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How one mother (and aunt) survived "Cousins Camp"

Thinking of taking a break away from the kids? Writer and mom to five Sharon Schnupp Kuepfer has an idea!

A grand idea
I brought up the idea to my sister, “Why don’t I baby-sit your five children for a few days then later you can do my five in exchange?” Carolyn and her husband, Enos, agreed to this proposition, dropping off their four sons and one daughter to stay four days and three nights. The total was 10 children ages 10 and under, her children stair-stepping with mine. During their stay, a friend popped in and shook her head, saying, “I think I’d go crazy!” Well, I didn’t, even if I did journal during the hubbub, “Someone without extreme mental health, I would not advise this.” Although I felt a low-grade stress, things went just fine. Here are some tips that did the trick:

Bring on the help
My husband, Steve, was there (of course) although he informed me, “It’s fine if you do this, but remember, it was your idea, not mine.” (In the end my good-natured darling actually involved himself more with the children than I did.) Additionally I invited a teen-aged girl to stay during these days. This helped because she could spell me off. I had a few bad nights (one of my three-year-old twins was sick and at times I would lie awake worrying how the busy time would go) but it relieved me knowing that I could rest the next day if I needed to.

Keep everything simple
First we had food prepared ahead; therefore,most of the meals just needed to be heated. Next we tried to limit snacking to the kitchen, which meant that, although not all of the trails of food were eliminated, at least they were kept to a minimum.

Involve the children in the work
We had two teams and they took turns helping to cook (never mind that it would have been almost easier for me to do it myself) but it kept them busy. There was also a meal clean-up chart, which worked wonders. Friday evening, after a few days of a 10-children-lived-in house, I told the tribe, “Tomorrow is the day for work, not play. We’ve got to clean house and pack the children’s suitcases.”

Surprisingly, no one even grumbled. By 9:30 in the morning (before the promised snowmobile ride), the house was clean and most of their stuff ready.

Have lots of planned activities
The one thing that nearly made me panic with 10 children underfoot was the playing of “bear.” Even the name of the game sounds scary, with the tribe tearing through the house being chased by a growly one. When I was trying to convince my children that this WAS not acceptable, they said, “Why can’t we? Enos’ children are allowed.” (I found out later that my sister had a different version of the matter).

To alleviate indoor chaos, we encouraged lots of outdoor activities, with a highlight being snowmobile rides every day. Once when I asked Steve if he’s ready for supper, he said, “We’re having lessons first.” “Lessons?” I asked. “Skidoo lessons,” which meant the bigger kids learning to drive.

Leave open spaces in the schedule
My friend who has done “cousins camp” before told me that a longer stay is better because it gives children time to start to flow. At first it seemed like they would wander a lot or do games like the dreaded “bear.” But by the end they were dreaming up things on their own, such as biking down the skidoo trail, baking a birthday cake (I couldn’t figure out why the mixer was whirring) and making snow mixed with peaches (their version of snow cream, I suppose.)

For a variety they listened to story records or played musical rugs. Once my two-year-old nephew (the youngest of the bunch) was entertaining himself by stomping around outside in the driveway with a ski pole in his hand, taller than the little fellow, saying, “Who will fight me? Who will fight me?”

Have an interesting bedtime routine
This will hopefully take away any fears of a new place. The first night my husband had gone to a meeting and by 7 I was exhausted. Suddenly the thought struck me, “How are we going to get 10 children to sleep?!” Getting a bright idea, I said, “Everyone get their snack, PJ’s on, teeth brushed and bring your blankets downstairs to lie on the living room floor. We’ll listen to story tapes.” Two tapes later, three little ones were out and could be carried to their beds. Steve then came home and put our twins to sleep while the older ones walked up to their rooms. Soon the house was quiet.

Be prepared for hilarity
Once I had an unusual discussion with my two nephews. “Sharon,” nine-year-old Jon Clair said, “who was the last one who slept in the spare bed? There must be bugs in it. Daniel and I both have bites.” Seven-year-old Daniel piped up, “Yeah, Jon Clair spent half the night in the bathroom scratching his back with a comb.” Bed bugs, IN MY HOUSE?! (Obviously, they were never discovered, the culprit perhaps being dry, itchy skin.)

Another time my five-year-old son patted his two-year-old cousin, saying, “I like Robbie. I wish he were a girl ’cause I want to marry him.” On the fourth day, my helper said, “Sharon, do you realize Davy (my five-year-old nephew) has been wearing the same clothes for all these days because he couldn’t find his suitcase?”

Be prepared for familial familiarity
I hadn’t expected to be reminded regularly that these children’s mother and I were from the same family. I would hear, “You sound just like my mom!” when I was ranting that we were going to be late for a dental appointment or “You pray just like Grandpa” when I prayed a quick one-sentence grace prayer.

Another time after my daughter had said, “You make the best icing,” and I gave her a kiss, exclaiming, “Oh, thank-you!” my niece said, “You’re just like my mom. She goes wacko when we give her a compliment.” (So much for thinking I have achieved some sort of individuality!)

Family ties
Although my five-year-old nephew didn’t share my version of intensity when he told me, “There’s not much to do around here,” it definitely was a strenuous time for me. I remember when Carolyn called from miles away and said, “I ache my for my children. Be gentle with them!” I comforted her with, “They are fine. But believe me, I DO NOT ACHE for lack of children!”

One of the reasons, however, that I was glad we did this was because it was good for my offspring. When I saw my only son interacting with his four boy cousins, I told Steve, “This is so good for Michael. We can’t always do things just because it’s easier for us.” My oldest daughter’s enthusiastic evaluation was given a few dull days after the cousins’ departure when she said, “I wish you’d babysit Enos’ children for a year!”

When I think about these family-oriented friendships (and knowing that family ties stick), I feel honored that my daughter’s best friend is my own sister’s child. Because I believe in the family connection and for the sake of generational ties — once I get my breath — I might even be caught doing this again.

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