interacting with our families now than at other times in the past? What is family time anyway? And what matters more? The quantity of time we spend interacting with family members or the quality and symbolic meaning of the interaction?
In this chapter, we begin to answer questions about the amount of time families spend together by exploring norms and networks for family interaction. Then we spend a majority of the chapter studying the meanings that are formed and renegotiated through symbolic family interaction. Our analysis of family routines reveals the patterns that emerge in family interaction. Often these patterns become ritualized, meaning they take on symbolic meaning. For example, the routine of a mother brushing her young daughter's hair before bed every night may be more than an instrumental task. The task takes on the status of ritual when it is repeatedly enacted as a means of symbolizing something—possibly care and attentiveness in the relationship. In rituals, the actual interaction is less important than what the interaction symbolizes. Everyday rituals (e.g., a child's bedtime ritual and dinnertime rituals) can help make sense of daily family life and symbolize family roles, rules, and bonds of connection. During times of stress and transition, rituals, even ones so simple as the dinnertime ritual, can take on heightened meaning and impact. Formal rituals (e.g., weddings, religious holidays, and graduations) serve to transmit family values and publicly mark transitions in a way that produces memories. Some rituals even symbolize negative family themes (e.g., when an annual family Christmas celebration predictably reveals power struggles and strained relationships).