My family spent the first week of this year with about 10 other families at a conference centre we hire out for the purpose during the summer school holidays. Parents from our kids’ schools organise these ‘family camps’ and while they are not relaxing on the whole, they are so rewarding that I’ve become a combined family holiday evangelist.
Ours was fully catered, with a variety of on-site sports and activities on offer and a couple of external trips. Some nights the parents enjoyed board games with a quiet drink once the kids were settled in with a movie.
On the downside: For one thing, playing with kids most of the day is exhausting! So is sharing sleeping quarters with our whole family of seven, while being in close proximity for the other 16 hours a day with about 80 other people offers a different type of fatigue. Luckily we’ve had the option of retiring to our family’s cabin at times to read a book or take a nap, or duck out to the local shops.
The first year we went it was too hot and the possums partying in the roof guaranteed a fitful sleep each night. I couldn’t keep up with my kids who wanted a part of every activity on offer and kept fearing we’d lose our youngest son among it all. The adults joked about it being tiring fun but I just found it tiring and wondered if there was something seriously wrong with me.
One year it rained solidly for 4.5 out of the five days away. The verandahs leaked, the place became a mud bath, the stuff was tracked into the cabins and beds, and I joined a constant queue for the only clothes dryer available. But the children, oh they love these camps passionately!
“Coming here is the best way I can think of to start the year,” one daughter said, nearly breathless with excitement upon pulling up in the parking lot this year. No one argued with her. Despite the downsides it’s obvious that what our family and each member of it receive from these adventures is incalculable. That’s why we have kept returning.
As I see it, these are some upsides to a combined family holiday:
There’s nothing so wonderful for our kids than what’s essentially a giant sleepover with some of their friends for several days straight of solid-booked fun, with a certain measure of freedom to do what they like and the backup security of familiar adults around.
Our organisers arrange for a priest to be available to say Mass and maybe hear confessions each day. All are invited to an evening rosary. We get to know other families better, who like us are happy to have their lives defined and sustained by faith and family, and who share the same values and ideals for the raising of their children. We get to have fun with our children, spending hours upon hours playing with them games that they enjoy. How rare this is during the rest of the year!
Because they see their friends with their parents, our children observe that other kids do not have it much worse or better when it comes to parental rules and expectations. (Also, over a glass or wine or cup of tea we adults have opportunities to discuss and seek some consensus on said rules and expectations.)
One of our children exasperated her friends who rose before her every morning and had to wait for her to come out. It was a nice bonus to have the back-up. Our children also witness the occasional tense moment between a parent and their kid, and see that these things are part of every normal, healthy, family life. They get to spend time with kids of all ages. Two of my kids became besotted with a petite toddler there. “I love that little baby!” my eldest son came to tell me, while his eldest sister, the teenager, carried her around in a pouch one morning.
We have lots of opportunities to notice our kids’ interactions with other kids and adults, and where they might warrant either special praise or some quiet correction. We adults also get to observe each other’s little essential daily rituals. I reckon my friend Ruth has the best daily habits of anyone I know, even on holidays! I am always inspired by her energy, solicitousness, and cheerfulness no matter what happens at these camps, because I’m operating under the same conditions and cannot keep up.
We make new discoveries, this time a short bushwalk which is perfect for young kids, but still offers spectacular views to keep the older ones and adults interested. These camps offer a respite from our normal routines, during which we can lavish attention on our family and friends. It’s a week of fun and service; we’re at the disposal of whoever needs help, or wants a playmate, or needs supervising, including members of other families as well as our own. And it’s a week when we get a lot of prayer in.
Like many other parents, my husband and I have often worried about what it takes, or if it is even possible, to raise our children and keep close to them, keep them close to each other, and to Jesus. Something like this is a big part of the answer. If you look around and feel discouraged by the lack of like-minded people, if no one in your family or immediate friends are interested in the pursuit of a God-centred life, this is one simple solution.
It only takes one or two sets of parents in a parish or school community or among friends or extended family to decide to get something organised. It can be as simple as hiring a holiday house or part of a camp site during the next school holidays. Keep it light, fun, and let the kids get away (safely) with as much silliness as possible. Don’t worry too much about baths and bedtimes and just keep some daily focus on God.
The faith component doesn’t have to be complicated or too heavy. A simple grace before meals each day and maybe attending Mass together at the local parish before going home is plenty if that’s what all the adults are comfortable with. You may find it will grow in numbers over time as people find out what you’re doing. It will certainly enrich your own family and your own human and spiritual development.