The Best Presents: Ritual and Repetition

During my family’s annual Thanksgiving beach road trip this year, my kids showed remarkable stamina for tolerating monotony as they watched the “Rugrats’ Chanukah” video 12 times in a row. I was about to inquire how they could manage to consistently laugh like fiends each time they saw Stu dress up like Latke Man, but stopped short upon realizing that they could easily turn the question back on me. You see, I’m no stranger to repetition myself, having managed to spend Thanksgiving on Hilton Head Island every year since I was in first grade.

My family always looks forward to our November return to South Carolina — where we unfailingly celebrate the holiday on Friday rather than Thursday — and to having fishing and sandcastle competitions and playing charades late into the night. But this annual pilgrimage represents far more to my kids than just fun. It is the makings of their greatest memories, the links between past, present and future, and the safety net that is woven out of knowing that no matter how crazy their world may feel the other 51 weeks of the year, they will spend that one glorious week, which happens to include the third Thursday in November, embedded in the familiar, the mundane, the beautiful traditions that weave our lives together year in and year out.

No wonder many psychologists believe that it is in the simple repetitions of life — not the grand black-tie events — that our children find the sense of stability and continuity they need to thrive in an unpredictable world. In other words, even if your kid is convinced that the only present he wants for Chanukah is a new, updated video-game system to replace the his old new, updated video-game system, you can rest assured that he really wants something else. This Chanukah, give your kids an extra present — one that will last far longer than the batteries in their hot new toys. Here are ideas for eight nights of rituals to help you begin to weave a lasting emotional safety net for your families, leaving them feeling as warm as the menorah’s glowing flames and strong as the courageous Maccabees for many Chanukahs to come.

Treasure Hunt Night: Make a treasure map for your kids to follow in order to find their loot for the night.

Tzedakah Night: Give your children a set amount to spend and take them to the toy store where they can pick out a gift for a needy child. Let them personally deliver it to a children’s hospital, homeless shelter or charity drop-off point.

Latke-Making Night: Whether it is peeling, washing or frying, making latkes is almost as much fun for kids as eating them.

Homemade Present Night: By stocking up on art supplies, having each family member draw a name and proceed to make a special gift for that person, you create a tradition as meaningful as it is messy.

Dreidel Showdown Night: Your family will have a “geltload” of fun taking part in an annual family dreidel tournament.

Big Present Night: OK, I may catch some flack on this one, but I support this unabashedly materialistic ritual, nonetheless.

Book Night: Reserve this night for exchanging hot reads and follow up with family reading time.

Friends and Family Night: The stories and memories swapped on this night will ultimately mean far more to your kids than the presents that will undoubtedly swapped, as well.

Sharon Estroff is a nationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist. She is a mother of four and an award-winning teacher with degrees in education and psychology. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?: The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids,” will be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, in 2007.