Friday, April 27, 2012

The Rituals of Children

When you're a parent, you spend a lot of time hoping your baby is "normal"-- whatever "normal" is. There are articles and books out there dedicated to every childhood disorder, disease and condition and you watch and you wait and you hold your breath hoping that this little cough or that little facial tic isn't the sign of something bigger, scarier.

Being an older mother when my children were born (42 for the first, 44 for the second), I am hypersensitive to the idea of "normal." When strangers feel compelled to ask you while you're pregnant if you're worried about Down Syndrome or autism because of, well your age, you become sensitive. You rub your large watermelon-sized belly and you try to be polite even while you want to slap them silly for being so insensitive and downright cruel. Or maybe that's just me.

Rituals are the things of day-to-day life. The weekday rituals, the weekend rituals, the holiday rituals, the home rituals, the work rituals. They happen without thought. They are not truly rituals with a capital R, steeped in mysticism and profound significance; they are routines-- small r-- just a part of normal life. But what is routine and what is ritual? What is normal and what is abnormal? What is healthy and what is pathological?

I watch my two year old-- he's almost 29 months now, so nearly 2 and 1/2-- and how he processes household routines. He is at the age where he wants to do everything we do even though he doesn't always understand why we do things. He knows his dirty clothes go in the hamper and he puts them there each morning, but he doesn't know why he can't dig his favorite shirt out of the hamper and wear it again tomorrow. He knows the wrapper from his favorite cheese snack goes in the trash, but he doesn't understand why he can't pull something else out of the trash can and play with it. He understands that he has to share his toys with his little brother, but doesn't understand why he can't also share all of his food, too.

My son is trying to fit into the world-- our little world-- and make sense of the things that his young mind haven't quite figured out yet. At the same time, I'm trying to understand his garbled requests and the must-be-fulfilled rituals that aren't just delaying nap time or bedtime, but are crucial to his sense of order. And I wonder if this or that is "normal" or if it's a sign of something else. And then I wonder why "normal" is so narrow and rigid when it's clear that he is a beautiful, healthy, happy boy no matter what he does.

He lines his Hot Wheels cars up on the edge of his toddler bed each night before I tuck him in. A dozen or so cars are assigned sentry posts against the railing, the rest of the crate of cars tucked at the foot of the bed. He carries his Big Monkey around the house and on outings in the truck, his comfort toy, his "lovey." He changes seats at the kitchen table for various things. Dinner is in his own chair with the booster seat. Pre-bedtime fruit cup is in my chair. Breakfast is in the chair next to his brother. Three or four times a week, he drags the condiments out of the refrigerator and lines them up on the table-- ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise-- even if we're not having anything that requires condiments. Often, he will asks for dollops of each to be placed on his plate with his meal. Even if it's spaghetti, even if it's a bagel. He prefers his orange socks over all other color socks. He must find just the right CD for bedtime (lately, it's Matchbox 20) and turn on his star turtle. He much watch "video-video-video" on my iPhone; he is fascinated by videos of himself and will wave and hold up various Hot Wheels cars to show his video-twin. He must always push the button to open the garage door to let me leave.

And so it goes. Some routines/rituals fade away and are replaced by new ones. Some cause me a moment's pause-- is it normal for a child to line things up the way he does or to run full force at the wall again and again and then laugh hysterically when he crashes into it? Is it normal the way he repeats a word three times? Some of his antics just make me shake my head. He is a toddler, after all. A two year old trying to understand our adult rituals and making up a few of his own. Trying to learn the language so he can communicate what he needs instead of pat-pat-patting the refrigerator for more "joosh-joosh-joosh" or the floor so I will sit next to him. Trying to fit in and be a part of his community, even though his community so far doesn't extend beyond our house.

Rituals serve the purpose of helping us cope with life, fit in with our peers and live in our community. We wear blue and gold to honor our favorite sports team, we put on costumes to celebrate a holiday, we blow out candles to mark another year of life. We have rituals that are just our own-- a favorite color socks when you're two might be you're lucky color socks when you're twenty.

I'm rediscovering the importance of little rituals through the eyes of my son. The ritual of singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" at bedtime or when he's hurt. The rituals of cheek kisses and high-fives and head-butts before I leave the house. The little things that make his world feel safe and secure-- the little things that make my world feel safe and secure, too. His brother isn't quite eight months old yet and is already showing preferences for toys and patting the table and making screeching noises to communicate. His rituals will form soon, the things that make him feel safe and secure. And because I've already gone through so much with his brother, I will worry less about what is normal and spend more time enjoying the individualism of his necessary rituals.  Yes-yes-yes, I will.


  1. Hi Kristina!

    I think what you said about rituals and security is maybe the heart of religious ritual and ritual when we're little kids. Its wanting to feel like we have some control over what happens beyond us. When I was reading about your boy I suddenly remembered somehting from my childhood I had forgotten, about how I used to pile my favorite toys under the blanket with me to protect them from monsters.


  2. It sounds to me, Kristina, like your eldest is hugely creative when it comes to dealing with the world.

    Maybe he gets it from his mom!

  3. Great post, Kristina. I love being reminded of the world of young children -- but without having to raise any more of them myself, lol. You've brought it all back. This explains much of Sheldon Cooper's personality on "Big Bang Theory."


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