In a Nutshell: Some traditions help families thrive. Some destroy them. Be a “transitional character” and celebrate your ability to choose to send healthy traditions down to your children.
In the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye explains his culture then remarks, “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started.’ I’ll tell you…I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”
As Easter approaches, I’m thinking about traditions, both those I want to keep from my childhood, and those that my husband and I are changing. For example, years ago a friend told me that in her family, they had a religious celebration on Easter Sunday, and then “Harvey the Late Easter Bunny” visited them on Monday with their candy-filled Easter baskets. I loved this idea and instantly adopted it. First, I get to use Easter to teach my children about things that are important to me, and second, all the candy is at least 50% on Monday morning!
What traditions have been passed on to you from your family? Like Tevye, we sometimes hold tight to many of the traditions that are part of a family culture, even if they are hard to explain and analyze. Some of these traditions are probably great ones that give your family a sense of identity and cohesion, like holiday foods or birthday celebrations. But perhaps there are a few that are unhealthy to keep passing on. Some of these might include harsh physical discipline, belittling and yelling, turning a blind eye to underage drinking, or spending life consumed with media. Even though it is hard to be objective about our own family traditions, there is a time to put traditions we inherited on the chopping block and start hacking away at any that might be harming our family relationships now.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and my posts this month will focus on this theme. One of the most important ways to eliminate child abuse is to break chains of abuse. Some of you grew up in homes of abuse or neglect. Most of us know someone who did. Tragically, many of those who are abused absorb the traditions of their home and pass them on to another generation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The late Carlfred Broderick, a former marriage and family scholar at the University of Southern California, coined a phrase that has had a great impact on me—“transitional character.”
A transitional character is one who, in a single generation, changes the entire course of a lineage. The changes might be for good or ill, but the most noteworthy examples are those individuals who grow up in an abusive, emotionally destructive environment and who somehow find a way to metabolize the poison and refuse to pass it on to their children. They break the mold. They refute the observation that abused children become abusive parents, that the children of alcoholics become alcoholic adults, that “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the heads of children to the third and fourth generation.” Their contribution to humanity is to filter the destructiveness out of their own lineage so that the generations downstream will have a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives.
I’ve been blessed to know some of these people. They are some of my heroes. Even though they have suffered, they have somehow taken all the bad done to them and turned it into something wonderful. As we talk about child abuse this month, it will be a topic way too familiar to some. But there is hope in the idea that transitional characters can make real, lasting change for good in their families. And that is a tradition worth passing on.
Try it today: What family traditions have you inherited? Are there any that damage healthy relationships? Throw them from the train!