Guest post: A family liturgy

January 7, 2008 | 9 comments

by Steve G.

[Regular commentor Steve G. had some great thoughts to add to my post about bringing peace to my household, so I suggested that he do a guest post. You can see Steve’s other guest posts here — scroll down to see the full list.]

I can’t help but continue to see all of this in the context of Gordon Neufeld’s attachment theory concepts [summarized in this post], and I think his approach holds the key to understanding the way we should approach such things.

Going back to Neufeld’s book, he argues that what we’ve done in modern society is traded relationships/family as the foundation of society and culture for economics. I think the utilitarian economic underpinnings of modern society have caused us to shift our way of thinking to one of ‘getting things done’ rather than doing things as part of what works for the good of the family.

Let me give an example of what I mean. I am usually the one who cleans up after dinner in our household. I put all the dishes in the dishwasher, and then get to scrubbing pots and pans. After that we all sit down for treat time, and hopefully some playtime after. For a very long time, I’ve approached this with an idea towards efficiency. I want to get this done and out of the way so that we can get to the ‘fun stuff.’

This put me in the position of feeling like anything that distracted me from the goal was a nuisance. Little hands pulling at my shirtsleeves, little voices asking if they can have their sweety now…these were things that were getting in the way of my getting finished and often left me feeling aggravated by the time I was done.

Well, one day after listening to one section of Neufeld’s Power to Parent DVD series (which I HIGHLY recommend) where he was describing life in a traditional town (Provence, France), he talked about how the entire meal time from set up to clean up is a structured routine that everyone participates in. He actually referred to it at one point in religious terms as the ‘liturgy of daily life.’

It dawned on me that maybe I should be looking at this (washing up), not in the economic like terms of efficiency, but in terms of relationships. I wondered what I would change if I did that. So, next day, I told the two oldest (7 and 4) that a new routine for mealtime clean up was going in place (I started modestly to keep it doable). I said that we were going to work as a team to do the clean up, and then after that we’d all sit down to treat time (i.e. treat time wouldn’t come until we were done).

Everyone would be responsible for bringing their own dishes into the kitchen, where I’d rinse, then put in the dishwasher. For pots and pans, I’d wash then hand off to oldest child for drying, who’d then hand off to middle child who would put the pots away — the youngest is still a bit young for this.

I tried to look at it with an eye towards enjoying spending time together rather than with an eye towards getting it done.

It’s amazing what happened…unexpected conversations, laughter, joking, and fostering of a team attitude just to name a few, and of course it took a good bit longer. But most importantly, well…it actually became enjoyable. I was hanging out with my boys and we were working together. No, it wasn’t as thrilling as taking them to Disney on Ice…but in very important ways, it was actually better.

Yes, some days there is grumbling about it. Yes, some days when I feel tired the temptation is there to just do it myself and be done with it. But as we build it into part of our ‘liturgy of daily life’, it gets easier. The ‘liturgy’ and structure does the hard work for us and it builds the relationship at the same time.

Neufeld argues very persuasively in the DVD series that in modern society we are approaching discipline the wrong way. He accurately describes how we are constantly ‘parenting in the incident.’ We think of what tools we can leverage to get our kids to behave as we desire, we are constantly reacting to what they do, should we spank or not spank, should we use timeouts, etc. All at the same time trying to meet all the other obligations as parent, spouse, etc. that we have. It’s exhausting.

He argues that we should be setting our family life up differently and uses a phrase that has haunted me since I heard it. He posits that the best way to discipline is to ‘impose order through structure and ritual.’

We should mirror those traditional societies where the potentially roughest times of the day (getting ready in the morning, meal times, bedtimes, etc.) are more or less scripted out in a sort of family liturgy. We should let the structure do the work of imposing discipline/order on the family members (ahem…including the parents at times…no?), rather than constantly battling through all the episodes of the day and putting out fires.

Now I don’t suggest this to argue that some kind of rigorous military schedule be imposed. Rather the key to any structure of life for a Christian family is what Jennifer taps into as the peace of the family, and what Neufeld would describe as focusing on the good of the relationships involved. My own formulation follows the two great commandants: does this help us know, love and serve God, and know love and serve one another?

I think that if we can begin building these kinds of structures and rituals into our life (bit by bit because until they take hold they require effort themselves to maintain), always within the context of how they nourish and support the familial relationships, rather than how many items get checked off our list, we will be doing ourselves and our children a world of good.

After all, isn’t this how God parents us? He gives us the church, the sacraments, the liturgy to draw us closer to him. He imposes order through structure and ritual…through HIS family liturgy.

Any spiritual director worth their salt will tell you that in order to grow closer to God, in order to foster our relationship with Him (our father, our parent), that we need a daily routine, a rule, a liturgy (call it what you will) built around fostering our attachment…our relationship with Him.

Doesn’t it make sense that our own parenting and family life, as imperfect as it will be, would follow the same model?


  1. Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife

    Wow! Fantastic. Sometimes the answer is so subtle, because we are so caught up in the “Zeitgeist” of our generation. I have had the same problem. There are things that I want done and done NOW, but I also want to teach my children to do them so that they won’t be left high and dry when they are adults (like I was). And yet the answer is so obvious – get them involved!! Have them do it with you so they “grow up” doing these things (like laundry, meals, cleaning, etc.) I think my parents were taught to be “efficient”, and also were allowing me to play rather than work because I was a kid and I could learn how to do things when I was an adult. Unfortunately that’s not how it works. I think the best thing is to engage your child in work that you do so they understand what you do and why. Later it will also instill a sense of responsibility, that they were contributers to their families, not simply “kids”.

  2. Tausign

    This post is a bullseye! It points out that EVERY action, duty, and relation is a source of grace. Not only is it good to ponder but you suggest a way (a praxis)to integrate it into our lives. Thank you Steve and Jen.

  3. 'Becca

    Excellent post, Steve! As a working-outside-the-home parents who do all our own housework, we find life goes more smoothly in every way when we involve our child in the work. The link behind my name is an article I wrote on this subject.

    The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff is a very interesting book which addresses, among other things, a “primitive” society’s healthy relationships between age groups, healthy attitude toward work, and general sense of happiness and emotional security. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it’s very thought-provoking.

  4. nicole

    Great thoughts.

  5. Judy

    Like lots of parents, I guess I draw on my own experiences of growing up to help in shaping how I plan to organise life with kids (if that’s even possible!). Reading your post made me reflect on my own childhood – being in a single parent family of 11 kids, we were expected to ‘help out’ with lots of the usual jobs around the house. It’s during these times that I have some of my fondest childhood memories, when some of the funny things happened or stories were told and they are the stories or events I find myself retelling. “remember when we…?” or “how about the time when you….?”. It’s that liturgy of our lives growing up, the rituals we kept and continue to talk about that are our stories, our scripture as a family. They are the stories that make us “us”.

  6. Arden

    That’s a lot of words used to say, “The joy is in the doing.”

    That is one thing I’ve learned with having a large family. We also tell the children, “Half the fun is getting there.” It reminds us all to slow down.

  7. Dustmite

    I am so glad you were asked to make this post. It got me thinking – even outside of kitchen duty or other chores. I began evaluating my involvement with my children and how many times everything else just “happens” and then it’s time for bed and nothing of quality took place between us.

    Definite thinker, thank you.

  8. SteveG

    Thanks to all for the kind comments!


    Later it will also instill a sense of responsibility, that they were contributers to their families, not simply “kids”.

    This is indeed one of the really amazing ‘unintended benefits. And what’s really interesting is that in Neufeld’s work, he describes that one of the deepest forms of attachment for children is be made to feel as if they are a significant part of something important…to help them to feel as though they were contributors is good for them on so many levels, not least of which it actually protects their relationship with the parents.

    Great article! That’s been our experience too. Our children are happier overall when they are working with us to accomplish managing our daily family life. Again, I think this is due to the positive affects it has on all the relationships in the family. To be made to feel significant to the other(s) is one of the key areas of attachment in relationships.

    The Continuum Concept sounds really interesting and I get the sense it has a lot in common with Neufeld’s work.

    Thanks! And that was what I was hoping for. The point is to continually look at all of these activities in the context of relationship and being sure that’s the focus. Not that we do it anything close to perfectly, but we’ve gone so far as to structure our lives so that during our morning routine the first thing the kids do is crawl in bed with mom for some snuggle time to reconnect. At night we actually have time set aside for TONS of stories, for little mini massages (footrubs for the kids=which they REALLY love).

    Again, the point is to build these routines with connection, relationship, and attachment in mind vs. ‘getting up and getting ready’, or ‘getting them to bed.’ When we change the context we approach these time with, we put together a whole different routine.

  9. Melanie B

    I love the notion of looking at routines and schedules as liturgy.

    I’ve been working at trying to develop a rhythm to my days. Thus far I’ve really got the mornings down; but dinner through bedtime tends to be a mess with our having to reinvent the wheel anew each day. I think this post has given me some ammunition for starting to tackle that tangle, though.

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