Coffee Cup

Teaching Practical Skills,
By Meg Cox

Although Meg Cox is not a “homeschooler,” her book, The Heart of a Family: Searching America for New Traditions That Fulfill Us, is brimming with wonderful ideas for the kind of rituals homeschoolers have both the time and inclination to incorporate into their lives. The following is an excerpt from the book.

Ordinary rituals teach all kinds of practical skills, such as how to set the table, even though this is not what most parents think about when they contemplate family rituals. One family has a tradition that during the summer vacations and on snow days, when the kids are stranded at home, they will be taught the nuts and bolts of what makes the house work, things like how to restart the hot-water heater and replace a fuse.

Kids who bake with their mothers at holiday time, for one obvious example, will grow up knowing how to make cookies and cakes. Children used to sitting down to holiday meals with extended families and friends will gain valuable practice in carrying on social conversations. If you have a tradition of family camping trips, your kids will learn to pitch a tent and build a fire, while vacation rituals that include water sports may teach kids sailing, waterskiing, or fishing.

A special bonus gained from all this is that as children learn practical skills in festive settings under their parents' watchful eyes, they are also learning responsibility. The Dreys of Des Moines, Iowa, go to a tree farm every year to cut down their own Christmas tree. Their son, Paul, has gone from eagerly watching the proceedings to holding the tree while his father chopped, to cutting it down himself.

But let's use some imagination here. Deborah Pecoraro did. The Pecoraros have a tradition of “full moon sundaes”: every month when the moon is full, her two kids get to make themselves lavish, gut-splitting sundaes. But there's a catch. The sundaes only happen if the children, aged ten and thirteen, take responsibility and keep track in the newspaper of when the full moon is coming. And there's a little lesson in finance involved: if the kids buy ice cream or other items using a cents-off coupon, they get to keep the money saved.

Clearly, blending any kind of lesson into a special occasion will make it seem less like school and more like fun. And the possibilities are endless. One idea: give your children special occasions to practice and show off the skills they've learned. Table manners, for instance. Sociologists say that some families' dinners become dreaded battlegrounds instead of cherished rituals because the whole meal is spent criticizing and correcting kids on their behavior.

In her book New Traditions: Redefining Celebrations for Today's Family, Susan Abel Lieberman writes about the unusual “no-reason” dinner parties given by Sally and Richard Singleton for their three children. The table is set with the best china and decorated with flowers. The kids all get dressed up, go out the back door, then walk around to the front, where their parents usher them in as honored guests.

“[The kids] love it,” says Sally Singleton. ”We do, too, because it is reassuring to see your children as guests. Has your child ever been out and the host family glowingly reported on his or her nice manners, leaving you delighted and mystified? Well, these dinners seem to bring out that best self.”

Meg Cox is a journalist whose resume includes 17 years as a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She writes frequently for magazines, mostly about ritual and celebration. Her work has appeared in Child, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Family PC and Ms. A stepmother and a mother, she lives in Princeton, N.J., where she gardens, quilts and teaches Sunday school. Her book, The Heart of a Family: Searching America For New Traditions That Fulfill Us, is available on a limited basis in hardcover, including through A revised paperback version is in the works.

Readers are welcome to contact Meg at to get a copy of her questionnaire for the book she's researching on 21st century quilters, or to get on the mailing list for her monthly e-newsletter on family ritual.

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