Whether it’s Christmas, birthdays, Saturday morning pancakes, or spring break vacations, learning to navigate family traditions in the empty nest catches many parents off-guard. You expect the emotional roller coaster when the kids move out or go to college, and even the black hole of not hearing from them for stretches of time. But do your special ways of marking and celebrating the year as a family have to change too?
The Paradox of Family Traditions
Traditions are special rituals or customs, often passed from generation to generation, with the purpose of forming identity, strengthening family bonds, creating memories, and building a legacy. They can be simple or detailed, common or unique. Daily, weekly, or yearly traditions bring joy and a sense of security to all ages.
Few realize, however, the strain a tradition can put on family relationships during the empty nest years. What once brought laughter and excitement now makes for awkward conversations as your kids become adults, get married, and have their own children and extended families. Something you thought would always be a part of your family has somehow fallen off the calendar. Where do you go from here?
While there are no easy formulas, a few basic guidelines will help alleviate bigger issues.
5 Rules to Help Navigate Family Traditions
1. Don’t make your kids choose between family traditions and their own emerging traditions and independence. Make room for both.
Choices. We make dozens of them a day. Remember when you first stepped out on your own? Suddenly, the list of choices grew 1000-fold. You were able to explore options you didn’t know existed just months before.
Try to keep in mind the vast array of decisions your son or daughter is now facing. Be gentle. Be supportive. Be patient. They’ll get their footing soon and a lot of those options will fall by the wayside as the excitement of choosing wears off.Be gentle. Be supportive. Be patient. #familytraditions #emptynest Click To Tweet
2. Be open to change, but put in the effort to maintain traditions that lend to a family legacy.
While you want to give your kids room to stretch their wings and discover new interests and friendships, it’s also critical for them to have a healthy connection to home. The same young men and women who are so excited to live on their own also spend a considerable amount of time wishing they were still home, with mom or dad making some of the decisions. This is your opportunity for input.
Write out and look over both general and holiday traditions you’ve maintained through their high school years. Which ones mean the most to the whole family? Which ones lend themselves to continuing into this new season and beyond? Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole, but definitely make the extra effort to give your kids the understanding that family is still special.
3. Don’t discount the traditions of your son or daughter’s friends, spouse, and in-laws. Allow for the old to mix and evolve with the new.
The more people you meet, the more you realize how varied values, cultures, and traditions can be. We live in a world where it’s not unusual for our kids to meet and marry someone from the other side of the planet. And yet, they could marry the girl next door and the tension is still the same: Giving honor to the values and traditions of others while maintaining a piece of your own family heritage.
Take it slow. Traditions grow out of relationship and, in turn, strengthen the relationship. Take time to get to know your son or daughter’s friends, spouse, and in-laws. Be open to learning and trying new things. More than likely, you’ll discover new traditions you’d like to implement yourself while sharing some of your own with the now-extended family.#Traditions grow out of relationship and, in turn, strengthen the relationship. Click To Tweet
4. Recognize when a tradition has outlived its time and purpose.
Not every good idea is good for every season. You discovered this when your kids no longer wanted a bedtime story. Or when cookies were no longer left out for Santa and Saturdays were spent on the soccer field instead of fishing together.
It’s better to recognize season changes and stop a tradition while it still carries fond memories, rather than push until all that’s remembered is the train wreck at the end. Frame a few pictures or retell stories when you get together. But let a tradition go when it no longer serves its purpose.
5. Remember: Traditions are meant to strengthen relationships, create cherished memories, and build a legacy.
Don’t forget the reason you made (and continue to make) family traditions. Traditions, when done well, create an atmosphere for love, growth, and laughter. They help you discover hidden pieces of yourself and each other. They also give a link to the past and a hand to extend to the next generation. Remember. Be intentional. Enjoy.Traditions, when done well, create an atmosphere for love, growth, and laughter. #emptynest Click To Tweet
Embracing the Many Faces of Family Traditions
— Transitional Traditions
Every family has its unique set of circumstances, but the empty nest transition commonly takes five to ten years before everyone settles into their emerging roles. College gives way to new jobs or traveling, which eventually moves into weddings and grand-kids. Give yourself permission to start a few new traditions for just you and your spouse during these transition years.
- Travel during the holidays instead of the annual family gathering.
- Volunteer on Saturday mornings instead of family breakfasts.
- Host game nights with the neighbors.
- Walk after dinner.
- Send each other a joke-a-week.
These transitional traditions may fade out as time moves forward, or they may become the new norm. Either way, giving yourself new traditions that aren’t set in stone helps everyone get over the awkward hump and fills the empty space with fun memories.
I mentioned above that some family traditions are worth fighting for. These three criteria will help you decide if a tradition is a keeper.
- Holds significant meaning to the whole family.
- Able to continue, even with changing lifestyles.
- Expresses a piece of your family’s identity.
Something to keep in mind: Some family traditions fade out as children grow, but can still be an important part of the family heritage. They may go dormant for a decade or so, but then pop back to the surface with the next generation of toddlers. Don’t discount important traditions just because they only show up for specific seasons of life. These can create some of the most treasured memories.
— Altered Traditions
Some traditions stay the same at their core, but minor details are adjusted for new circumstances. For example, distance may not allow for ornaments to be exchanged on Christmas Eve, but they could still be mailed and opened on a video call. Instead of opening a Family Thankful Jar on New Year’s Eve, take time around the dinner table when everyone’s in town to share what you’re each grateful for.
If Thanksgiving dinner has always been an important part of your family’s memories but the kids can’t make it, don’t feel boxed in by the calendar. My mom has been known to make a turkey with all the fixings in July, just to enjoy the familiar tastes and smells with visiting grandsons.
— Evolving Traditions
As the family grows, it’s important to allow new input to shape and re-shape traditions. Marriages, cultures, beliefs, interests, and even income can all affect what types of traditions are equally embraced. One way to extend an open hand is to invite other family members to host and share responsibilities. Each person puts their own flavor and color to whatever they do. Enjoy the possibilities.
— Rotating Traditions
Rotating certain aspects of a tradition keeps it from becoming too much of a burden for one person. For example:
- Rotate the location of an event.
- Rotate which holiday to get together.
- Rotate who plans the gathering.
- Celebrate the tradition every other year instead of yearly.
Keeping family traditions cultivates a positive family culture. Decades can pass, but one mention of a shared experience can bring instant laughter and unity. It may take careful planning, effort, and humility to continue celebrating family rituals, but think of the laughter ten years from now and know it’ll be worth it.
What traditions do you still celebrate with your adult kids? Any new, empty nest traditions?