We just finished our annual cousin camp-one of the great joys of summer. Each summer my husband John and I have our grandchildren- ages four and older to our little farm for three nights and 4 days of time alone with their cousins and us-no parents allowed! This year there were 13 first cousins. Yes, it was wild, exhausting, hilarious, and hopefully memory making!
Over the five years we’ve been doing this we’ve made a lot of mistakes, had a blast and learned a few things. Here are some of them!
There are three essentials: digital clocks, water bottles with names on them, and shoe tubs!
We’ve always had a 7 o’clock rule. Each bedroom has a simple digital battery clock and we tell the kids they cannot come out of their rooms in the morning until it says 7:00 (we draw a seven for the ones who can’t yet read.) One young child exclaimed, “Mom the best thing about Camp was the 7 o’clock thing!”
When the kids arrive at camp they receive a simple bucket with a few snacks. But most crucial are a flashlight and a water bottle. (Note: we buy inexpensive ones with lids that are attached.) The first thing we do is to show the kids how to go into a certain bathroom, pull out the stool to reach the sink, turn on the water, and fill their own bottle. We tell them anytime they are thirsty they can get their own water in this sink. This keeps them from asking us for water and keeps them from crowding around the kitchen sink! Imagine 13 kids wanting us to get water at the same time! The little ones are proud they can do it by themselves!
After years of tripping over shoes and losing them, I put plastic bins for shoes by the door. One is marked for those ages 9 and under and the second for those over 9. As kids went in and out of the house they threw their shoes in the bins!
Here are a few other things we’ve learned over the years:
Plan and organize well and then be ready to throw out any part of the plan!
A couple of weeks before “Camp” John and I brainstorm what should be included in our camp time this year. Each year some things change based on the ages and numbers of the kids. We also try to insert one new thing each year however we’ve discovered that the kids like doing the same things year after year and often ask “when are we going to…?”
Mornings include a Bible study with my husband. Each year we have a theme. This year the theme was generosity. The kids all have journals with a picture of themselves glued to the cover. With the help of the older cousins, they write verses or draw pictures in them about our study. These journals live at the farm so they can add to them year after year. We horseback ride in the mornings and usually have another activity like swimming or fishing in the pond or berry picking. Lunch is mostly sandwiches in an assembly line. (Note: We keep food simple. And we do not give choices. Camp is not about the food). There’s a rest hour for everyone after lunch and often little ones fall asleep. Afternoon activities might include: crafts, a scavenger hunt, building things (I collect scrap wood from houses under construction and have a supply of hammers and nails.), playing in the creek, etc. One night we have a dance party with so ‘mores . This year we had planned to learn two songs and perform them for the families when they arrived. We had to throw that out. We are lousy singers.
Siblings sleep with siblings. This gives security for new campers and helps all go to bed more easily. However, we had 3 on our floor -two 4 year old’s without siblings and an older child with night time fears. This year we created a “buddy system.” The older kids were assigned to be a buddy for each younger camper. They helped them dress, find lost things, clean up, read at bedtime, and do whatever we asked. A big surprise was how much the older ones liked this! Everyone wanted to be a buddy. We also have chores. Camp clean-up in the morning and then at the end of most days. But I have had to completely lay aside my dreams of a clean house. It will not be clean during camp. Kids will wear dirty clothes and not get baths every day. And things will get broken. But I tell myself there are other more important things going on here.
Organize special events.
Our 13 campers ranged in age from 4 to 15. Our 15 year old, Callie, loves to cook so we have her plan and give a cooking class for the others. She taught us how to make berry turnovers . Our grandson Will is learning to be a good horseman so He assists in the riding lessons. Isabel and Sylvia love crafts so they help with the crafts. What I’m learning is to ask God to show me my grandchild’s passions and play to their strengths by involving them in teaching the younger ones. I also ask their parent’s advice in this.
Each year during camp we have a “bad manners-good manners” skit. The older cousins act out a bad way to greet someone-hang your head, mumble, etc. and a good way-look them in the eye, reach out your hand, say your name. The kids get creative and we roar in laughter. Each cousin has to do it right to “pass.” It is a fun way to teach manners. Our last night of camp we have a little candle light ceremony in which we initiate the new campers into the B.O.C. (Band of Cousins). We give them a pottery cross and we teach them our pledge: “As cousins we pledge to serve the Lord and to take care of each other always.” The cross represents God’s love for us and our love for each other. And John anoints each new camper with oil and prays for them. Of course the little ones don’t take it all in but as they hear this repeated each year with future cousins we hope it will sink in.
Factor in free time.
Although we have a pretty full schedule we do put “Free Play” on the schedule. It’s easy for kids to expect to be entertained all the time but this isn’t healthy. We are too tired and they need to create their own play! So we have a list of: “Things to do by myself or with someone else. “ (None of these need an adult.) Included are: read, climb trees, color, play bocce, look at photo albums, get a cup and collect worms and bugs, build a fort in the woods, create a scavenger hunt, do puzzles, write a song, draw with chalk, play soccer, etc.
So when a child doesn’t know what to do during free time or says “I’m bored,” we send them to the list. And we encourage them to add to it! It’s now up to 51 things. Kids don’t need a lot of fancy stuff to have fun. In fact simplicity can be a blessing. It provides the opportunity to foster creativity together.
As we approached this year’s Cousin Camp we knew we needed prayer. So we sent an email to a few close friends asking them to pray for us-from good weather, to safety, to patience, etc. We are so thankful for friends who prayed. And yes we did get impatient, exhausted, frustrated and at times felt like we were failing as grandparents. But the good news is that God knows our weaknesses and He can redeem our mistakes! We noticed how the younger kids rose to the occasion. They behave better for us than their parents. (My Mom used to say the same thing!) I can’t remember any whining or if there was, it was very brief. We did have to send 2 brothers to “time out” and we had bumps and bruises and times of saying “I’m sorry and will you forgive me” but on the whole they were perfect—well almost!
Each of our situations is different and ours changes year to year. We still have 8 more cousins to add! Our time with our grandchildren will be different than yours. No situation is exactly alike. But being together with grandchildren without the parents is very special. It is truly the highlight of our year.
And now John and I are going to bed.
We’d love to hear your ideas about time with your children or grandchildren in the comments!
Susan Yates has written thirteen books and has spoken nationally and internationally on the subject of marriage, parenting and women’s issues for many years. For 11 years she was a regular columnist on parenting for Today’s Christian Woman magazine. Susan is the mother of five and has 21 grandchildren, including a set of quads. She is devoted to sharing her wisdom and experience with moms and wives and is selflessly available to those in need. Susan has been a mom for 40 years, she and John have been married for 43 years.