Time for Camp!
About the Guest
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Susan Yates and her husband have been hosting their grandchildren at Cousin’s Camp each summer for over a decade. They say, the memories they’ve made have been worth the effort. Susan offers some simple, practical tips for hosting your own family camp.
Time for Camp!
Bob: Or maybe just—
Susan: No parents allowed.
Bob: Can we send our kids or our grandkids?
Susan: You can start one. [Laughter]
Bob: Susan Yates is here, joining us on FamilyLife Today. We were just talking about the number of times you’ve been here. Welcome back; so good to have you here.
Susan: Oh, it’s great to be back. Thanks.
Bob: Susan is a writer/a speaker. She and her husband—everybody knows him as John—except she calls him Johnny, so I kind of feel like I should call him Johnny too. [Laughter] They live in suburban Washington, DC, where for many years, he was the senior pastor/the rector at the Falls Church in Virginia.
You guys have been doing this event with your grandkids for a while now, but you’ve just written down what it is you’re doing in a new book about Cousin Camp. When did all of this get started?
Susan: Well, we started Cousin Camp almost 12 years ago with 5 grandchildren from 3 different families. We have five kids, and they are all married, and they are all scattered. One of the things we’ve wanted is for our grandchildren to know one another and to have significant time together; so we thought, “One of the ways we could do this was to bring them together for three days and two nights in the summer and just run a camp.” Also, we simply wanted to be able to have the children without their parents and to be able to have some sort of an input into their lives.
Bob: So how old were your grandkids at this point when you had your first Cousin Camp?
Susan: Our first Cousin Camp, I think, we had a seven-year-old, two five-year-olds, and a four-year-old, and maybe an eight-year-old.
Bob: Okay; this just sounds exhausting to me—what you just described. [Laughter]
Susan: It is! [Laughter] In all honesty, it’s the most exhausting four days of our life every year.
Bob: But you invited an eight-year-old, seven-year-old, four-year-old, five-year-old: “Come to our house and spend the week with us.”
Susan: No; it’s not a week. [Laughter] The key is to start small.
Susan: The first year we did it—it was two nights and three days. Then, after that, we changed it to three nights and four days. It’s always been, since the first year, three nights and four days.
Dave: But your family has grown, too; right?
Dave: It isn’t just a few now.
Susan: No; it’s 21 now—[Laughter]
Ann: That’s a lot.
Susan: —which is kind of crazy.
Ann: How did your kids feel about not being invited?
Susan: Oh, they were thrilled! [Laughter] Quite honestly, they are thrilled; because we have—from the beginning, a wise friend of mine, who was ten years ahead of me/sort of my camp mentor—suggested: “Don’t let them come until they are four; because when you have four-year-olds, you’re not dealing with the two-year-old and three-year-old temper tantrums. You’re not dealing with kids being up at night. Mostly, they sleep through the night.”
This is not right for everybody. I have/we have a lot of friends who do it differently; but for us, this made sense. To come to Cousin Camp, you have to wait until you are four. Our adult children are thrilled when their last child reaches four, and they can drop their kids off at camp and leave. They go on a honeymoon. We feel like it benefits our adult kids, giving them time alone, without their children, while we’re basically taking care of the kids.
Bob: Back at the beginning of this, were you thinking, “This is going to be all fun and games with the kids,” or did you have—how did you have the three days/two nights apportioned?
Susan: Well, we’ve always had a schedule; it takes a lot of planning. We have a morning Bible study time; we have activities. We make out, months ahead, a detailed schedule. Now, the schedule can be thrown out at any moment, because you have to be flexible; and when something doesn’t work, or you need to change gears, you change gears.
Every year, it’s a little bit different; but the basic schedule stays the same with different elements put in depending on what worked last year and what didn’t and “What are the age of the kids this year?” because needs in families and needs in life change year to year. We’re not static; we’re always growing and changing. You have to adapt your plans to the changes.
Bob: If you started with an eight-year-old and you’re twelve years in now, you’ve got a nineteen/twenty-year-old today.
Susan: Yes, 20-year-old.
Bob: Is that child still coming to Cousin Camp?
Susan: Oh, she loves it.
Susan: Yes; as a matter of fact, she wrote a blog. I printed it in the book—her reflections in the first chapter on being the eldest at Cousin Camp and the exhaustion she experienced, but also the fun, and the hope she wouldn’t disappear from these cousins’ lives as she went off to college but that she would remain a part of it. Now, she’s unusual; so I don’t know if it had been a boy, if he would have responded that way; but the next one in line is a boy.
I think one the things that we’ve been very intentional in doing, throughout the 11 years, is turning over the leadership of camp to the older cousins; because the older kids speak volumes into the little people. That is just a tremendous influence. We’ve intentionally turned, each year, more and more of the activities, the leadership, the Bible studies, the sharing time over to the bigger cousins.
Bob: So give me a sample day.
Bob: What is a day at Cousin Camp look like?
Susan: You’re up; you have breakfast. You have a little quiet-time Bible study. Each year at camp, the newbies—which is what we call the new ones for their first year at camp when they are four—they get a journal—just a journal that I have glued a picture of the child on/that I have developed just a picture. We make a big presentation over presenting the journals. These journals live at our place; they don’t go home because they’d just get lost. They live at our place; so, year to year, the kids add to the journals as they come back.
They pull the journals out for Bible study, and Bible study is short; you know, it’s 30 minutes/35 minutes. It’s—we have a theme for the camp or a special verse. John, my husband, leads the Bible study usually. The first thing we do is share testimonies, and we take the kids through the gospel. If they haven’t given their life to Christ, we give them an opportunity. It’s not pushy at all, but it’s just natural. Again, I think the naturalness flows from being the grandparent and not the parent.
Bob: So do you live in like a mansion, where—
Susan: No, no, no. [Laughter] Absolutely not; no. We have a little farm out in the country; that’s where we have camp. We also have neighbors, who share their space with us when the whole family comes in, which is at the end of camp; but basically, the kids sleep all over. We usually have three on the floor in our bedroom. We have two in the closet. Camp is never really about getting great sleep; it’s about togetherness—
Susan: —sleeping bags, couches, floors.
Dave: So I’m up to lunch time right now. [Laughter]
Bob: That’s right.
Susan: We forgot; didn’t we? [Laughter]
Bob: We still have a half day.
Dave: I mean, I’m the guy that—I’m a seven-year-old, and I’m in your house. I’m at camp; so I’m excited to know: “What else happens?”
Bob: Wait; what’s for lunch?
Susan: What’s for lunch?
Bob: Because I’m thinking—
Ann: —and who’s cooking it?
Bob: That’s right.
Susan: Okay; food is not a big deal. I mean, we are simple: paper plates, paper napkins, mac and cheese, sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets. Camp is not about food.
Susan: So you release that pressure right off the bat.
After Bible study, we always have an activity; it may be a giant hide-and-seek game. There is always an event—a scavenger hunt or an obstacle course. We have a time where we go berry picking at a nearby orchard or swimming in our pond. We have a craft session. We do have a rest hour, because John and I would die if we didn’t—[Laughter]—where the kids also need to learn how to entertain themselves—not that they are entertained all the time.
That’s kind of the flow of the day or these blocks of time, which what we do in them changes according to the ages of the kids; and then supper and then activities after dinner.
Bob: And the kids throughout the day—do you have discipline issues? Do you have whiny, [screaming] tantrum-throwing kids?
Susan: Oh, yes; it’s not normal if you don’t.
Susan: They are kids. I remember, one summer—we have three granddaughters, who are approximately the same age; and two ganged up on the third and said, “You can’t play with us.” They were basically just being mean girls. I had to take them aside and say, “This is not acceptable, and this is why...” I just simply explained it to them and said, “You do need to play together.”
I remember, on another occasion, one of the grandsons was just really being ugly to another cousin. He’s very strong-willed, and I couldn’t handle him; so I said, “Honey, you need to handle this one.” A lot goes into how we work together as a team, and my husband was going to be better at handling that grandson than I was.
There is a lot that goes into this. I talk about this in the book—about how you work together in your marriage, giving your specific gift sets so that you are completing one another, and backing one another up, and not really competing with each other; but yes, you’re going to have arguments.
And one of the things that I’ve learned is you have to be flexible with your schedule. Where are we flexible, and where do we hold fast?—so this is the guiding principle on that: We are flexible when we need to change course because of events, but we hold fast when it’s a character issue. These two incidents with the grandson and the two mean girls were character issues, so we have to be firm on that.
Bob: Yes; John, I guess, takes the week off from work or the four days off—whatever it is—he is full-hands on deck with this.
Susan: He’s full-hands on deck; but you know, here again, it’s sort of: “What is your situation, professionally, and in your marriage?” Because all of the years we’ve been doing this, my husband has been the senior pastor of a large church. He’s exhausted and doesn’t have the time, and I’m more of the planner. I’ve done more of the planning; but then, I set it up so that he’s up front leading the stuff more than I am; but we do it together. Yes, he has to take time off. Boy, after it is over, we are dead.
Dave: Parents come in at the end, right?
Susan: Right; the way we’ve worked it is we go right from Cousin Camp into Family Camp, where all our kids and the little ones, that are not yet four, come in for three more days.
Bob: Have there been years when the soccer team or the work schedule for the kids—something has kept some of the cousins from being able to come to Cousin Camp?
Susan: No; one year, we had—one of our families was on a missions’ trip in Africa, so they couldn’t come. Then, one year, one of my daughters, who is a twin, has quadruplets; so they didn’t come for a year, because it was just too crazy. We put it on the calendar way ahead. What’s been tricky is the school system is getting out at different times.
Dave: What would the Yates family be without it? Can you picture your legacy or how you would be relating to your grandkids if you didn’t have Cousin Camp?
Susan: Wow; you know, I don’t think you ever really know your legacy. I think the cousins would not have the relationships that they do—
Susan: —that would be a big thing. We’ve had the opportunity to share Christ just very naturally and specifically with the kids. We’ve had the opportunity to see the older kids build into the younger kids and, also, to give our adult children a little breath of fresh air, not having their kids for those few days. I wouldn’t presume to know what the legacy is; I don’t know.
Let me just say this: I think, as parents and grandparents, we live with so much guilt and so much “I ought to have…” or “I shouldn’t have…”; and if we’re really honest, every one of us feels like we’ve ruined our children over and over again; or we’ve ruined our grandchildren over and over again. I think what we have to realize is our ability to ruin our children is not nearly as great as God’s power to redeem them. That’s just been a really comforting thought to me, because I’m only going to mess up; I’m going to mess up.
One of the things we stress in our family is the importance of forgiveness. I think it’s probably the most single most important ingredient in the family.
Bob: You continue to have interaction with the kids all year long. I’m sure your few days with them in the summer is catalytic for you to be able to continue that communication throughout the year with them.
Susan: It is; but Bob, you know, in all honesty, I am not a great grandmother in terms of communicating. There is so many other grandparents who do it so much better than I do. I’m not techie; but I have friends who are grandparents who Skype, regularly, with their grandchildren.
Ann: Well, you have 21.
Ann: That’s not easy.
Susan: That’s not easy, so I don’t do any of that. It all depends on your situation. That’s why Cousin Camp has been pivotal for us, because I don’t feel like I’m as good as a lot of my friends with the day in and day out communication during the year.
Dave: I’ve got to tell you—hearing you talk about Cousin Camp—honestly, I’m like, “I am such a bad grandfather.” [Laughter] Oh my goodness! We haven’t done anything. Although we’ve done a pretty good job of Skype-ing and that kind of thing; but it’s inspiring to think, “We can do this.” I mean, that’s one of the great things when I was reading about what you do—it’s like, “This is doable.”
I really think—that’s why I asked you the question, “What would the Wilson family be without it?” It’s sort of where we are now: “What could it look like if we added this?”—
Dave: —you know, with the cousins knowing each other?
Part of it is probably my broken family—didn’t know my dad well; didn’t know my dad’s parents; didn’t know my brothers; know none of my cousins; never did we ever do this. For somebody like me, it’s like, “Oh, this is a new way to think about grandparenting,”—not only did I want to change the legacy as a dad—but now, as a grandparent, I can impact that through all of my kids’ kids and cousins; it’s: “Wow!”
Ann: I think the thing that inspired me, too, Susan is—one, as a grandmother, I want to know my grandkids; but it’s really hard to do that when they don’t live in the same city.
Susan: It is.
Ann: So you come up with a different way to plan. I am so inspired by this; because it’s in your book, where you have the names of each child, their needs, the goals, and the program. Talk about that. How did you come up with that? And is this important to preplan what you are going to be doing and why with each child?
Susan: In all honesty, we didn’t come up with this ourselves. This is a philosophical approach, really, to ministry and family life that we learned from an old pastor friend and his wife, who taught us; and basically, I see this in our life.
So often, our goal is to have an event that’s successful. Then we/it’s done, and we are sort of are grateful; but the reality is to just plan an event for the sake of an event is missing the mark. We need to think, “Okay; what do we want to have happen after the event or as a result of the event?”
You change how you approach an event, or ministry, or really anything in life; and you begin to ask the questions: “Okay; who do we want to come to the event?”—which, in this case, is our grandchildren; or other types of family reunions, which I also talk about in the book. We write down the names of the people coming: “What are their needs?”—what are their needs in five areas of growth?—“What are their needs spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially?” That’s just a grid we think through.
Like a four-year-old: “Okay, Mac is coming as a newbie this year; he is four. He doesn’t know all of his cousins; he is emotionally—he needs to feel safe; he needs to feel like he can get to know them. Physically, he’s going to probably need to take a nap, because he is going to get worn out. Spiritually, has he really given his life to Christ?”
We think through this grid for each of the kids each year. Then we plan the program based on the needs and goals rather than just planning a program that people are going to have fun, but it’s not going to have any lasting impact.
Dave: I’m guessing, from what you said, you do a lot of that planning yourself.
Susan: Well, we just sat with a list of the kids—John and I sit with a list of the kids, several months out, and say, “Okay; what do we notice about each of these kids?” Sometimes, we don’t know, Dave—
Susan: —so we have to get input from the parents.
Susan: We always do this before camp: “Okay, tell us about your child this year. What are his gifts?” There is a proverb that says, “Know well the condition of your flocks.”
Susan: I take that as a mandate to study my kids and to study my grandkids so that I will know their condition. We go to the parents, and we say: “Okay, give us a cheat sheet; because we don’t see you that often. Tell us what one of Mimi’s—what’s her passion? Is she into art? Is she a reader? Is she into sports? What are her gifts that you see?—and how can we fan the flame in those gifts?” or “What are your concerns? Is there a child that you are—who might be anxious at camp?”—we need to know that up front—“How can we comfort this child?”
When the kids are little, for example, just the physical goal—we have them sleep with siblings. The newbies sleep with siblings on the floor all together because they will be comfortable, emotionally, with their siblings since they don’t know all of their cousins. Then, as they get bigger, we match them up with cousins of the same age; because we want to forge that relationship.
Bob: Somebody, who is listening to this conversation, just says, “I’m completely overwhelmed—
Bob: —“even hearing you talk about this.” What’s your counsel to them?
Susan: My counsel is start really small.
Bob: —like even a day?
Susan: —a day.
Susan: Yes; a day is great. This book is not about copying the Yates; because that’s just wrong for any of us to copy each other, because we are all different. You have to guard against falling into the comparison trap, because we’re all different. You start small, and you start short. It’s much easier to add later than it is to take away.
What you want the kids to leave with is a desire to do this again, so you may have a 24-hour camp. Or you may, as I talk about in the book—I have a friend, who they have six grandchildren. They decided to do—who all live in the same town—but often, when you live in the same town, you don’t really see each other; because everybody’s lives are so different. They had a 24-hour one with just their three girls—the three little girl cousins; and then the next summer, they were going to do it with the three little boy cousins. You just have to assess your needs/your situation, and you can do this anywhere. We happen to have a little, tiny farm; but people do it in cities. You just take advantage of where you are living.
Ann: It’s just to pray to do something—
Ann: —to ask the Lord: “Lord, what could it look like for our family, where we live, what we have going on?”—for God to just kind of take it and mold it to who you are.
Bob: Well, the great thing is the book gives you a template/a place to start and to say, “Okay; we could do that,” “Okay; this doesn’t work.”
Bob: “But we could try this”; and it gives you starting point. That, at least, helps you not have to come up with a plan out of thin air.
We’ve got the manual for you; go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; get a copy of Susan Yates’ book, Cousin Camp: A Grandparent’s Guide to Creating, Fun, Faith, and Memories That Last. You can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order. Again, the title of the book is Cousin Camp by Susan Yates. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
By the way, Susan has put together a downloadable PDF. It’s called “Camp at Home: A Hundred Practical Ideas for Families.” That’s available for free online. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com, and the information is available right there.
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk more about the do’s and don’ts/the time-tested wisdom that Susan Yates has learned over the years about how to do a Cousin Camp. She’ll join us again. I hope you will join us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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