SOUTH JORDAN, Utah — When Brian Varner was in sixth grade, a friend's family invited him to a Super Bowl party. That game grew into an annual event in his "framily," as the 29-year-old jokingly refers to the happy mix of actual kin and kindred spirits who congregate each year to eat and cheer or moan as the football game unfolds.
Super Bowl 2018 will bring together a "hodgepodge of childhood and more recent friends," siblings and his parents. Varner and his wife, Jaime, think the game and its intermittent parade of creative commercials provides "a great excuse to get together" with people they enjoy.
It's a popular sentiment. Nationwide, millions of Americans will watch Sunday afternoon as the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots fight it out in Minneapolis.
Family rituals are as varied as the interests of families themselves. But the sameness and tradition — going to church every week, having dinner together, bedtime routines, a regular movie night or annual fishing trip, a Super Bowl party — "those shared experiences become the memories," says William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and director of both the Citizen Professional Center and the Couples on the Brink Project.
"I tell parents that kids hardly remember any particular thing you ever said to them. They remember these shared experiences, not the carefully crafted speech on values," he says.
Humans are sociable by nature and must connect with others to thrive, says Doherty. Sports and other informal gatherings enhance those connections, offering what he calls "ritual times." For example, in just a week, some clans will congregate to watch the Winter Olympics. After that will come what for some is another annual reunion when March Madness kicks off and college basketball fans watch their favorite teams.
Love of sports — or movies or game nights or other events that result in good-natured gatherings — can be a "kind of glue, particularly for relationships that don't have a lot in common. Family members can love each other deeply, but may not have a lot they talk about as peers. Sports are inherently a social thing. People who otherwise don't have much in common across generations — teens and older people listen to different music; they don't hang out together — can have a common bond," says Doherty, author of "The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties."
Doherty says half the fun is bonding over love of a particular team or mutual dislike of an "enemy team." It's the latter sentiment that will have James Archer and his extended family rooting against the Patriots' Tom Brady, while across the Wasatch Front, the Varners will cheer Brady on.
In these gatherings, different generations meet on level ground. And with an event that's as highly and good-naturedly charged as the Super Bowl, Doherty says, "You can be emotional. 'Did you see that?' 'Oh man, we just got shafted by the referee.' It's emotion — joy, laughter, regret, disappointment, exuberance — that adds some spice to those relationships." But even the arguments are typically friendly, he adds.
Dave Walker's family has gathered for Super Bowl Sunday for a quarter century, the Springville, Utah, man says. "It's mostly just family but sometimes there's friends. People will bring their favorite treats: seven-layer bean dip, queso. The girls will talk about the commercials during the game and the guys will talk about the game during the commercials. It's a great time."
Their tradition started when he and his brothers began watching with their dad as they got old enough to understand the game. Then his sister and mom and others joined in. The venue shifts as siblings or parents host, but the occasion is one that's rock solid and holds a cherished place on the calendar.
"As we've gotten older, it's hard to find times when we're all available to just chat and get together, so Super Bowl's a great excuse. It's a lot of fun," he says.
Elizabeth Pratt grew up in a family that moved around a lot, and one of her family's rituals provided a lot of consistency and an anchor when things were chaotic. Her father was very ill with a rare form of cancer for most of her childhood; he died when she was in her late teens. But the dinner they had together every night throughout her childhood anchored them and reminded family members they were a team and could all rely on each other.
Research says her family latched onto something important. Studies repeatedly show that family dinner matters. Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has conducted surveys on the topic for nearly 20 years, comparing teens in families that eat dinner together five or more days a week to families that eat together less than three times a week.
Kids in the families that seldom eat dinner together are much more likely to use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana than are teens whose families eat together. Those latter families describe their parent-child relationships and level of communication more positively than those who don't have family dinners routinely.
Parents and kids benefit from the rituals they share. Couples benefit from rituals, too, like date night. Families typically don't get together just to talk, Doherty says. The rituals involve doing something together.
"The best rituals give us a way to connect through that activity — even through watching television," says Doherty, who speaks fondly of how he and his then early teenage daughter used to watch "The Wonder Years" together every week. When she outgrew it, they started going weekly for ice cream. That father-daughter ritual had emotional value.
Rituals change as families age and schedules alter. For a while, the Doherty family watched Alfred Hitchcock movies together on Friday nights — still a fond shared memory.
David Derezotes, professor of social work at the University of Utah, says some rituals may provide more value than others. He likes what one of his favorite authors, Matthew Fox, said: "What the current generation needs to do more than anything else is create new rituals that work better than the old ones."
How many students at graduation understand why they march to solemn music in robes with little square hats? he wonders. Maybe the music could be happier, too, since it is a happy occasion to mark accomplishment.
He's not a Super Bowl fan and his own traditions are different, says Derezotes. "Some have equated the Super Bowl with the Roman Coliseum, which is pretty gruesome. Kick-off's pretty violent. People talk about the strategy to it, but there's strategy in golf, too," he adds.
His definition of ritual is simple: "It is when I intentionally behave in ways that have meaning for me and give meaning to something else." The intention matters. Families devise the rituals that fit their natures, he notes, and should think about what they value and how their rituals reflect it. If, like him, someone doesn't love a sport that's taken some heavy criticism for injuries such as concussions, invent a different ritual, he says. "For me, we live in a really pretty place. Maybe I go outdoors, hanging out with people I love, sharing something different."
The need for connection and community drives people, Derezotes says. "Most people are more alone than they want to be." He encourages folks to find connecting rituals that work for them — with the people who matter to them, related or not. "Not everyone has the privilege of being born in a family that feels safe. Create new family. I'd emphasize community ritual. The need for community is, I think, hard-wired for us. We needed to be social beings to survive."
Derezotes points out that many rituals are associated with religion. In Utah, for example, families who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints typically have a family home evening each week. His Muslim students pray twice a day in a room that's available to them on campus. Many families across faith traditions have a weekly dinner that brings extended family together, like a Sunday meal where adult children return to the empty nest.
Experts say that shared activities provide time for casual conversations that build relationships without being stressful. For years, experts like Karen Khaleghi, co-founder of Creative Care, an addiction treatment facility in Malibu, California, have suggested that side-by-side conversations — sitting together watching TV, at dinner, in the car while dropping the kids at school — provide low-stress opportunities to strengthen parent-child relationships. That's something Doherty likes about rituals like Super Bowl parties. Kids don't feel like they're being "taught" and conversations are relaxed and open.
Strong parent-child relationships are linked to lower teen pregnancy rates, less criminal involvement and better mental health, among other things. Parenting expert Deanna Sletten writes on Sheknows.com that casual but quality family time strengthens bonds, promotes positive behavior, creates memories and helps busy family members reconnect.
It has certainly worked that way for Pratt's family, from consistent family dinners to the annual, boisterous family party they have each year for Super Bowl. This year, her sister's hosting.
"We spent a lot of time together and built awesome memories," says Pratt.
And as she and her siblings raise their own families, they're still building them. Together.