Many modern parents look forward to summer as a time for their children to participate in sports camps, theater camps, music lessons, and a plethora of activities that keep children engaged in learning. In the pressure parents feel to keep their kids busy, it’s easy to lose sight of what the lazy days of summer are supposed to be. And with extended families spread across the country, the idea of having fun with cousins and building memories that extend beyond the boundaries of a soccer field or a G-clef often seems out of reach.
But Susan Neild, of Edmond, and her sisters have overcome some of the obstacles of busy, modern life to ensure their children build lasting memories with their cousins each summer. Despite all the camps, lessons, and family vacations that inevitably pop up, Susan and her sisters keep one week clear to travel to one of the sisters‚ homes in Dallas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and, hopefully one day when their only brother has children, to his home in New York City, for “Cousins Camp.”
Such a commitment means the kids may not get to participate in an activity back home, but the families don’t mind. Susan says, “If someone has to miss a band camp, so be it so we can all be together. We want to teach them the value of family.”
More than Just Fun
At Cousins Camp, the whole extended family spends a week learning life skills, participating in service projects, and learning invaluable lessons about love, the importance of family, and having a blast. During the week of camp, one sister is in charge of cooking, one plans and facilitates activities, and the other takes care of the smaller children who aren’t old enough for some of the bigger kid’s activities.
Each year, the sisters print T-shirts with the camp’s theme and the group wears them everywhere they go. To fulfill their service project, the group stocked a food pantry in Mustang, Oklahoma last year. But it was more than simply piling cans on the shelves. The group first went to the grocery store to learn about value and how to buy the best products for people in need. Then they took food to people who are homebound and then organized their pantry.
The family plans time for enjoying one another’s company, too. Since Cousins Camp is all about making memories and bonding, sometimes the kids play capture the flag, make tie-dye T-shirts, run gunny sack and relay races, and have old-fashioned egg tosses. Susan says they intentionally inspire friendly competition to get the cousins to interact and build relationships.
Good for All Ages
Susan’s father was raised in Spencer, Oklahoma, a town of traditional values and small town feel. He talks to Susan about times when it was safe for a kid to walk to the soda shop or through the woods. Having been raised with respect for those simple pleasures, Susan and her sisters knew they wanted their parents to pass on knowledge and insight to all the kids. So, each summer, Grandma and Grandpa attend Cousins Camp as well, and they are responsible for at least one activity. One year, Grandpa taught driving 101 on a back country road. He let the bigger kids take the wheel for a few exhilarating moments. Grandma taught them how to use a compass to find their way through the woods, a message that was related again and again in that year’s Cousins Camp theme, “Be Prepared and Know Your Destination.”
This June will be the seventh official “Cousins Camp,” although Susan said they’d been informally getting together like this for awhile before they created an official, yet informal, agenda. The plans aid in passing their values on to the kids instead of a week of totally unstructured play.
One sister just adopted a baby from China, so there’ll be one more cousin to make memories with this summer. And with hopes for more cousins, this brand of family fun is sure to endure.
Melissa Sellnow and her husband have three daughters and live in Edmond. Melissa received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska, and is currently working on her first book, a collection of essays about modern motherhood.