For the fellow parents out there, remember the magic of the day your child was born?
Our precious infants were an open slate full of promise and we vowed to do everything possible to love and protect them.
But what would you do if you knew you wouldn't be around to see them grow up. How would you teach your kids what was most important to you? Are there any traditions that could instill your values in them?
What follows is the plan I came up with for that very situation.
BEING SICK CAN RESULT IN CREATIVE PARENTING
Several years ago, I experienced significant health issues. A combination of auto-immune conditions had created the perfect storm and left me without energy and in bed for months. It was a yucky time filled with doctor’s appointments, frequent blood draws and a variety of unpleasant procedures.
During those bleak days, I spent a lot of time thinking about my son and daughter, who were then in early grade school. I had such a clear vision of what was important to me and what I wanted to make sure they understood…I just wasn’t sure if I would be around to teach them.
To be very clear, had something happened to me, my kids would have been fine. Their dad is awesome and has always been a loving and involved father. He’s passed on his love of music, his ability to fix pretty much anything and an uncanny sense of direction (though the last one only made it to my daughter). But…
I needed to make sure that connection, kindness, really seeing other people and celebrating the most special parts of life were a part of their routine---not just on holidays like Thanksgiving, but on all the other days as well.
And so, I created “systems” to ensure that some of the most important things to me would always be a part of my children’s lives. The systems were designed to run independently of my participation, just in case my health didn’t cooperate. My hope was that the systems I created would become traditions that lived on for many years.
SYSTEM #1: ESTABLISH THE BIRTHDAY BIN TO SHARE MY LOVE OF BIRTHDAYS
One of the first systems I established was to make sure that birthdays would always be happily celebrated with ease. This was a must-do for me, because birthdays were an important part of my childhood and I was determined to make sure my kids had a similar experience.
(Though my single parent mom worked as a waitress in a diner to support my sister and I, birthdays were akin to national holidays. She threw big backyard parties for our friends and hosted a dinner with extended family. She always served homemade ice cream cake…on an orange tray she swiped from Burger Chef.)
I labeled a large storage tote “Birthday Bin” and made it the central repository for all things birthday---the birthday banner, the wooden H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y letters and other parts of our birthday tradition. All that someone had to do was literally “just unpack the party.” This “system” was an early example of what would grow up to become Birthday Butler.
SYSTEM #2: THREE THINGS ABOUT OUR DAY TO CREATE CONNECTION AND INTERACTION
Birthdays were covered, but since they only happened once a year, I needed another system to foster connection and interaction. Thus was born ‘Three Things about Our Day.”
As its name suggests, each person shares three items of note that the others don’t already know. The format is pretty loose—there’s no particular order we go in and the person can choose to mention whatever they want. On any given night, the topics can range from happenings at school or work to conversations with friends to current events.
By now, this conversation is as much a part of the meal as the food. This system ensures that everyone stays updated on each other’s life away from home.
SYSTEM #3: ‘THREE GRATEFULS’ TO CULTIVATE A DAILY GRATITUDE PRACTICE
Our most intimate system is called ‘Three Gratefuls’. This system is put into practice each night at bedtime, when the kids say three things they are grateful for. (Technically speaking, “gratefuls” isn’t a word…but it’s fun shorthand for ‘Things I Am Grateful For.’)
My intention was to help them find a few positive things in every day. It’s fun to see what merits mention and to hear the kids appreciate the mundane like a delicious dinner or less homework than usual.
Over the years since I started this tradition, I've learned how important a gratitude practice can be. My kids will have several decades head start on me as I didn't start being intentionally grateful until I was safely in middle age.
BEING INTENTIONAL CREATED TREASURED FAMILY TRADITIONS
The systems, as described above, make it sound like I knew what I was doing…and maybe on some level, I did. At that time, though, it was a struggle to make it through the day.
The reality is I designed these systems not because of what I wanted, but because of what I did NOT want.
I did NOT want my kids to experience a birthday without a wonderful celebration.
I did NOT want silence at the dinner table.
I did NOT want the little bits of my kids’ day to go unshared or unnoticed.
I did NOT want my kids to experience days without one (okay, three) bright spots in them
SEVEN YEARS OF PRACTICE HAS RESULTED IN FAMILY TRADITIONS
In the seven years since I designed these systems, my improved health has allowed me to be an active participant as well. I’m lucky that my kids and their dad played along and helped me turn these behaviors into family traditions that reinforce love, kindness, connection and celebration.
My kids would never refer to these as “systems” or even traditions. They’re just stuff we do…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.