Ritual in the Lives of Children
by Nancy Monson
A ritual is an activity or action done with intention that inducts you into deeper parts of yourself and life. Rituals engage our hearts, our minds (through focus) and our bodies (through physical gesture or posture). The power in ritual lies in its ability to nourish on a very deep level. This is a place in us that knows we belong to a greater whole, a place that is centered within and feels safe, a place of stillness and quiet. A ritual can be as simple as lighting a candle in the morning, stepping outside to greet the day or reading a story before bed every night. What is received from a ritual is invisible, but the nourishment feels tangible.
To really understand what rituals mean to children, it is extremely useful to look back to your own childhood and remember where there were rituals in your life. I remember saying the same prayer every night before bed from the time I could talk. At the end of the prayer (Now I lay me down to sleep....) I would "God Bless" whoever I wanted to. I would go on and on until finally my parents would end it for me by saying, "and God bless everyone," which would satisfy my desire to make sure everyone would be blessed. We were not a religious family, in fact, this is one of the few things we did that might be called "religious." When I turned eight I went to camp every summer and there were special rituals there. Every Sunday we wore white clothes and had special activities, but the one I remember the most was when we were all in bed, and it got dark, the counselors would serenade us from outside the cabin. Their voices blended with the sound of the wind in the trees. The songs were beautiful, soft and deeper in meaning than our regular camp songs. At the end of the summer there were other rituals; a candle dipping ceremony, a wishing boat ceremony and a final campfire. All these made a deep and lasting impression on me. I believe that it was those rituals that gave me the sense, even as a child, that my life had meaning, and that there was a powerful goodness inherent in life.
Ritual brings into form an invisible quality in life and when done over and over, helps that quality become internalized. The value in ritual for children (and adults) is to contact the invisible qualities in life, to taste them, and eventually to infuse them, so the ritual itself is no longer needed. The child has contacted and experiences the quality within them. (Examples of qualities are appreciation of life, caring/love, belonging, generosity, trust). Although I no longer say the prayer I said as a child when I go to bed, I close my eyes and listen to the silence. I spend a few moments going through my day and feeling what was good; the people I came into contact with, the love that is present in my life, the work I did, what was given to me. The ritual doesn't have the same form as when I was small, but the feeling of belonging to and being responsible to humanity is the underlying quality I contact and nourish in myself. In our busy world, ritual is a way to slow down and remember what is important about being alive.
Ritual can be very simple and done in our every day lives. By creating every day rituals in our child's life, we open the door to this greater sense of belonging, as well as create a structure and foundation that children can count on. In many cultures, ritual was part of tradition. Many families don't have traditions, but any family can create their own rituals, or add to what may be already part of family heredity. The two most important ingredients are: consistency and depth.
A ritual has to have depth to contact what's real. Depth requires being present with your senses, your thoughts and your feelings. When I take children out in nature, we have a ritual of sitting quietly for a few minutes and listening. At some point, there is this complete silence that we become part of. The children know it and I know it. We don't talk about it, we share in it together. There is a stillness in life that we could contact at any time if we stopped and waited. It is the same with depth, the underlying sense of mystery and love that permeates life.
A ritual has to be consistent. A ritual takes priority and becomes a center of focus for the family when it is being done. There is a sense of timelessness even in the most simple ritual, if it is done with consistency and those doing it are present with the actions. Make sure you're not rushed. A transition is usually needed before starting a ritual. Take some time to relax, complete what you were doing before, and create a sense of togetherness. At Homestar Child Development Center we sing a song before we eat. When the children have had a moment to get settled, the song has a special quality. If we don't take the time to get quiet and present before we sing, half the kids are being silly or talking and the other half are half-heartedly singing! The transition to make sure we are all together and ready to begin is the key to starting our meal ritual in a way that helps the children focus their attention on the food.
What are some daily rituals? Every family has it's own rate and rhythm that works. Children thrive on daily structure. One place to start with ritual is in the morning. What would be a way to be woken up that would really feel good, and get you in touch with a simple appreciation for a new day? I knew one little boy that always woke up negative. He had a ritual to get up right away, go outside and yell "I'm glad to be alive!" After about 6 months he started to wake up feeling that way. Here are some ideas for morning rituals: play light, simple music (like the Shaker tape: 'Tis a Gift to be Simple), have flowers at the breakfast table. Make up a little song to wake your child. At breakfast everyone say one thing they are looking forward to or one thing they are glad about. Light a candle and have silence or a simple saying to greet the day.
Mealtimes can be conducive to ritual. At camp we sang before every meal. To help children appreciate the gift of food, talk about where all the food on the table came from (from how it was grown all the way to being prepared at home....this can be a fun game). There are many little prayers or sayings of thanks that can start a meal with the feeling of gratitude. Making a centerpiece can be fun for children. One of the benefits of a mealtime ritual is to slow down, taste and enjoy the food, and feel together as a family.
Bedtime is a great time for a ritual because usually there is more time than in the morning. I mentioned a prayer I said as a child, but stories are a bedtime ritual too. You can light a candle and pick stories with more depth (fairy tales, true stories, any story that touches the heart and raises questions about the meaning or significance of life). You can talk about two good things you did that day or two good things that happened to you.
Holidays, birthdays, celebrations can be given more depth with rituals. One family I knew created special birthday ceremonies. Instead of having a party, each child would pick a culture. The food, music and decorations would be from that culture, and a story would be told. The children were part of the planning and cooking, and could invite 4 friends to participate.
Ritual is an opportunity for the family to share with each other. Taking time in nature once a week can be a family ritual. You can take a silent walk or still still for two minutes. Having silence together is not only a ritual, but a gift to your children. There is not much silence in our busy, noisy world. Helping children to enter the world of silence with reverence helps them to accept their aloneness that is part of being human. How many of us are comfortable with silence? And yet, it is in silence that our hearts speak to us the most clearly. If we want our children to know themselves instead of always having to look outside for approval or answers, then inducting them into the world of silence is an invaluable ritual. At a private school where I worked we would sit (starting in kindergarten) in a circle with a candle in the middle for 5 minutes before we started our afternoon work. We called this stillness. I ran into a student who is now in junior high who went to this school. I asked her what things she most remembered and she said "stillness." She told me she could hear herself think, she felt quiet inside, and there was something very special about that time she didn't have words for. Often, with rituals, there is a quality of feeling that there are no words for. A ritual leads us to a sense of what is sacred in life.
Finally, one way to choose a family ritual is to look to what you feel most connected to and what you see your children feeling most connected to. Does your child love animals? Nature Music? Stories? What does your child ask questions about? What does your child love to do with you? When do you feel closest to your child? What creates a feeling or a quality of depth? If you take the time to look, a unique ritual may reveal itself to you.
© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.
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