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Family Traditions: The Ties That Bind

A discussion with Dr. Susan Coady of Ohio State University
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How We Keep the Old and Make the New
How do traditions become traditions? Find out how simple acts and stories help pull families together, and learn how to start new traditions of your own.

Have you ever stopped to think about all of the funny things unique to your family? These that we do as a family are our traditions, and are part of what define our families. Dr. Susan Coady of The Ohio State University has recently spent much of her time studying family traditions, and she tells us why they are so important.

Genealogy.com: Why did you decide to study family traditions?

Dr. Coady: There were really two main reasons. First, it was the result of my teaching a class about families to college students. When the college-aged students spoke about their families, they would always be talking about them in terms of traditions. Over time, it became obvious that traditions were what people carried with them and part of what people wanted their families to become. Secondly, while researching I read quite often that traditions were statistically linked to family strength and family satisfaction. We wanted to take a closer look at these phenomena.

Genealogy.com: What are traditions?

Dr. Coady: Traditions are generally things that are very ritualistic. We've defined them as activities that a family does now, has done in the past, is likely to do in the future, and values and respects. They are characterized by regularity, commitment, and some type of predictable activity.

Traditions are also family-specific. It means that while a culture or an ethnic group might influence the occasion that the family celebrates, the family puts their own stamp on the way they celebrate it. Think about how we all celebrate the holidays differently. People outside the family wonder what's going on. That's why a tradition is defined as something that is family-specific.

Dr. Coady: Traditions start easily. Once you have children and you do something more than once, you're going to be doing it forever because the children come to expect it. Many times traditions are started intentionally by parents who want to create family roots or stability. They may feel that something is missing from the family without them. For example, some people in our studies thought that Christmas had become so commercial and that the children didn't understand the real meaning. For this reason, they started doing things like feeding other families and volunteering their time as a family. This grew into a holiday tradition and gave the holiday that meaning that they felt was missing before.

Genealogy.com: What forms do traditions take? Are they mostly centered around holidays?

Dr. Coady: There's no limit to what a tradition can be, although we did find that most traditions revolve around holidays. Families do have everyday routines, such as who sits where at the dinner table, or reading a bedtime story every night, but we didn't really consider those to be traditions. Traditions are usually something that is a little more special — something that's anticipated and that you're greatly disappointed if it doesn't happen.

Genealogy.com: Why are traditions important to individuals and families?

Dr. Coady: They are important because they provide stability, a sense of family history, and feelings of roots. They also define the boundaries of the family. Many people are reluctant to bring in outsiders to be a part of their traditions, even, for example, when there is a new engagement in the family. Traditions are also important because they keep the generations in contact with one another.

Genealogy.com: Are traditions more important to certain groups of people?

Dr. Coady: In our study we interviewed three generations of women — grandmothers, mothers, and college students. The grandmothers described their traditions in great detail and with a lot of thought, but the college students tended to put the least effort into describing them — usually only a few lines. This may be an indication of how much traditions are important to each generation.

Traditions are also very important to families with young children. They want to establish their own traditions and perhaps break away from the traditions established by the older generations. For example, many of them want to start celebrating Christmas in their own homes, rather than traveling to their parents' homes. The early marriage stage is also when people are sorting through the traditions that each one is bringing from their families. They are sort of negotiating their family histories and deciding what the new traditions will be.

Interestingly, people from the middle generation generally express the least satisfaction with their family's traditions. This generation is usually the bridge between the youngest and oldest generations and therefore the most active in keeping the family together. The problem is that they most often are the ones who have to put the most effort into carrying out the traditions. They also have to mediate between the younger and older generations. The younger ones may not want to take part in a tradition and this can make the older ones feel hurt, so the middle generation has to be the compromiser.

In cases of divorce and remarriage, traditions also play a special role. It can be very important to honor the traditions of both families, or perhaps adapt them to the new situation.

Genealogy.com: Are traditions more important now that families tend to have busier schedules? What about the fact that different branches of the family may be living thousands of miles apart?

Dr. Coady: Traditions are important, because they are built-in family time. Especially in families with young children. Kids need a lot of time so the family traditions become especially important.

The mobility of the family does change things. It's important for people not to hang onto traditions that cause them more grief than it's worth. Sometimes you have to let traditions go and then make new ones, or at least adapt the old ones to the new situations.

Genealogy.com: Why is it that women are more likely to carry out the traditions?

Dr. Coady: Women are the kin keepers — they send the cards and buy the presents. Also, we've found that most traditions revolve around food, so that may be why they are the ones who are keeping these traditions alive.

Genealogy.com: Is it important that people work to preserve their family traditions, or perhaps start new ones? How can they go about that?

Dr. Coady: Traditions are worth preserving. It's easy to let go when you are busy, but they are worth it. People should at least try to preserve some aspects of their traditions if it's not possible to go through the entire ritual.

If people start new traditions, they should start out slowly with a simple kind of activity. Then perhaps each year they can embellish it. It will become something that everyone looks forward to.


About the Author
Dr. Coady is a member of the Faculty of the Department of Family Relations and Human Development at The Ohio State University. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from Wittenberg University and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Family Relations from The Ohio State University. In her current position she teaches introductory and advanced courses about the American family as well as a course on Professional Development. She coordinates the Fieldwork Program for the Department and is also a past recipient of the College Outstanding Teacher Award.

Dr. Coady's current research is an examination of family traditions as experienced by three generations of women. This research is an outgrowth of her interest in identifying family strengths and includes data from approximately 300 Midwestern women. Dr. Coady and her co-authors have made numerous presentations at professional meetings and to community organizations and have published their work in professional journals.

Her community service includes involvement with the United Way of Franklin County for which she has chaired several evaluation and allocation committees.


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