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Bonding Through Rituals
Six-year-old Evan was a willful child. At bedtime, he relentlessly argued to stay up later. His mother, Donna Bardell, generally gave in to his demands, caving in to his strong personality and the guilt she felt over her divorce when Evan was a toddler.
"He was defiant and argumentative," says Bardell, "trying to negotiate the limits."
Today, at age 9, Evan still has a strong personality, but he has changed since his mother began spending time focused solely on him. At bedtime, Bardell spends a few minutes talking with her son, running a finger along his eyebrows, nose and lips, and commenting on his "strawberry blond hair, freckles and pug nose."
In simple terms, what Bardell does is a "ritual." Although the word ritual might evoke images of religious rites, in this sense it refers to repeated practices involving parent-child interaction. Parenting experts say such rituals are a way for parents to connect with their children using talk, nurturing touch and empathy.
Recent brain development research supports this notion. Scientists have found that repeated positive experiences form strong connections between neurons in the brain and foster a sense of security in children. Children who have safe and predictable interactions with others also do better in school later on.
But for many families racing at the Mach speed of life today, there’s little time for family members to just be with each other. Not only are 51 percent of children now being raised in homes with two working parents, but other distractions abound, ranging from electronic games and computers to keeping kids on a full schedule of organized activities.
"When life was slower, there were fewer demands and less clutter in our minds," says Becky Bailey, Ph.D., whose "Loving Guidance" approach to parenting was adopted by Bardell after she attended one of Bailey’s conferences. "When we get into a harried lifestyle, our mind tends to think about what we need to be doing next, and our time spent with our children is non-existent because we are not there."
To counter this, family therapists advise parents to carve out time to perform one-on-one rituals with their children. Such moments – labeled everything from "floor time" to "playful parenting" – can be as simple as finger-play songs or weekly appointments to talk.
Nourishing Emotional Ties
These rituals differ from routines. Daily or weekly schedules foster structure, but don’t necessarily nourish emotional ties. Taking a bath, brushing teeth and Saturday morning ballet class, for example, are routines.