Fourteen years ago, writer Connie Pearson and her husband began hosting a cousin camp at their home. Over the years, she’s learned a thing or two about keeping everyone happy. Here she’s sharing her tips on how to host a cousin camp that’s fun for everyone!
Our three children were close in age. As a result, we had three teenagers in the house, followed by three in college, then three weddings within a span of 16 months. When they married and launched their careers, they were often many hours and miles apart. As the grandchildren began to arrive, we wanted so much for our children’s children to know each other and have more time together than just a few hours at Christmas.
When we started our Cousin Camp 14 years ago, our goals were specific. We desired to develop intentional multigenerational relationships. Knowing our grandchildren and having them get to know us without their parents around was a priority. We wanted them to spend extended time with their cousins, form bonds, and learn each other’s personalities. And we wanted to invest in our children’s marriages by giving them this time where we had the kids, and they could reconnect with each other.
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Our Cousin Camp Style
The model we settled on was a summer camp in a sleepover-style gathering of 5 twenty-four hour periods and 2 half days at the beginning and end. We anticipated a camp including scavenger hunts, board games, shared tales about extended family members, skits, special events, a family reunion/day camp atmosphere, and tons of wonderful new memories. Other grandparents call their version Grandparent Camp or Camp Grandma, but we thought the kids would enjoy Cousins Camp.
Deciding on a week during the summer that would work for everyone was much easier when the grandchildren were young. For more than 10 years, we set Cousin Camp for the last full week in July. It worked great.
Then, the older kids started reaching their own teenage years. The oldest graduated from high school and had a summer job to earn money for college, so she essentially graduated from Cousin Camp, too. Several others were active in summer youth camps, and another went out for football, giving him only two possible weeks to attend Cousins Camp. That same year, four of them were given parts in a community theater production, and one of the two possible weeks were showtimes. That narrowed the choice to only one week, but we were able to make it work.
One year we were gearing up for the big week, and my father became gravely ill and passed away. The children were terribly disappointed, and so were Granddaddy and I. We scrambled to find another time and settled on the week leading up to Thanksgiving. The parents arrived to pick up their kids, and we celebrated the holiday at the same time.
When everyone involved really WANTS to make Cousin Camp happen, it’s amazing the give and take that will occur.
Managing Age Differences
We started with the basic parameter that campers had to be at least four years old and potty-trained before they could come to camp. From a modest beginning with two cousins for a long weekend the first time, we had 3 the next year, then 5, then 7, then 9, and for the past three years, we’ve had 11 grandchildren participating in the week of Cousin Camp. Who knew our youngest daughter would give birth to 10 children?!
The age range at this year’s camp was 6 to 16. It is natural for the ones closest in age to gravitate to each other. We even have names for the groupings – the Seniors, the Juniors, and the Skittles (they balked at “the Littles”). Those designations work well when chore times come — “Seniors, set the tables.” “Juniors, be sure everyone has something to drink.” “Skittles, wipe the tables,” This also comes into play when we’re lining up for photos or to go into a restaurant or attraction — “Skittles in front.” “Each Senior, pair up with a Skittle” Juniors, in the front this time.”
Adding a New Twist to Cousin Camp
A couple of years ago, we instigated a new wrinkle into the week by assigning each one a cousin of the week (they nicknamed that person their C.O.W. for Cousin of the Week) that would not normally be in their age bracket. They were not expected to spend all their time with that cousin, but occasionally we’d say, “Sit with your C.O.W. on the way to the zoo,” or, “Spend the next 30 minutes playing a game with your C.O.W.” At the end of the week, they were each given a few dollars and told to shop for a gift for their C.O.W. based on what they had learned about them during the week.
At our Friday Night Award Ceremony, the C.O.W.s presented those gifts to each other, and this has become a popular hit. Our older kids have done a remarkable job of teaching, protecting, and entertaining the young children. It has been a lot of fun to watch.
Our grandchildren have learned to anticipate this week so fondly and truly do enjoy their cousins, so this has been a very minimal problem. The only time we see any hint of a squabble brewing is when a camper is clearly overtired and frazzled after several non-stop days of excitement. Generally, calling for a quiet time by maybe watching a movie is the cure. Calmness reigns, and everyone feels better after having time to rest.
There have also been a few instances when I’ve asked one of the grandchildren to talk with me privately. I hug, listen, and give that child a few minutes to think about actions and consequences. Hopefully, my years as a public-school teacher have been useful in this setting.
Travel to Grandma’s House
When some of the grandchildren lived 9 hours away, we drove halfway to pick them up and carry them home. Now, however, they all live within 3 hours of our house, so the parents have the responsibility for bringing their children and picking them up at the end of the week.
In terms of travel during the Cousin Camp week, as the number of campers grew, we outgrew the available seatbelts in both of our vehicles. Now we rent a 15-passenger van.
Setting Rules for Cousin Camp
Within an hour of their arrival on the first day of Cousin Camp after everyone has put their bags in their rooms, hugged, gotten the lay of the land, received their t-shirt, and started the laughter, we have our first camp meeting, which we often refer to as a family gathering. We reveal the theme for the week, give some hints about the daily schedule, and we go over the rules. With clearly defined rules, campers are assured that the grandparents will not be showing any favoritism. The rules are basically the same every year, so now they can recite them to US, and almost from the beginning, they monitored each other if they saw someone coming close to breaking or trying to get around a rule.
- Obey Granddaddy and Grandmomma quickly.
- Always be kind to each other.
- NO WHINING.
- Eat what is served without complaining.
- Sleep when it’s time to sleep.
- Be courteous and thoughtful when we’re in public places.
Since we have a swimming pool, there are separate rules for that.
Maybe it’s because a camper must be at least 4 before they can attend. Or maybe it’s because after the first 2 years every camper had a sibling at camp. But, we have truly never had to deal with homesickness.
In terms of accidents or physical sickness, we have signed papers from all the parents with insurance information, doctor phone numbers, and permission to seek treatment if necessary. Through the years, I’ve applied a few Band-Aids and given out doses of children’s cough syrup, allergy meds, or children’s acetaminophen. But, we have been extremely lucky with the grandchildren’s health during Cousin Camp and with our own, for that matter.
Organizing and hosting an annual cousin camp is a gigantic undertaking. But we see it as both the highlight of our year and possibly the single most important week of every year. We believe our grandparenting skills have improved. And, we’ve been able to share 14 years’ worth of practical ideas with our fellow grandparents.