A few weeks ago my husband, two of our kids, our pup and I flew from California to make a trek we’ve made for the last 15 years and returned to a place we all love — Wellfleet. I have spent at least a part of each summer from age one until now in Wellfleet, a tiny town on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Sometimes it’s a two month stay and sometimes two days. Either way, Wellfleet is a touch point in my life and a tradition for my family. I love Wellfleet and how it makes me feel — I even named my company after the town.

I spent every summer as a kid in this tranquil and beautiful place with my parents, and then my kids spent their summers in Wellfleet with their grandparents and our extended family. To me, Wellfleet represents love and the circle of my family.

Our 900 square foot house was tiny but it was filled with rituals, traditions, love and fun. Whether it was badminton or cribbage, playing music together or reading silently in each other’s company, telling stories or (bad) jokes, my parents always made time to connect through an activity we all loved. Dinner was a group endeavour and then a relaxing time around the table. I am certain there were times I wanted to be elsewhere or with my New York City friends, but my overwhelming memory is one of love and comfortable traditions.

What I Learned from Our Summer Traditions

Each morning my sister and I would wrap our towels around our neck, strap a lunch box to the back of our bikes and head off for a day of adventure. My mom handed us a dollar, which covered both a soda and an ice cream bar at the beach, and said “Have a great day, see you at dinner.” We had a gaggle of friends in the same boat and we all followed in the same track. First to the pond to take swimming lessons, then the beach or another pond to hang out.

Later, as we turned 12 or 13, we became aides for the recreation department, teaching kids to swim or how to play capture the flag, we graduated to paid jobs as camp counselors, ice cream scoopers, swim instructors or life guards, and then on to work in one of the many tourist restaurants bussing or waiting tables or as cooks or bartenders.

From those jobs and those friends I learned that anything worth doing is worth doing well, that people are all different but all have something to teach me and are worthy of respect, and that having a pack of friends you can count on is a key aspect of happiness. From my summer of “freedom” I also learned self-reliance, financial skills and how to get along with lots of different types of folks. And I still remember how to mix all the classic cocktails from my summers behind the bar, a job that allowed me to pay for all my clothes, books and extras during college.

But the part I remember most is spending time with my mom and dad at dinners and other times when we gathered. It was then that I heard their stories of ups and downs, their triumphs and also their sorrows. And I witnessed first hand the joy that work that had meaning brought to each of them. As I grew up, I saw how their collaboration helped them be better parents and spouses.

Create Your Own Traditions and Memories

I am not suggesting you need a special place to go or a whole summer to create traditions and memories or help your kids gain life skills. I am suggesting that figuring out what works for you and your family to create traditions and memories or help your kids gain life skills is worth the effort.

Come Together for a Family Meal

For example, much has been written about the benefits of Family Dinner. But what if one of the parents in your family works nights or your kid’s volleyball practice is at 6PM? Forget dinner.  It’s not about the meal — it’s about making time to connect. Are you all around at breakfast? Great, create a new tradition: Family Breakfast. Let the kids make a list of special breakfast foods they love and rotate through them.

While you are at the table for Family Breakfast create your own rituals.

  • Does everyone love words? Have a word-a-day challenge switching who gets to choose a word each morning.
  • Tell stories. This is a fun and a great way for kids to learn and teach. Rotate each day who gets to share a story of their favorite experience of the week.
  • Share what each person is grateful for or something new they learned.  

The possibilities are limitless. The important thing is to create a ritual and repeat. Years later these rituals will be the traditions and memories you have created.

Create Your Own Summer Tradition

Just like family dinner, your family summer tradition can take whatever shape works for your family. No big trip planned? Have crazy camp or sports schedules? Find one weekend when everyone can be together and plan a family retreat.

It can be a staycation or at a place that has meaning to you or just the local hotel. Plan ahead for activities that bring you together and help you connect. You could decide to create (or review) your family’s motto or mission statement. Or find and share family stories by looking at your photos, even those on your mobile phones are a wealth of ideas. Or do a year in review for your family.

Whatever you do, make time to share family stories, not just the good ones, but the ones of struggle and redemption or hardship and perseverance. These kinds of stories build connection and show kids values without lecturing. They also help kids to become more resilient and happy. For generations, storytelling has brought people together as entertainment and a way to convey beliefs and ideas. The first step to telling family stories is simply to tell them. You can learn more about why sharing stories is so important and how to get started here and here.  

What you do doesn’t matter so much, but if you repeat it (or something similar) year after year, it becomes a tradition. And these traditions can become fabulous memories.

All three of our kids are now in their 20s, but we’ve managed at least one short visit with all five of us in Wellfleet each year. Over the time we’ve visited Wellfleet, each of our kids has worked for the same recreation department I did, worked in a restaurant and spent many hours wandering the dirt roads with friends and cousins.

And we created our own experiences, rituals, traditions and memories. Body surfing, playing pickle at the beach at sunset, beach bonfires while watching the stars or mountain biking hidden trails with crazy names we make up like Ellen’s No Falls for the cousin who finally learned to stay upright. And there’s always a massive jigsaw puzzle that take weeks to finish and picking the wild blueberries around the house and baking them into a pie. But telling and sharing stories, talking around the table and at family gatherings are still our touch points.

It’s a good idea to write your stories down this summer. Save them. You’ll be surprised how much it means — to you, the writer, and to those who read it. Often the first step in saving family stories is learning them and that means asking questions, so I’ve gathered 5 to get you started.