How to strengthen family ties with traditions


“What should we do for New Year’s Eve?” That common question at year’s end isn’t something Krista Gilbert’s family needs to ask.

Since 2000, the Gilberts have enjoyed a unique holiday tradition: Each Dec. 31, they travel to an Idaho ski resort, where they take a chairlift halfway up the slope and hike the rest of the way to the top. “Then, when the lights go out on the night skiing, we ski down with flares,” says Gilbert, author of Reclaiming Home: A Family’s Guide for Life, Love and Legacy (Morgan James Publishing, 2015). “It’s how we ring in the new year; it’s our family’s tradition.”

Traditions, Gilbert says, are an essential part of forging a family identity, of making the family a place where kids know they belong. “If they’re looking for belonging outside the family, they may make some choices that group is making that aren’t so healthy,” she says.

That doesn’t mean you have to turn out Pinterest-worthy holiday feasts to save your kids from a life of crime, however. “We don’t have time for that,” Gilbert says. “We’re just trying to create shared experience.”

Doing Dinner Together
Among Gilbert’s favorite family traditions is dinner. She, her husband and their four kids try to have dinner (or at least a late dessert) together every evening. “That’s a daily ritual that really becomes an anchor for our kids,” she says.

How does a busy mom or dad pull off a home-cooked meal every evening? Perhaps by grabbing something out of the freezer that they prepared ahead of time.

Rather than watching TV during dinner, the Gilberts listen to instrumental music that helps set the mood. Rather than checking their phones, they check in with each other. That could mean sharing the highs, lows and “betcha-didn’t-knows” of their days, or it could mean answering a random question like “Would you rather be able to travel in time or fly, and why?” (For more conversation starters, see the sidebar below.)

Many dinners will feature more silence than meaningful conversation, but that’s OK. “Even in those moments, we’re doing something,” she says. “We’re creating security; we’re creating safety.”

Making Your Own Traditions
You can establish traditions far beyond the dinner table and familiar holidays. Gilbert says the best family traditions include four elements: challenge, connection, fun and originality.

New traditions could include anything from a Tuesday talent night to a turning-13 adventure. “When people think of traditions, they think they have to be huge,” Gilbert says. “There are times for that, for sure, but traditions can be small; in fact, I have a whole section in my book on mini-traditions.”

You can also change — or even abandon — traditions as your kids grow older. “We need to give ourselves the freedom to do that and not make them have-tos,” she says.

A possible exception might be New Year’s Eve skiing. After all, what could be better than that?

Get Talking
Use these easy conversation starters, courtesy of, at your family dinner.

  • Name three things that are fun for you.
  • If you joined the circus, what would your circus act be?
  • If you had superpowers, what would they be?
  • What’s your favorite thing to do outside?
  • What’s the funniest or strangest thing that happened to you today?
  • Would you rather go to your school or Hogwarts? Why?
  • What would you do if you made the rules at home?
  • If you could start a new family tradition, what would it be?
  • What two qualities do you want your friends to have?

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