By Various Authors and Susan Alexander Yates
Give your grandkids shared experiences to help them build stronger bonds with one another.
For grandparents, there’s nothing more satisfying than getting to know each grandchild as an individual—and seeing our family bonding as cousins connect with one another. As we build lasting memories with our grandkids, we can also help strengthen the bond between cousins. Whether you have two or 30 grandchildren, you can find ways to encourage family bonding and to help cousins in your family grow closer together, just as some grandparents have done.
A Year of Holidays
My extended family lives 1,500 miles away, so I chose to celebrate all the holidays and cousins’ birthdays during the single week in July when I visited the town where they lived. When my family picked me up at the airport, I wore a pink fairy godmother hat to signal that something special was happening.
I had prepared for months, shopping at yard sales for noisemakers and hats, discounted plastic eggs and many other holiday props. Once I was at one of their houses, I waved a wand, proclaiming that it was Valentine’s Day. We ate our favorite doughnuts, had valentine napkins and opened our chocolates.
“Tomorrow will be a new holiday,” I told them.
The next day we gathered for an Easter egg hunt. Their uncles had strategically hidden the eggs to accommodate the children’s heights, and each egg was initialed to ensure fairness.
The only holiday we celebrated on its actual date was the Fourth of July. We listened to a concert and watched fireworks.
A Catchy Idea
I knew the idea had caught on when one morning 8-year-old Addy wished me “Happy Thanksgiving.” I couldn’t find a turkey, so we opted for chicken, traditional side dishes, apple pie and a pumpkin roll. It was a good day to talk about how grateful I was for them.
The aroma of my traditional sticky buns welcomed “Christmas morning.” Stockings were hung on the mantel, and we made cut-out cookies. For their presents, I gave the grandkids a special remembrance of their grandpa, who had passed away five years earlier—a pillow made from one of his shirts and a framed picture of them with him. For those too young, I gave a photo of him.
In keeping with our annual tradition, we celebrated one day for all their birthdays and called that day their “unbirthdays.” As we sang the birthday song, we called out each cousin’s name. Then all the cousins blew out the candles and ate cake and ice cream. The holidays ended as we watched a video of the ball drop, shook our noisemakers, and ate party food to celebrate the “new year.”
One daughter later told me she wished I had overheard her children describing the holidays to their friends. “They didn’t miss one thing,” she said. I smiled. I was able to give my grandchildren a memory that gave them even more in common as cousins and had encouraged family bonding for years to come.
Cuzins ’n’ Grans
Our family is spread across the globe. Looking for ways to create ties with our grandkids, my husband set up a group message thread on social media called “Cuzins ’n’ Grans.” For the cousins, who rarely have an opportunity to be in the same place at the same time, it offers a space unique to them yet shared by Grandpa and Grandma.
We first received permission from their parents and then gave access to each of our grandchildren old enough to have a phone.
My husband and I initiate ideas and topics for group messages. Pictures of daily life and birthday wishes fly across states and continents. Cousins share everything from music playlists to what they’d just eaten for dinner. Bible verses and spiritual reminders bring encouragement.
The cousins cheer for one another in their school and sport accomplishments and let us into their daily lives through this way of connecting.
Cousins Variety Show
A hush fell over the crowd of 30 people. I directed the group of violinists, mandolinists and guitarists as they performed together. At the end of the performance, everyone clapped loudly. The young musicians had big smiles, proud of their accomplishment. My husband and I smiled too, as we were their teachers and the directors of our biannual variety shows.
Our grandkids’ performances at Christmas and in the spring started with me offering a few basic music lessons to a couple of the older girls. Soon all the grandkids were taking basic piano lessons.
This began an almost 10-year adventure that allowed us to bond with our grandchildren by encouraging and exploring their musical talents. Over time, some of the kids wanted to play the guitar or the violin or another instrument. And eventually my husband gave voice lessons and engineered the recorded music for the solos and group songs.
Little Lessons, Big Impact
Our little lessons grew into full performances. Each Christmas, we directed our grandkids in a musical play that told the story of Jesus’ birth. In the spring, our recitals were themed, such as patriotism or castles and kings.
The older grandchildren made invitations and programs for the shows. Others worked on the sets and music with Grandpa. I sewed the costumes, sometimes with help from a daughter. Before each show, we prayed together to keep the pre-performance jitters to a minimum. And slowly the grandchildren learned to play, sing and become each other’s friends. The lessons grew into a great time of family bonding.
My husband went to be with the Lord several years ago, and that first year after his death, all the grandchildren gathered on Christmas Eve and put on a show, surprising their parents and me. They used moments from previous shows as the basis for this performance. My husband and I shared our love of music with them, and they used their abilities to minister to me. What an amazing gift!
“It’s here; it’s here!” my 4-year-old grandson screamed as he raced madly around the house. “My very own invitation for Cousin Camp!”
To say that he was excited is an understatement. Finally, he gets to join his cousins at our annual Cousin Camp. You have to be 4 years old to attend, and he thinks he’s waited far too long. (We want them potty trained, slightly obedient, and sleeping through the night!)
My husband, John, and I first began Cousin Camp with five grandchildren from three different families. We’ve now hosted it every summer for 11 years, and in recent years, all 21 of our grandkids have come.
Why Camp to Create Family Bonding?
Our greatest desire and prayer as grandparents is that our grandchildren love the Lord and one other (based on Matthew 22:37-39). We also desire to see our family bonding. But it can be hard when families are scattered. How do we influence them for Christ, and how will they get to know one another when they live far apart?
There was one thing we could do to be intentional about these goals: Bring all the grandchildren together for four days each summer. And so we began camp.
What Does Camp Look Like?
It looks like utter chaos—loud, crazy, fun—and two exhausted grandparents at the end.
We have a basic camp schedule that we’ve developed over the years, which includes a morning Bible study and a camp verse for the week. Every camper gets a journal with his or her picture glued on it to use during Bible study. We make a big deal presenting these. The journals live at camp, and each year the kids laugh at their handwriting from previous years.
Each young camper has a big buddy. The buddy helps with everything from writing in journals to filling water bottles. We’ve been surprised at how much the little kids grow to love their buddy.
Different activities fill the day, including a scavenger hunt, berry picking at a nearby orchard, crafts, an obstacle course, sports, swimming in the pond or sliding down a homemade “slip and slide.” Before camp, I scour our neighborhood to find a house under construction. I ask the builders if they would leave me a pile of their scraps, which I collect for building projects. I have tools, nails and paint, which campers use to create something magnificent.
Creating Special Traditions
Each camp we also create “Warren County’s largest banana split.” I line newly purchased roof gutter with aluminum foil and then fill it with ice cream, bananas, chocolate syrup, sprinkles, and of course, whipped cream. With a “ready-set-go,” they dive in. And most often, they come out covered with whipped cream.
One of our special traditions is the ceremony on the last night of camp. Everyone has a candle, and we line up behind a cross to proceed to an outdoor area for a unique ending ceremony, which also includes the initiation of new campers into the Band of Cousins. We have a pledge they repeat: As cousins, we pledge to serve the Lord and take care of one another always. It’s a beautiful way to dedicate our family bonding to the Lord.
My husband explains what this means, and as each new camper says the pledge, the others cheer for him or her. Older cousins share one of their favorite verses and what it means to them.
We’ve learned that although it’s helpful to have a plan, we must be willing to change direction at any moment. And it’s also important to form realistic expectations. Things will go wrong.
There are other times for more serious conversations. Cousin Camp is more about the grandkids connecting with their cousins and forging family bonds that will last long after we are gone.
Susan Alexander Yates is the author of Cousin Camp, a grandparents guide to creating fun, faith and memories that last and the free download Camp at Home, 100 practical ideas for families.
© 2020 by Marilyn Nutter, Sylvia Schroeder, Beverly Johnson, and Susan Alexander Yeats for each of their corresponding articles. This article first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.