Keeping the Obligation Out of Tradition

Written by contributor Sarah Small of SmallWorld at Home

I am a great lover of family traditions. In fact, my entire master’s thesis was built around the theme of tradition and legacy. I love the stories that are passed down from generation to generation, the bits of family legend, as well as the tangible items: our grandmothers’ china, the old grenade and bayonet from World War II, Aunt Mabel’s jewelry, old books inscribed in elegant handwriting, and threadbare quilts with my mother’s old dresses.

In our own family, my husband and I decided early on in our marriage to deliberately cultivate traditions. We had one or two of our own before the kids were born and then added to them yearly. We have collected a solid stash of them in these 20-some years, from candlelight dinner every Saturday night, to the bedtime reading ritual, to taping numbers all around the house each birthday eve in celebration of a child’s new age.

Most holidays have their own traditions: decorating Christmas cookies, doing a Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt, hosting an annual October soup-and-pumpkin party. (If you are looking for some amazing ideas for family traditions, check out 10 Ideas To Get You Started at Simple Mom.)

Tradition anchors us. We take joy in unpacking the beloved ornaments each year and comfort in knowing there will be hashbrown casserole and cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning breakfast. Human beings, especially the very young and the very old, are naturally creatures of habit and order.

 But what happens when our kids outgrow the traditions, or just don’t want to take part? It will most likely happen, friends. Those of you who are just beginning this journey may find it impossible to believe that your wide-eyed little angel will someday be a 15-year-old who won’t want to sing Christmas carols around the piano or go with you to the annual performance of The Nutcracker that you have always attended. Together. As a family.

Before you launch into a lecture, arms akimbo, to your teenager about “spending time with family” or shake your head in disappointment that your child would be so selfish as to choose his friends over his family, take a deep breath and think.

Why did we create these traditions in the first place?

For joy and legacy or for obligation and guilt? To foster family ties or to force a reluctant unity? What do we want our children to carry with them into their own adult lives—the memories of magical candlelight and laughter, or the desire to escape from rigid traditions?

As writer William Somerset Maugham cautioned, “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” If you are entering into that season when your kids begin leaving behind childhood and reaching into their future, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for this transition:

  1. Be flexible with your traditions. You may need to adjust certain traditions to make them more appealing to older children.
  2. Resist demanding that older children take part in activities that they deem babyish.
  3. Respect them. If they ask to opt out of caroling at the nursing home or going to the Christmas parade, that doesn’t mean they are selfish.
  4. Don’t nurse hurt feelings. If your teen doesn’t want to sit in on the annual viewing of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his family.
  5.  Be receptive to new traditions. My teenagers, completely of their own accord, started their own tradition of making us a gourmet meal during the week before Christmas.

You might feel that all of your years of cultivating tradition are lost when your kids enter the teen years. And for a few short years, they may be completely resistant to family traditions.

But the memories are still there, and chances are, if traditions are done with love and courtesy, your child will come back to them as a young adult. And the legacies you started, combined with ones you took from your own families, will continue to the next generation.

What are your family’s most beloved holiday traditions? Have you encountered the reluctant teenager syndrome yet?

About SarahS

Sarah has graduated one child from homeschooling and is happy to have miles left on the journey with her 11 and 15 year old children. With a master’s degree in English/creative writing, Sarah enjoys teaching writing and literature classes at her co-op and blogs about learning at SmallWorld at Home.


  1. Great post! So timely! I love that phrase: “Tradition is a guide and not a jailor.” And your suggestions are so pertinent.
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  2. I was that teen! I was so embarrassed about almost everything and I did not want to be a part of it all. Now, I am the keeper of those things in my own household and my extended family. Thank you for this wonderful reminder that this will happen, that it’s normal and that you can view it as such, maybe taking the sting out a bit.

  3. ha!! i was the reluctant teenager. my mom’s (swedish) side of the family had a traditional christmas eve smorgasbord dinner, complete with lots of “weird” sausages, pickled herring, and various recipes picked up along the way. the menu was anchored by my grandmother’s swedish meatballs, which — along with the rest — made me groan, year after year. but i’m an adult now, married mother of two boys, and living far from my family. just this past christmas, i decided to make my grandma’s swedish meatballs the christmas eve tradition for my own little family. grandma passed away in january — and now our christmas eve meal will continue to celebrate her … whether my boys eat the meatballs or not ;-).
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  4. We have not encountered the teenage years yet. Yes, I can see it as hurtful if they wouldn’t want to participate but we will respect their decision.

    Here are our family traditions…

    Christmas: Over the holidays we drive to see this beautiful house done up with Christmas lights and moving decorations.
    – We decorate the tree together with Christams music on
    – We drink homemade eggnog Christmas morning
    – We all cozy up on the couch to watch Frosty the Snowman
    – Christmas Eve they all open homemade flannel PJ’s
    – We use all of the same tacky decorations because we have them every year and they look for specific ones.
    – We sing Happy Birthday to Jesus
    – We read a book called The Voices of Christmas every year
    – Each will get a clementine in the bottom of their stockings. My grandma got the same in her stocking…usually the only thing she got and she loved it.

    Easter: Easter egg hunt
    – We put a line of little jelly beans and chocolate eggs from each of their beds to the living rm
    – In their basket they get pre-packaged things like cheese strings, yogurt, applesauce, granola bars…They never get their own because we have 6 children so we buy in bulk. Applesauce would be from a big jar for example.

    Valentines Day: We get the kids Valentines Day cards and my husband and I each write one word that best describes that child. So our 7yo daughter will have compassionate and creative on her Valentines Day card one yr and the next it will be something different.

    We have other traditions but not holiday related. I hope I didn’t write too much! I have been thinking quite a bit about traditions this year.

  5. Love this. Years ago, as I was about to get married, my mother talked to me about family traditions. She cautioned me against forcing all “my” family traditions on my husband, and urged me to create a blend of “his, mine, and ours.” Now my young teens are creating new traditions and though old ones fall away, we are replacing them with new activities we love. And we never, ever forget the old ones.

    I do admit to getting a little teary the first year my boy refused to participate in the annual read-aloud of The Story of Holly and Ivy, but really! How silly of me. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday he reads it to his own little girl – or gives the book for his wife to share with her.
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  6. Well said!
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  7. I like this article. We are new family making new tradition as well. We started Advent this year. It is really helpful and it keeps everyone informed and in sync. Happy holiday!
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  8. We look to the Lord and what He wants us to celebrate in each festival, so year by year it changes. As the children grow up, young adult children come home or visitors stay, we adapt our traditions.
    Strangely, it is not the main traditions that are important to the kids- silly little family moments we enjoy regularly are special to us and generate our best fun memories as a family.
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  9. I really, really enjoyed this post! Thank you so much for sharing. As a first-born who became an elementary teacher who is now a stay-at-home-mom, I have a {lot of} issues with traditions and expectations. I am getting better, year by year, but this article was such a gentle encouragement and I really appreciated reading it today.

  10. i absolutely agree with you. thanks for this post.

    we have an interesting situation in our family. we are at that stage and not at that stage at the same time. we’ve got a 14 year old and 3 other kiddos between the ages of 1-5. so it’s a challenge sometimes to find activities that fit well for everyone in the family. we have a few family christmas traditions. there are some that we do expect our 14 year old to take part in (decorating the tree and jesse tree) while others we are flexible about (like heading downtown to see the lights and gingerbread houses, checking out the holiday markets, making our gingerbread house, etc.). we plan our tree decorating over the weekend in the evening so that it allows our teen to hang out with friends during the day. it seems to work well, and his tasks have gotten bigger as he’s gotten older (e.g. helping dad put together our fake tree, fixing/changing the light bulbs, etc.) so that it does make him feel like he’s not doing the “kiddie” stuff. and the jesse tree is just a natural extension of other times after dinner when we have a little family bible study time so there isn’t a whole lot of change that comes with that.
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