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Conditioned and Unconditioned Responses: Holiday Rituals Edition

conditioned and unconditioned responses towards holiday rituals
5 min read

What’s your favorite holiday and is it the same as your kids’ favourite one? As parents, we may unconsciously pass on our favorite holidays to our children through what we choose to do in our environment. This article explores how families develop holiday rituals and how certain unconditioned responses become conditioned ones, over time.

There are some holidays that we just put more effort into than others. As a mother, I try to make Diwali, Holi, and Rakhi, fun for my kids. My hope is that one day they continue celebrating these traditions and Indian festivals with their own families. That has motivated me to write children’s books on Holi and Diwali (and my Rakhi book is coming out in August 2023!). I try to focus on simplicity during our celebrations, so it doesn’t get overwhelming for the kids.

[Read Related: 4 Strategies for Staying Sane this Holiday Season]

My husband and I grew up in North America. Our family looks forward to celebrating some of the American holidays along with our cultural ones. Every year, we get really excited about Halloween. We always decorate our house, throw a Halloween party, and have a costume contest with our neighbors. Each person has to ‘walk the runway’ while we vote on the costumes.

One holiday that we have not been as into is Thanksgiving. Sandwiched between two of our favorite holidays, Halloween and Christmas, it has always been sort of a neutral holiday for us.

I recently had Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapists do a guest lecture in my classroom. They talked to my SJSU students about how we all have conditioned and unconditioned responses in life. Conditioned responses are the ones that we teach our kids and unconditioned ones are the ones they naturally gravitate towards.

As parents, we often need to condition our children towards our own family goals to help guide them toward desirable behaviors moving forward in life. My class learned about how to guide children to desirable behavior with positive and negative reinforcers.

For conditioned responses, we can add a positive reinforcer to the environment that motivates our children to do certain things like washing their hands. I’ve used lots of different types of positive reinforcers with my kids. When my kids were young, a ‘high-five’ from me (with lots of enthusiasm!) worked. During school-going years, we moved towards a point system to earn points for things they liked to do. At the adolescence stage, allowances work well because kids typically want independence from their family systems and they want to have choices.

For conditioned responses, you can also use negative reinforcers like introducing something unpleasant in the environment, in order to get them to engage in a desirable behavior. For example, we recently went to Vancouver, and to get my children to wake up in the morning, my husband jumped from one bed to the other while the kids were sleeping and sang “Kaho Na Pyaar Hai” at the top of his lungs. To get rid of this “unpleasant noise,” they had to engage in the behavior we wanted, which was for them to wake up!

Desi parents also add positive reinforcers to the environment in order for their children to preserve their culture. We entice them with arts and crafts, family gatherings, parties, and gifts! On Diwali, our family meets up with our neighbors to do a small puja and have some sparkler fun! Through my children’s book, “Lights, Camera, Diwali!” I also wanted to show children how much fun Diwali can be. The main character, Diya, goes around her house taking pictures of painting clay lamps with her Nani, listening to her Dada tell fascinating stories of Hanuman, creating colorful rangoli designs with her Mausi, and having a ladoo-making contest with her brother to see who can roll them faster.

[Read Related: Mithai Memories from Holi to Eid and Diwali]

Now, unconditioned responses are responses, that happen without any conditioning required, with a neutral stimulus in the environment. We are not teaching our children to like or dislike something. They just happen on their own. Children naturally gravitate towards them and are intrinsically motivated by them.

I used to think that Thanksgiving was a neutral holiday for my family but little did I know that the “once upon a time,” traditional tofurkey feast that we had during some of our Thanksgiving meals would turn into a conditioned response for them — something that was positive and desired every Thanksgiving.

My husband and I had very different ways of celebrating this holiday. We never really had a preference for which one to follow. We felt that Thanksgiving was mainly about being with family. I grew up in a small Bengali community in Concord, CA. Our network of family friends celebrated it by having a traditional thanksgiving potluck feast. My husband’s Gujrati family, in Anaheim, is vegetarian and they usually had a non-traditional meal like enchiladas or pav bhaji.

[Read Related: Why I am Thankful to Celebrate a Brown Thanksgiving]

When we had our own kids, we didn’t really have a preference for one over the other. Thanksgiving week always seemed different for us Indian Americans, because a lot of Indian American families used this break for Indian weddings or to travel. Some years we did the traditional meal, while other years we opted for an Indian or Mexican feast.

However, little did I know that our neutral, unconditioned Thanksgiving holiday would become one of my kids’ favorite holiday rituals.

This September my daughter mentioned how she was so excited it was fall. I naturally responded, “Oh, because of Halloween, decorating the house, and all the candy?” But she replied, “No, because of all the good food!” I was baffled because cooking is usually not at the top of my list when I’m planning for the holidays. She then went on to say how she couldn’t wait for the tofurkey, cornbread, cranberry sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, macaroni and cheese, and pumpkin pie!

[Read Related: 3 Masalafied Recipes for Thanksgiving Sides]

During the pandemic, we did end up doing more of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. But, I didn’t realize how much she would like and look forward to this meal.

Our unconditioned holiday became a conditioned holiday ritual for her. She, as well as my son, needed and wanted a traditional Thanksgiving meal this year — and every year moving forward.

This year, we are visiting extended family and the extended family is not conditioned to desire a traditional, thanksgiving meal. We really didn’t want to have to figure out separate meals for Thanksgiving. So, we came up with a plan that I believe will work regardless of who we celebrate Thanksgiving with.

The family decided that we would make a compromise for when we were traveling, attending a wedding, or visiting family who don’t want to do a traditional meal for Thanksgiving. We decided that we would do our traditional meal the week before Thanksgiving.

This year, our new family ritual will be to have a traditional meal on a non-traditional day.

I think it’s great that my children are learning to be flexible and figuring out how to bring together and live with both individualistic and collectivistic values. They are learning that there are ways to prioritize what they want (individualistic values), while also spending time with family who doesn’t necessarily want that (collectivist values).

I would love to hear the ways your unconditioned responses became conditioned responses in your families. Are there holiday rituals that you did not consciously condition for your children, but they just came to be? I am fascinated by how children can organically create traditions and rituals through their own internal preferences and desires.

Photo Credit: Jen Rocha Photography