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The “Tradition Trap”: It’s Time to Toss Out Old Ways That Aren’t Working

by | May 1, 2023 | 13 Ways, Community Development

I have a friend who once shared a story about family traditions that I found humorous and endearing but realized it came with an inadvertent cautionary tale. She said that one Christmas she was cooking a roast and, as she had done by tradition, cut off the ends before putting it in the oven. Her husband happened to be looking over her shoulder and asked why she trimmed the ends. Well, she said, that’s how her mom had done it. But the question had tweaked her curiosity and she went into the living room to ask her mom why she always cut off the ends. Well, her mom said, that’s how her mother always did it. So they got grandma on the phone to figure out this suddenly perplexing family question. Well, granny explained that when she was young her stove was too small for a full roast so she had to cut off both ends.

That is one of my favourite stories because many of us have similar traditions, ones where even though the origin and logic is lost to time we doggedly carry them on. Things change, but traditions don’t. That can be a problem. Tenaciously hanging on to worn out traditions can keep us from changing, too 

I should point out that I do think traditions have value. They can unite and inspire us as individuals, families, communities and even countries. They connect us to loved ones we’ve lost and help us recall happy times in our life. Traditions can reinforce life-lessons we have learned along the way. They have value. They are endearingly harmless when they have us needlessly cutting off both ends of a roast. They are profoundly rewarding when uniting us around the Thanksgiving dinner table. But there is a detrimental side when tradition holds us back or, worse, causes harm. We should be mindful to re-evaluate our traditions, to determine whether they continue to serve the purpose originally intended, or if they have become an impediment to our growth.

One tradition to which many of us can relate is the Christmas holiday season. I’m not talking here about the religious observances but the secular tradition where we gather with friends and family to celebrate with an elaborate dinner and to exchange gifts. However, what is supposed to be a joyful tradition has become for too many of us a time of overeating, overdrinking and overspending, leading to January blues when the Visa bills arrive. It is not a bad thing for us to re-examine how we celebrate the biggest holiday of the year in Western culture.

Many of us actually abandoned the traditional holiday-gatherings with friends and family during the height of the COVID pandemic. We gathered inside our pared-down pandemic “bubble,” or celebrated online via Zoom. We wanted to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our community. It was a textbook example of how we can change traditions – albeit in this case temporarily – while still respecting them.

Of course, enjoying dinner with our loved ones is a tradition worth keeping and encouraging.

However, there are harmful “traditions” not worth keeping. Universities and colleges are dealing harshly with perpetrators of traditional hazing rituals that have caused the death of on average one student per year in the US since 1959. There are global movements to stop the animal abuse “traditions” of bullfighting, bear baiting and fox hunting.

The US Army has even modified its traditionally brutal boot camp to one that is focused less on screaming sergeants and more on the recruits’ physical fitness. Driving the change: a recruitment crisis. Young people will not tolerate traditions they find outdated, harmful and toxic. That’s the new reality discovered by, among others in the US Army, Staff Sgt. Krista Osborne, who had been trained in the old brutal style – and who discovered it wasn’t working with recruits today.

“The aggression, screaming, yelling, the excessive physical punishments … they’re not receptive to that at all,” said Osborne in an interview with the online publication Military.com in October, 2022. Instead, Osborne says she communicates more openly and clearly with recruits and despite traditionalists complaining the military is going “soft,” the new system has higher physical fitness requirements than the old.

If anyone is going to challenge our traditions it’s going to be our young people. They might confront a convention outright or simply choose to ignore it. Or they might be blissfully unaware of it and happily go on with their lives. For example, young people traditionally got married right after high school, found a job and had kids that they supported until they in turn left home and started the cycle over again. Values have changed. There are fewer younger people getting married. And fewer having kids, or at least big families like they used to. The tradition of marriage is changing. Relationships are changing. What we want out of life, what we really value for our lives, is changing. We don’t need to sit around and lament that young people don’t want to get married. It used to be a tradition that everybody did, but the world won’t end simply because a lot of young people are choosing not to get married and follow the same life path.

This doesn’t only affect relationships and families. As the US Army discovered, changing values means finding new strategies. The same goes for industry, organizations, and all levels of government, including municipalities. As a municipal councillor, you might not realize you have fallen into what I call the “tradition trap.” With the best of intentions and relying on past experience you might think your municipality can best survive by doing what it has always done. Perhaps you resist pressure to partner with neighbouring communities, thinking you can best survive on your own. Or you believe the best way to attract new businesses is to lower corporate taxes. Or you think promoting services such as good-quality, affordable child care is not your responsibility.

As I have pointed out in previous columns: communities can best thrive by working with their neighbours; businesses decide where to move based on a litany of reasons and lower corporate taxes is rarely at the top; and providing services like child care will go a long way to convincing young families to move to your community.

Then there’s the issue of retaining your existing young people as well as helping new arrivals fit into your communities. Once again, we have to look at how traditional ways of doing things don’t always work. Take communications for example. Municipalities tend to rely on news releases and boiler-plate statements that simply don’t connect with young people. Instead, we must understand how they use technology – meaning social media – and how they build connections. Even though they tend to be apolitical, they are keen to engage in issues that excite them.

In 2019, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published a report entitled Engaging Young People in Open Government. It said governments should connect with young people by offering information that is “easily and quickly accessible and presented in a friendly, fun and creative way. Communication should have something to offer in terms of entertainment, personal gain, or an opportunity to connect and communicate with others. Finally, young people are used to instantaneous communication and results and want to see immediate effect. Instant feedback is therefore important even though it may be challenging in the context of government reforms which often require time and multiple channels of approval.”

It’s silly how we choose to hold on to so many traditions. Older generations are lamenting the death of department stores. Some complain that the younger generations have killed department stores. Well, department stores were tradition for a couple of generations, but they’re not institutions that need to be saved by any means. Younger people are choosing local ownership, local production of goods, more catered shopping experiences over bulk discount buying from brand name department stores. We sometimes want younger generations to hold on to our traditions as a way of appreciating the sacrifices and work of previous generations. Yet, that would be like the grandmother being proud that her granddaughter still cut the ends off the roast. Point of fact, she wasn’t proud of that. She found it funny that the habit continued when the reason and justification for it ceased to exist.

Traditions don’t have value simply because they’ve been repeated over and over and over again. Whether we keep the traditions must be contextual. And in a constantly changing world, we need to be willing to change, too.

At a conference, I heard what would become, for me, an adage. A man in the audience stood up and declared, “Tradition is no more than peer pressure from dead people.” A little blunt, perhaps, but it rang true. How many things do I continue to do because my parents did them that way and they probably did it because their parents did it that that way? How many things do I continue to do because they have been done in my community for years or generations even though they’re not effective or useful anymore? How many times do we put on a fair, or parade, or rodeo, or trade show or some other event and we put it on at the exact same time, the exact same way, with the exact same process and vendors and location and events? How many times do we sit around the table and talk about how to grow our population and our business community and revert back to traditional thinking that says we just have to lower taxes and hire an economic development officer who can make some brochures. Do we really think the same thing that worked in the ’80s  – and I would honestly challenge whether it worked in the ’80s at all – is going to work now in a different world, with different people who have a completely different mindset?

As much as I understand the attraction for tradition – and I myself have some traditions carried forward from my family and my community – how many traditions do we have that hold us back from evolving and improving and reflecting our current reality, both the challenges and the opportunities? How many traditions, or traditional ways of doing things do we have in our community that prevent us from meeting new needs and new demands and finding success from that? By all means, hold on to your traditions, but don’t let them hold you back.