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Family Traditions During the College Years

Connie Lissner

Before my oldest son left for college, I never imagined our family's traditions might come to a screeching halt when the kids left home.

I thought chocolate chip pancake breakfasts in bed on birthday mornings, apple picking in the fall, and celebrating half birthdays with half a cake were sacred. These were, after all, the memories that defined our family.

So, what happens to that "definition" when one of your kids leaves home? Are you supposed to maintain the status quo, trudging through the apple orchard every fall sans children, for instance, or do you scrap the tradition and move on?

Some Traditions Have a Shelf Life

I suppose it should have been obvious that my boys would outgrow some traditions, like pumpkin patch photo ops and hand print turkey decorations for the Thanksgiving table, but others weren't so obvious. For instance, I didn't focus on the fact that my kids would be away at college during apple-picking season or might be studying abroad over Thanksgiving.

And yet, there we were, at Thanksgiving dinner without one of our boys. Our oldest was in Italy for a semester during his junior year of college, and it simply wasn't realistic for the rest of the family to fly to Europe to celebrate with him (although, believe me, I tried to make it work).

I was worried that he'd be homesick or lonely. Would it feel like a holiday without my turkey and stuffing? He, however, had already come up with a plan to spend the holiday eating Italian food with his new friends. He was perfectly happy with the adjustment. I, on the other hand, was not.

Although I didn't really believe that he and his brother would abandon us and our traditions so easily (he did, after all, make me cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner when he got back from Rome), the experience reminded me of the difficulty of maintaining traditions as you expand your world. I forced similar changes on my parents, first with college, then work obligations, then later when I married and had children.

Traditions Need to Adapt and Evolve

My husband and I come from different religious backgrounds. As much as we've tried to incorporate many of our respective religious and cultural customs (we have a Christmas tree and a menorah), our traditions are certainly more watered down than those we grew up with. I'm sure that was not the scenario our parents contemplated when they introduced their family traditions, but they didn't have much choice but to adapt.

And adapting is key, according to family therapist Christina Jones, LCSW. "The face-to-face contact and connection that comes from these moments is invaluable in strengthening family bonds. If you don't adapt, you risk losing any contact."

And with it, any connection.

I have a friend whose mother-in-law has forced a Christmas celebration rebellion due to her inflexibility. She expects all five of her grown sons and their families to spend the night at her house every Christmas Eve. Christmas wouldn't be the same for her without everyone waking up in her home and opening presents in their new Christmas pajamas. The problem with that plan is that it doesn't leave room for her children's own family traditions and obligations. Her rigidity has become a source of anger and resentment and, not surprisingly, resulted in a mutiny this year as all of the spouses are refusing to attend.

That's a cautionary tale if I've ever heard one.

But, you might wonder, doesn't the idea of changing a tradition defeat the meaning of a "tradition?" If you constantly need to ditch or "adjust" your family traditions as your kids get older, what's the point of starting them in the first place?

"Family traditions are definitely worth creating and preserving," according to Jones. "These traditions are a form of self-care, a way of putting yourself and family first. Traditions are a way of saying, 'no matter how busy we might be, we always make time for this because it's important.'"

Family Traditions Are Worth It

For me, family traditions are a way to reinforce the importance of spending time together and also acknowledge how unique each individual in the family is. Although face-to-face contact is in short supply when your kids are in college, you can make the most of that time when they are home and get creative if you want to continue traditions long-distance.

If that means I need to order a half dozen ridiculously expensive cupcakes from a local bakery instead of trying to ship half a homemade cake for a half-birthday, so be it. And if I have to beg — or bribe — my boys to spend five minutes with me to make our annual New Year's Day list of "family accomplishments and things to remember" from the previous year, then that's what I'll do. I'll even let friends and significant others join in on family game nights.

I'm all about adjusting if that means I still get to spend time with my boys.

Connie Lissner is a writer, lawyer, wife and more importantly, the mother of two sons — one in college and the other a recent graduate. She was once told that a child’s job is to constantly push a parent’s limits and her boys do their job very well. She, in turn, is trying to do her job of not totally screwing them up. She navigates the slippery slope of motherhood one mistake at a time. Connie’s parenting failures have been featured on The Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, Grown and Flown, Scary Mommy, LifeAfter50, Club Mid, BlogHer and in the book, Not Your Mother’s Book…on Parenting.
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