Do wholesome recreation and family traditions actually lead to greater happiness in family life? Brian Hill, professor of Experience Design at Brigham Young University, discusses the science behind successful family traditions and rituals and why they are essential for strong families. Consistent and meaningful family traditions are still one of our greatest tools in uniting families.

Tune in to learn about the core and balance model of family recreation (3:20), the elements of a good tradition (8:02), and how God has set a divine example of family rituals (19:42). Strong family traditions and rituals help kids to feel safe, connected, and give us a sense of identity.

“As you think about the way that God teaches His children, you can see that He uses family rituals often. … If God uses rituals to be closer to us, He must be anxious to get these outcomes in His eternal family.”

Listen to the episode here (transcript below).

David Steele: Hello and welcome to the raising family podcast. Thanks for joining us today. I’m your host David Steele, along with our co-host Linda Hill. And today we’re privileged to have professor Brian Hill with us. Dr. Hill is currently a professor of experience design and management at Brigham young university in Provo, Utah. He got the outstanding academic alumnus award from Clemson university. He got the outstanding academic professional award from the Utah recreation and parks association and also the outstanding citizenship award from Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management. So he’s done a lot of work in these areas and we’re just super excited to have him on. So thanks for joining us. 

Linda Hill: Since we are usually focusing on something from “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” paragraph seven says, “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” So that is one of the number one reasons we wanted you, as you seem to be quite an expert in that, the wholesome recreational activities. Why don’t you give us a little background on some of how that’s brought into your classes at BYU?

Prof. Brian Hill: Well, we have a program for about a decade where we had a master’s degree focused on family recreation, and it sort of came out of the proclamation to the family. It focused all of our research, our graduate level students and the research that they did, and our faculty were focused on this for a 10 year period where we really looked hard at family recreation. We use it to understand what is wholesome family recreation and how does that lead to greater happiness and family life. So we could help people just be better at the way that they used activities and recreation with their families. One of the things that we learned early on came from one of my colleagues was a core imbalance model that said really the kinds of things we do with our families.

You could break that up into two things. One is the core activities that we do every day. Things that are close to home could be done spontaneously, don’t take much planning and are usually low cost. So like bouncing on the trampoline together, or playing board games or doing the kinds of things we might do at family home and a family home evening. Those core activities do a lot to build cohesion in a family. 

So that was one of the findings of the core activities, balance activities, take more planning they’re usually done away from home. They’re the kind of trips and outings that families might do. And we found out that those kinds of activities do more to build our ability to deal with difficulties in life. So they’re a good coping mechanism, the balance activities. So the core and balance are both important. We looked at family recreation and a couple of other ways as well, one way was to see if there are some activities that work better than others? And we really didn’t find that, some families who go boating are somehow better off than those who go hiking together.

David Steele: Oh, well, that’s a blessing cause we, we never went boating growing up.

Prof. Brian Hill: Well, the key is that there’s a mix of core activities and balance activities. Those two things are both important. I think that we also found that the amount of time that you spend is probably way more important than anything else. We found that what matters is that you do things together and how satisfied are our family members. We also looked at marital recreation. How satisfied were the two individuals in a marriage with the recreation that they were doing? It had way more to do with: are we meeting each other’s needs by doing these things together?

Linda Hill: Yeah. That sounds amazing. So are you saying that there’s not necessarily any particular way to define a family tradition?

Prof. Brian Hill: You know, when we talk about family traditions, that may be a little bit different. I’d love to talk a little bit about those from a different perspective. I think when we started to talk about family recreation, we were so excited that the proclamation included this phrase, right? It validated all of us who care about recreation. It was like, “Ah, now we are meaningful in the world!” We were all so grateful that it was included. 

We spend a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it, teaching about it, researching about it, and trying to understand it. I’ve kind of settled to say, well, what is it that’s most important that I should teach today, more than 20 years later, what should we teach today as it relates to family life? And so in my class called Creating a Good Life through Experience Design, most of that’s focused on individual happiness and wellbeing, but we take time to talk about family rituals as a way to say, “Well, how can we design experiences that are meaningful to families beyond what’s important to us just individually?” 

The source that I use for that is a book called The Intentional Family by a professor from the University of Minnesota named William Doherty. He was a part of developing a research agenda long ago, focused on family recreation in his work. He was a really renowned professor in family science, but also had practiced family therapy for many years. And he took all the things that he’d learned in his professional and academic life and made this one book that taught about the most important things the families really can do to strengthen their functioning. 

We take these principles about the intentional family and the idea of family rituals, which are sort of like family traditions. I know what you usually use that word family traditions, but to think about them as rituals, I think gives us much clearer guidelines about how we make the activities that we knew as families even more powerful and have an even greater impact on our family life.

David Steele: Right. Is there a very specific way that the family tradition is defined? Are there key things that have to be in place in order for it to be classified as kind of like a ritual or tradition?

Prof. Brian Hill: If you think about a family tradition, it’s probably just something that we do regularly. You know, this is the thing we do every year, sort of a thing I think is a typical definition or at least what we would first think about as a tradition. Doherty defines family rituals as having three really important components. So the first thing is it has to be meaningful or significant. So something that’s a tradition usually fits that. But a ritual definitely has to be meaningful. And as we do it over time, we may have to adjust it to maintain that meaning or significance. If there’s something that you did as a kid, that sort of doesn’t really seem to be as important anymore as it once was. It’s probably no longer a vibrant ritual.

The other things that are important is that it has to be repeated. A ritual is something that we do over and over again, but it doesn’t have to be done just once a year. A family ritual may be something that’s every week, or it might even be something that’s every day. A family who prays and studies scriptures together has a family ritual if it’s meaningful, if it, if it happens every day, but it could be something that’s every week, every month, every year, or even really important family rituals may only happen once in our lifetimes. We only have the funeral of our mother once in a lifetime, and yet it still fits that because it, because those funerals are really important experiences for us, but the third part of that definition is coordination. 

So a family ritual or tradition that doesn’t have sort of a coordinator probably doesn’t hold together very long. That might be, you know, and Beth, or it might be the mom was there most commonly, or it might be that the kids sort of starts to take over as they grow up and they make sure that certain family traditions are maintained. There’s a coordinator there’s repetition, something that’s done regularly that you can count on. That’s part of the power of the ritual. Then it has meaning or significance. So those are the three elements of what we would define as a vibrant family ritual.

Linda Hill: That’s great. Back to when you were first talking about core and balance activities and how some weren’t necessarily better than others, how are you measuring what is successful?

Prof. Brian Hill: We really struggled. If you’re going to measure something that makes a family stronger, you’ve got to have a good measure of what a strong family is. That was quite hotly debated among family scientists and the first measures of family strength. What they did is they asked people, “Could you identify families that you would call strong families?” and they started to look at those descriptions of strong families and see if there were commonalities. People who think about family life and try to study it and try to encourage it and support it, they have in their mind this idea of what a strong family is, and they might identify those families.

Prof. Brian Hill: Then the data was accumulated. It said that these are common characteristics of strong families, and one of those that we can probably all agree on is cohesion. This idea that families feel bound together, that there’s a strong sense of connection. And so I think that that really became what we would call a dependent variable to say, okay, how do we affect that feeling of connection are the things that can be done for instance, with recreation, that brings about more connection in a family. And that’s sort of what we would use as our measure to say, okay, let’s now experiment and say, well, if we do things at home, like watch TV together or play board games or play in the leaves, are those things going to build more stronger feelings of connection? And that’s how we did the research.

Linda Hill: I love that because that can be attributed to any type of family. It’s not just what we would consider this ideal situation. I mean, in single parent homes, you can still have incredible family traditions and rituals and cohesion. And families even that may not fit what some people would call ideal.

Prof. Brian Hill: It’s interesting because one of my favorite studies that I was involved in. As we were looking at core and balance and family activities, we looked at families who maybe had disadvantages at having feelings of connection. So we looked at single parent families, we looked at families with adoptive children, families that traditionally just have more challenges with connection. We found that the increase in connection happened when families were more intentional about having family activities together. The lower they started in their connection, connectability or connection the higher they were at the end of sort of that introduction of family activities. So I guess what that says is that those families that you’re describing (like single parent families) they’re the ones who are going to be most benefited by being intentional about introducing family activities and probably family rituals into their lives. That’s wonderful.

Linda Hill: Cool. That’s a very hopeful idea!

Prof. Brian Hill: There’s sort of this threshold where if you start and you’re already functioning pretty well, and you add some new variable or new effort to build your functioning or your connection, there’s not that much that you can grow. But if you start low, then there is a greater opportunity to grow even more over as you make an effort to strengthen your family. 

David Steele: I think jumping back into the family traditions, they need to be meaningful, repeated and coordinated that. It was also interesting earlier that you mentioned it wasn’t necessarily about the type of activity, but also had more to do with the time the time spent together. So is there a correlation between the number of rituals in a family and the cohesiveness?

Prof. Brian Hill: That’s a really good question as it comes to rituals, because one of the things I try to remind my students and encourage them because we talk about all the different kinds of rituals in class. We can talk about morning rituals. We can talk about evening rituals. We talk about outings and vacations. We talk about holiday rituals and birthdays and special person rituals like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, of course, Thanksgiving and Christmas are huge rituals. But we also talked about community rituals like funerals and weddings, and there are so many different kinds of rituals. 

So you kind of think about how important it is for little kids, especially to be able to to be able to feel safe. And that predictability is a feeling of safety for them. The next one is connection, which we’ve already talked a little bit about. So that’s a major outcome of family rituals. 

I guess I should say one outcome is that it gives us a sense of identity. If you ask kids to talk about their family rituals. They start to talk about it in a way that really you can see that this is how they identify—this is their family identity. … We understand that rituals are a way for us to pass values from one generation to another. Think of how powerful, how desirable it is for parents to pass on their values from one generation to another. 

Prof. Brian Hill: As you think about the way that God teaches his children and the way that He goes about interacting with us, you can see that He uses this method of ritual often. So, in our church, we’re encouraged to ritualize lots of things. Obviously our sacrament meetings include rituals. The ordinances are particularly ritualized. You have somebody who coordinates that, who has authority to be able to say, okay, we’re going to have these ordinances, whether it’s at a sacrament meeting or in the temple.

There’s someone with authority. They’re repeated exactly the same every time. And we know because we feel spiritual feelings in these rituals that they’re meaningful and significant. So I kind of take this approach that if God uses rituals, he must be anxious to get the same outcome that we have learned about that we can get in our family as a part of his eternal family. So think about God wanting to make us feel safe. I think if you’ve traveled somewhere too and gone to church, and they did that church the same way as you were used to at home. Yeah. How safe and good that makes you feel this feeling of connection we know through COVID how important it is for us to be together, to have a community. And when we get to participate in those rituals together, it makes us feel connected.

Prof. Brian Hill: God intends for us to take upon ourselves his son’s name, right? And so we take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ through our rituals. There’s nothing more powerful than taking upon the name of someone as sort of saying that is now a part of my identity, that’s who we are. God also intends to pass his values onto us. So if God uses these rituals as a way to connect us with Him, then to me, that adds even more emphasis to the need for us to use rituals to get these same outcomes with our own children and our own families. It adds this whole nother layer of power to think about family rituals from the perspective of God. How does God do this? He used these same principles. If He does, then we surely should as well.

David Steele: Well, thank you so much for spending so much time with us today, Dr. Hill. Maybe before we close, do you have anything else that you want to say that’s on your mind or some tips or tricks you feel would be valuable to anybody listening?

Dr. Brian Hill: You know, the thing that I usually end when I talk about these things is to circle back to where we can see an eternal perspective to rituals. If we can see that there’s an eternal truth, that these things really work in helping us to feel safe and connected and to build identity for us and allow us to pass our values from one generation to the next, if there’s truth that rituals do that, then why would we not build and strengthen and maintain our own family rituals?

David Steele: Wow. It’s beautiful. Thank you so much. At the end of these podcasts, we end by reading paragraph nine of the proclamation. And so with all of this that Dr. Hill has talked, we will read the ninth paragraph. It says, “We call upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society.”

I think that recreation, wholesome recreation and rituals and family time, as we’ve learned from Dr. Hill, are designed to maintain and strengthen the family. And so thank you so much Dr. Hill. We appreciate the time and we hope that everybody has learned something from this episode. 

The Raising Family Podcast and the “Ask the Y” Street Teams discuss our most pressing cultural and social issues from a family proclamation perspective. You won’t want to miss an episode!

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