Not long ago, the Journal of Family Psychology published a review comprising 50 years of cumulative research into family tradition and ritual. The study found that parents in families with strong routines – including, say, annual camping or beach trips – have happier marriages. As for their kids, such traditions tend to lower anxiety and boost self-esteem and physical health.
My mother did not know any of this eight years ago when she planned our family's first visit to Chickenfoot Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains. She just wanted to get my daughters into the backcountry. We drove six hours from our San Francisco home and hooked up with an outfit called Rock Creek Pack Station, where a team of packers in cowboy hats loaded all of our stuff onto mules and set off for our destination. My parents and wife and daughters and I hiked at a leisurely pace with nothing on our backs. When we arrived a few hours later, we found our gear where the packers had left it by the lake. We set up camp and settled in – fly-fishing in the warm dusk, taking unambitious day hikes and afternoon swims. Three days later, the packers returned and gathered our things, and we hiked back out.
The next year, my sister came along, with her two kids. The year after that, her husband joined us. Hiking out, someone said, "Hey, let's keep doing this." And just like that, Chickenfoot Lake became the place all 10 of us go every summer.
Your family tradition does not have to be quite so elaborate. Far more important is to find a place or activity that works well enough to keep the whole crowd coming back year after year. "Traditions are how you strengthen a family identity," says Kiernan Warble, a family therapist in San Francisco. "It's how you create a family narrative about your value system. It's a way to say, 'This is who we are.'"