Family celebrations are not just occasions to have fun, but also important learning opportunities. Most parents tend to exclude children in making plans for family events, seeing them as more of a distraction than a key participants. But when parents give children an active role to play during preparations for weddings, anniversaries, victory parties, and religious milestones like baptisms, dedications, and bar/bat mitzvahs, they help them learn a lot about their family, their faith and their core family values.
In what ways can parents involve children during weddings and other celebrations? Consider the following tips:
Always Explain What is Behind a Celebration
Milestones and achievements are worthy of celebration – but why? Explain to your child what is so special about a wedding (i.e. commitment, love, spiritual values, community relationships and so on) or other special event. Try to take it beyond the food and fun. You can say something like the following, modifying it to fit your own values: “Uncle David is getting married to his girlfriend Carol! Carol will become part of our family now – she’ll be your aunt. Weddings bring more people into our family to love. Maybe one day David and Carol will have children and those children will be your cousins. We’re all going to the church/synagogue/mosque for the wedding because people get married in front of all their friends and relatives and God. A person’s wedding day is one of the most important days in his or her life. You can help make it special by helping us make the cookies for their engagement party.”
Involve the Children in the Planning of the Celebration
Another way parents can make family celebrations fruitful for children is to involve them in the planning and preparation stage.This may be most appropriate when arranging a party at home for one of the members of the nuclear family. “We’re making a birthday party for Daddy’s 40th birthday. We’re starting to think of what we should do to make the party special. So far, we’re thinking that we’ll have balloons and a banner and we’d like you guys to make up a funny poem or story to tell about Daddy. But what other ideas do you have for the party?” When children are part of the effort, they will naturally learn to appreciate celebrations in their lives. These special events don’t “just happen.” Loved ones go to a lot of trouble to make things beautiful, meaningful and pleasureable. Most importantly, children will learn the intense pleasure of doing for others; it is very satisfying to bring happiness to other people and all too often, children are robbed of that particular pleasure. Involving them in part planning and participation provides education in how to give, as well as the pleasureable experience of giving itself.
Give Your Child a Role in the Celebration
As a family member, your child is more than a guest. If there are important family occasions, give kids a role, such as usher in a birthday toast or flower-girl/ring-bearer in a wedding. Being part of the actual ritual makes a child feel involved and appreciated — a part of the family. It also facilitates bonding with the rest of the clan. Family occasions after all mean solidarity in the family — so it makes sense not to leave kids behind! When photos are taken and the child sees him or herself as an important part of the celebration, it helps create lifelong impressions of the importance of giving, loving and celebrating.
Use Occasions to Help Kids Manage Difficult Transitions
Some family occasions can be emotional moments for children. Having a big celebration like a bar mitzvah, graduation or wedding right after a parent passes away can be very hard on a child. Or, having such a celebration while a parent is deathly ill, can be very difficult. Similarly, having such a celebration when the child himself is dealing with serious illness or trauma can also be hard. In addition, the re-marriage of a parent after a death or divorce can be difficult, as it’s both a hello to a new family life and a goodbye to the old. In all these cases, sensitivity is required. Don’t force a child to participate if he doesn’t want to. Allow him to have his natural feelings of grief and/or resentment. You can use “emotional coaching” (the naming of feelings) to show him that you understand and accept his emotions. For instance, Jan and Ted divorced 3 years ago. Jan had since become involved with a new man, named Joe. She had dated Joe for 7 months but only introduced him to her son 2 months ago. The boy had been complaining to his mom that he didn’t want to come to the wedding. This is what Jan said to her 10 year old son a few weeks before she was to marry her new boyfriend Joe. “I know the wedding day is going to be a hard one for you. You still miss Daddy and wish that he were part of our family again. That is very natural. And I know that while you kind of like Joe, you really don’t know him all that well yet and you’re not sure how this is all going to be for us. And the truth is, we need time to see how things are going to be (although I’m marrying Joe because I believe he’ll be a good man in our family). Right now, I guess you’re more upset than happy about all this. I can really understand why you don’t want to be at the wedding. We still have a few weeks to decide things. We’re not going to insist that you do anything that you aren’t comfortable with. We’ll talk more about this later. ”
When there are mixed emotions or just negative emotions, parents can include the child by asking him what level of involvement he’d like, where he’d like to sit, what role he’d like to play. Respecting the child’s responses and working with him can be healing as well as caring. When a child feels that he won’t be pushed, it helps him WANT to be part of things (in his own time). At times like these, it isn’t about what other people will think; it’s about what the child really needs.