It’s The Little Things: Why Tiny Traditions Matter

Written by Jennifer Miller on Jul 13th, 2012 | Filed under: Lifestyle

As I sit to write this article there are heavy black monsoon clouds gathering over our corner of Thailand.

Before long the boys will be driven indoors by the heavy rain that falls with intensity unfamiliar to our North American selves. They’re busy constructing a racetrack on the patio for Ezra’s remote control car. Hannah is strumming her guitar and singing softly, some song about “Home, where I wanted to go… home.” I’m sipping a glassful of orange Thai milk tea and munching on a little coconut pie.

I’ve had a couple of interesting interactions recently that have prompted me to write this piece:

The first was with a new friend, standing ankle deep in a waterfall near Chiang Mai, watching her little son use my big ones for his own private army of adventure playmates. She was commenting on my teenagers and all of a sudden I had a flashback a dozen years: same conversation, minus the waterfall and the rainforest, only I was the one with a pair of four year olds and some littles downstream from them. I was desperately looking for the “secret” to pulling off happy childhoods, knowing in my heart that I didn’t “have what it takes” and asking a Mama with what looked like four perfect big kids to share her secrets. How thankful I am for her gentle advice and the grace she handed me that afternoon. I tried hard to repay her kindness by handing off the same to my friend.

The second through a conversation with a new virtual friend. She has nine children, some older, some younger than mine. We’re alike in that we share adventurous dreams. She said to me, in response to a wise-crack, “Yes it does! It all counts when you are living your dream and doing big things with your family!” The world stopped for a moment for me, in that comment and the stars aligned and one very important thing became crystal clear:

It’s not about the big things: It’s ALL about the little things.

We’re pretty sold out, as a family, to doing the big things, living our dreams and then dreaming even bigger. I want my kids to be conquerors and over-comers and people who can get knee deep in the mud and build something absolutely glorious that pleases their souls out of what they have within reach. I want them to believe that they really can do anything they dream of. To that end, we do a lot of really big things, hoping to pass along the gift of the dream as well as the skill set and the determination to make it a reality.

But those things don’t matter. The elephant and camel riding, the camping on the highest sea cliff on the Italian Adriatic coast, riding our bicycles around a continent, getting SCUBA certified in weird places, climbing the ruins of Central America, learning to navigate a chicken bus system that’s downright scary, knowing how to get through Abu Dhabi airport on the first pass without adult assistance. Those are perks, but they aren’t the big deal. They aren’t what matters in the long run. They aren’t the secret to raising fabulous kids.

It’s very possible that I don’t know a thing about raising kids, as mine are still in process.

It’s very possible that this whole mess is not going in the direction I think it is at all. It’s very possible that I have no idea what I’m talking about at all. I’m aware of that. Until all of my kids are grown and can evaluate my mothering as parents themselves, I don’t know if I’ll know at all.

With that in mind… here is an observation I’ve made:

It’s all about the little things.

This morning Tony came out of his mobile office to refill his coffee to find me using the big end of a funnel to cut out 6″ circles of pie dough.

“Whatcha makin’?” He asked me, with his signature pat on my lower back.

“Coconut crus.. little pie turnovers… my Mom used to pan fry them over the camp stove when we were in Central America as kids. They are the smell of Paamul at eight years old to me.” I mused.

He smiled, he’s been to Paamul, “What’s in ’em?”

“Shaved coconut, coconut sugar, coconut milk and a little cinnamon,” I replied, “Mom would have used whatever sugar she had and regular milk… and nutmeg, if I had nutmeg they’d be just right.”

With that I was transported to a beach where I ran with a  flashlight in the dark tracking down hermit crabs by their footprints on the beach until the stars were winking overhead and the pies were done. Dad put a stop to that pursuit the night they found a coral snake beneath our van, but that’s another story.

My childhood was an unending stream of “little things” amidst big things, and quite by accident we’ve replicated that for our children:

  • Stories after dinner, read by Daddy, doing voices
  • Crafternoons
  • Map colouring and geography conversations over trip planning
  • Music by dinner, played by me on piano as a child, now on something stringed by Hannah
  • Cooking together & coconut pies
  • Tea drinking
  • Board games
  • Walking to markets together, talking on a hot afternoon
  • Working in the garden together
  • Gutting fish (catching the fish first!)
  • Trying, failing, trying again
  • Speaking kindly and insisting on respect between siblings, parents, friends, everyone
  • Boat rides
  • Believing in the capability of one another
  • Small adventures, like egg collecting, or firefly catching


It seems to me that successful families can lack everything in the Big Dreams category. They can never leave their town and still raise vibrant, healthy, happy, cheerful, thoughtful, intelligent children if they’ve paid attention to the small things. 

I don’t believe the reverse to be true though. If you neglect the little things, I don’t think it’s possible to make up for it, buy your kids off, if you will, with the big stuff. A two week eco-adventure tour to Peru does not make up for ignoring your kid the other fifty weeks a year, or outsourcing his personal development so that the parent has “more time” to… fill in the blank.

It’s the little things that are mind numbing when they’re tiny:

  • Wipe nose, wipe bottom, tie shoes, wash, rinse, repeat
  • The Peter and the Wolf story book… ad nauseum (Mom finally taught ME to read it at five so SHE wouldn’t have to keep reading it to Josh!)
  • Cleaning up the kitchen messes from their “help”
  • Bedtime routines when you are too tired to care about anything else

I remember. Sometimes I still feel like that, even with big kids. But with big kids, I’m starting to gain the added perspective of knowing how much those things matter, what a difference they’ve made over all, and my kids are able to articulate it back to me. “Thanks for taking the time to teach us stuff, like how to cook… did you know some of my friends can’t do that?” Indeed.

Don’t mistake me saying “It’s the Little Things” for meaning that it’s about creating some perfect Martha Stewart childhood for your children or that you have to be the entertainment committee 24-7 or that you need to spend hours playing Barbie and Lego with your four year old.

Just include your kids in what you’re doing, no matter what that is. Find a way to let them be a welcome and active part of the daily routine and then throw in coconut pies once in a while on a starlit evening.

I can’t promise you awesome teenagers. I can’t even promise that I will have decent teenagers at the end of the day.

But I can tell you, from my own experience growing up, that the big things are cool, only when supported by a mountain of the little things, the things that wear you out and seem not to matter.

Those things. Those are the big deal. Keep doing them. Don’t grow weary. Your four year old is killing you some days, I get it. You’re up with the baby three times a night and the two year old is relentless all day long. I remember. But you’re going to blink and magically they’re going to be HUGE and then I’m going to blink and they’re going to be gone.

Take the time to keep up the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves… this is my observation.


About Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller has written 86 post in this blog.

Married to my knight in shining armor, Mama to the fabulous four, I must write to breathe. I'm homeless by choice, a nomad by birth and am most at home sleeping my tent, shopping in the souqs of North Africa and wandering the highlands of Guatemala. My life is an "edventure!"

7 Responses to “It’s The Little Things: Why Tiny Traditions Matter”

  1. Again… you have written a beautiful, moving account of “family” – and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it (with a smile on my face). I read it as Morgan and Joah sit at my feet playing with a variety of plastic bugs. Their favourites are the spiders. Now… if you don’t mind… I shall now have a shower… plait Morgan’s hair… we’ll eat some lunch together… and go out in to the garden to discover some REAL bugs. Little things.


  2. You nailed it, Jenn! To kids, the little things ARE the big things. Learning that fact early on in parenting makes a huge difference.

    And now…I’m trying not to blink;)

  3. Jenn,
    I adore this post. It is so so so true!
    Thank you for this.

  4. Well said. Thank you. (From one still in the trenches with the littles.)

  5. I love this! I especially love how you admit that you are very much in process yourself. I have such respect for that kind of honesty. Thank you for the reminder that we may be doing our big things but we can’t forget the little things that count!

  6. Great post, Jenn. Here’s to another day of finding grasshoppers on the porch and eggs in the coop. :) Hugs.

  7. Thank you! This is a reminder I need every day…