Understanding the Importance of Rituals for Young Children

rituals

Yesterday morning, I was visiting one of my students in the classroom where she was doing her student teaching. It was at the tail end of drop-off time and I asked her to join me in watching what was unfolding before us.

One by one, parent and child entered the room and proceeded to engage in a give and take between them. Each was different, but the same in intent- to signal and smooth the transition from home to school.

One involved a special hug, another a whispered secret, or happy wish for the day. It was apparent that these little “rituals” were well rehearsed and had become expected practice. Mom talked, child responded, smiles and kisses were exchanged, and suddenly it was over. But, somehow, it was enough and the day could start.

There were a couple children whose parents didn’t seem to have this MO down, and the result was quite different. There was clinging and, in one case, some tears. The teacher quickly intervened. She effortlessly suggested a couple quick steps for Mom and child to take in preparation for her leaving. “Give Mom a hug and then come over with me and we’ll wave to her outside through the window. She was setting up a ritual! It was interesting to observe as the child’s distress was distracted with a new direction. As Mom left, she mouthed “Thank You” to his teacher. A side benefit of what just happened was a closer bond between parent and caregiver.

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Rituals provide predictability and reliability, which translates to a feeling of safety and security for young children. These routines support emotional regulation as the child navigates everyday challenging events.

It’s all about repetition and structure. When he knows what will happen at certain times, the child gains a sense of control over the situation…. And in his world, there is an awful lot that is outside his control. Obviously, these rituals are important. Without the routine, things are wide open and without bounds- too much of the unknown for a small child to handle. A ritual provides narrower boundaries and fewer choices.

Often it is a good idea to let the child have a little say-so in setting up the ritual. “When Mommy says goodnight, you tell me how far to close your door.”

I was reminded of a day, years ago, when my oldest son was in Kindergarten. I had just dropped him off in the carpool line, into the hands of his teacher. Before pulling away, she and I began chatting. A minute or two passed, and I was surprised to see my son reappear at the car window. “Mom!” he said. Oops, I forgot our ritual! Every day, when I dropped him off, just before he went into the building, he’d turn around and watch for me to sign, “Have a happy day!” and he’d reply, “You, too!” It just sort of set things right for both of us to begin our day.

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Rituals are always individualized approaches. There is no “one-size-fits-all.” A bedtime ritual that works for your sister-in-law may not work for you. And, sometimes, a well-established ritual may start to wander off track and need to be tweaked back in line. My son told me about his two-year-old’s bedtime routine that had somehow gotten out of control after working so well for a few months.

“It was good for about three months… bath, tooth brushing, read a couple books, a kiss, and goodnight. Then, it fell apart. He wanted increasingly more books read every night and when I tried to cut it off, he’d scream and refuse to go to sleep.”

Fortunately, Daddy was just as smart as Radley! “Now, he can choose three books and after reading each one I ask, “Do you remember what happens after the last story?” And he answers, ‘I go to sleep, Daddy.’ And he does.”

Ah, the magic!

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