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Rhythm and Ritual
Dianne Bearinger 10/2011
One of the things that most new parents find unnerving is just how arrhythmic their newborn babies are. Newborns have irregular breathing patterns, heartbeats, and sleep patterns. Skin to skin contact is so important at this stage. Up against her mother’s bare chest a new baby starts to tune her own rhythms to those of her mother. This process of “coming into rhythm” is something that continues for the first three years of a child’s life and it helps to form the physical foundation that she will stand on for her whole life.
Our bodies function in a rhythmic way. Our heartbeat and breath give us constant reminders of this. We have, as a culture, lost our connections to the natural rhythms that connect us to the earth. The cycles of light and dark, the phases of the moon, and the round of the seasons, have a diminished impact on us with all of our electronic devises. And yet, many people notice that they feel healthier when they, to some extent, reestablish these connections. People, around the globe, flock to the coasts, for example. Some of the refreshment they find there, I believe, is the connection to the beat of the waves and the turn of the tide. It is easy to be in tune with a kind of breathing as the waves come in and then recede; and as the tide swells and then pulls back. In fact, if we observe them, natural rhythms have a breathing quality to them.
The mood behind bringing a young child “into rhythm” is much different than “getting them on a schedule”. It is a gentle process that takes into account the need for balance in the day. A good way to begin this process can be to establish regular sleeping and eating times. It can be very empowering to a young child to grasp where they are in their day. Time is an abstract concept for him. It is much easier for him to understand that it is almost morning snack time, or afternoon naptime. Arranging the child’s day in this predictable pattern can avoid many of the power struggles that tend to happen around the age of two or three. Naptime just is. It is always at this time. “It is lunch time, you know what comes after that, naptime.” It can be helpful to organize the day with a balance of “out- breathing” activities, (like outside play), with “in-breathing” activities, (like quiet story times). I like to draw the distinction between rhythm and schedules; rhythm is alive and elastic, schedules are linear and can be unchanging. If we work in a rhythmic pattern, things come in the same order every day but sometimes lunch, for example, takes longer. This can create a sense of spaciousness to the day.
Arranging the child’s week in a similar way can also be helpful and empowering to the young child. Tuesday is “playgroup day”; Wednesday is Story time at the Library. These associations with the day speak more directly to the child’s experience and again help them to find their way around to know where they are and what to expect. One family I know has a big monthly wall calendar with certain pictures for dance classes, or play group day. Birthdays or a special play date can be noted there as well, and the child slowly understands the round of the week and where she finds herself in it.
And then, of course, there is the round of the year. In our area we have four distinct seasons. This round can also be experienced in terms of the breath; with the out-breathing being midsummer and the in-breath midwinter. Just like regular sleep and meals times are the basis of a daily routine or rhythm, celebrating the change of the seasons can be the basis of the round of the year, no matter what religious tradition you practice.
The holiday or seasonal celebrations can be very simple, sharing a special meal, lighting special candles and beautiful centerpiece on the table. These family traditions grow to be something the child anticipates and remembers.
Children thrive on the regular predictable movement in their days, weeks, and years and they also thrive on ritual and magic. One of the gifts of early childhood is that the most ordinary things seem sacred. We can enter into this mood with our children by adding rituals to their daily lives. Simple blessings before meals can change the whole mood of this time together and bring a sense of gratitude.
Earth who gave to us this food
Sun who made it ripe and good
We’ll not forget what you have done.
Ritualizing bedtime can make all the difference as well. One song that the family always sings together at this time of day can be a great comfort to a child. A simple prayer can be as well.
Guardian Angles, who we love,
Shine on us from up above
In the morning when we wake,
Show us the path of love to take.
Rhythmic and balanced days, weeks and years, punctuated by family rituals and celebrations create a firm foundation for our children to stand on and grow into.