What I Learned from My First Summer Camp with my Multicultural Family

Have you ever been to summer camp as a family?  I am talking about the kind where you stay in rustic cabins, do organized activities, and share communal meals.  I took my multicultural family, we had a great time and learned a few things for next time.  And there will so be a next time.  If you haven’t thought about it, consider it.  It was a beautiful experience.  Read on for my musings about it, or just skip to the 10 Tips to Make Your Summer Camp Amazing.

Have you taken your multicultural family to an organized camp? Here are some things I learned that might help you.
I took my multicultural family to summer camp and had a blast!

We took a three day trek into the mountains for Peace Camp by the Modesto Peace Life Center. It was the first time I had participated in an organized camp since sixth grade. I grew up camping, but had gotten away from it with the demands of being a grown up and a husband who thinks roughing it is a nice hotel. Suffice it to say, it had been way too long since I had taken the time to recharge in the mountains. So when the opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance. I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. I convinced my mom and son to come with me, so we packed our bags and off we went.

It was my son’s first time “camping” since he was three and he doesn’t remember it. Time passes so quickly with one thing and another and I just realized I am raising a city boy. Oh the horror!  I was backpacking before I learned to walk.

Luckily he was enthusiastic, and had a great time.  He gets a little freaked out about bugs in the house, so I hoped it would not be a problem.  My little scientist decided that we were “in nature” which is their home and we were just visiting.  He wasn’t bothered by any of the critters, to the point where he didn’t want me to sweep the spiders out of our cabin, although he was just fine when Grandma got rid of the dead mouse that we found there when we arrived.

It was really nice to not have to plan and organize everything, especially the food. I have also gotten citified enough that I really appreciated being able to shower. The people were incredibly warm and welcoming, and the activities were well organized.  Many people really put effort into making us newbies feel comfortable and at home.

My friend, who was also there for the first time, said “It feels like we have found our tribe,” and she was right.  I have lived in California’s Central Valley for nearly thirty years, (Gah, time flies!) and I am comfortably at home here, but have had a difficult time finding a community of people who truly share my views on the world.  I have missed that, more than anything from my time living in a larger city.  At this camp I encountered people of every age and many cultures and walks of life, all focused on true inclusion on an individual and a global level.  It was a space where multiculturalism was embraced and lived.

Every person I met there had an interesting story and really thought about the world and the way they occupy it.  I haven’t had that many stimulating conversations in ages, let alone concentrated over three days.  The experience buoyed me in mind and spirit.  I am excited to go back, in fact, I’ve already got next year blocked off on my calendar.

So, what did I learn from Peace camp?

I learned that I over-pack. OK, I knew that already, but I really did bring too much stuff.  Next year I will not be so bogged down with stuff, now that I know more of what to expect.  Being able to stay in a cabin and having all the food prepared takes such a huge burden off of camping.  We brought enough snacks that we could have eaten fairly well all weekend, and never touched them.  However, I was very happy that I brought sheets for the camp cots (protection from mouse droppings).  I should have brought more warm clothes, it was just so hot down in the valley I couldn’t really believe it would be cold at night.  I knew better, it’s not like I have never been to the mountains before!  Luckily my mom also over-packs and brought an extra jacket.

My son spent hours upon hours playing with rocks and a creek and a few other kids.  I renewed my resolve to get him outside more and to take more days in nature.  Our family situation doesn’t make it easy, but we’ll work on making sure he has more unstructured time outdoors.  I may have to schedule it.  Anyone else see the irony in scheduling unstructured time?

I learned how much I had been longing for my tribe without even realizing it.  This blog has been my way of connecting with others who live a multicultural life, but now I’ve found a space where I can go to meet such folks in real life.  And that is a wonderful feeling.

10 Tips for an awesome Summer Camp
  1. Do bring warm clothing for the evening.  It gets cold in the mountains!
  2. Sheets to cover camp cots make sleeping much nicer, even if you are using a sleeping bag.
  3. Make sure to have a separate bag for shower stuff since it will be a trek from wherever you are sleeping.  Keep the toiletries to a minimum: shampoo/conditioner, soap, toothpaste/brush, sunscreen, bug spray.
  4. Bring several pairs of shoes that are easily cleaned.  Dirt and mud happen.  Closed toe will protect you from splinters and stubbed toes.  Flip flops really don’t work!
  5. Leave your electronics behind.  If you have them with you, you will be tempted to use them.
  6. Bring a camera that’s easy to carry with you if you want pictures of the experience.  Moments that just happen make the best memories.
    • Don’t hide behind your camera so much that you don’t really join in on the fun.
  7. Bring refillable water bottles that can hook on your belt and drink often.
  8. Participate.  Its the best way to get the most value out of summer camp.  Look at the schedule on the first day and decide which activities you are going to join.  Do something you have never done before, it’s a safe space to try new things since many others are new as well.
  9. On the other hand, don’t pack your schedule so much that there is no time to just play.  Let the kids play and let yourself play too.
  10. Help.  You will likely sign up for chores at the beginning.  Show up on time and work enthusiastically.  If you see something that needs doing, just do it.  Make sure your kids help too.  Depending on age they can help you with your chores or do their own.  My son held the dustpan while I swept and helped clear the tables after meals.  By next year he might be old enough to have his own chores.

Have you gone to summer camp as a family?  Please share your story in the comments.  If you haven’t I highly recommend it and will do my best to answer any questions you have.

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Getting ready for Summer Camp as a family? Here are my tips to help you make it a great experience.
Tips from my Summer Camp experience.
Have you ever been to a group camp as a grownup? The kind with organized activities and communal meals? I had not done anything like it since 6th grade and learned a few things from the experience that you may find useful if you go.
Helpful tips from our first experience at an organized camp as a family.

Thoughts about Religion as a Multicultural Mama

What is God?  What is life?  Why are we here, on this planet, at this time?  What does it mean to be human?  Is there accountability in this life or the next?  How do I connect with the divine?  What is religion and will it help me do so?  These are a few of the questions I have thought about over the years.  I have always felt a spiritual connection to the universe and for much of my life have grappled with the age old questions that inspired religions.  Now I have a curious child who is beginning to ask the big questions and I am trying to figure out how best to teach him.

Religion In Parenting
How do I teach my child about the divine when I am uncomfortable with our religious options?
My Religion Story

I was raised in a secular household that focused on the complexity of big questions rather than any specific answer.  It was full of love, support and exploration, and I would not change my childhood for any other.  I had a wonderful childhood.  My parents’ religious upbringing were Catholic, Presbyterian, and Mormon.  My extended family on both sides were deeply religious, good people, but I often didn’t know how to talk to them, as there was a part of their life that made no sense to me.

At some point around 5th or 6th grade, I realized that I just knew that there did indeed exist a divine force.  I began searching for answers in the various religions and spiritual traditions that I had available to me.  At the time I happened to live on a street with at least ten different churches.  I began attending services at the various options to see what fit.  My clearest memories are of the Catholic Church, the ritual satisfied some part of what I was looking for and I went back many times.  I never reached out for more instruction; at that time it was enough for me to be there.

My parents were incredibly supportive through all this experimentation on my part.  In junior high I started attending an evangelical big box church because a friend had invited me.  I didn’t get much spiritually from the experience even though most of the people were very earnest.  Unfortunately they were trying to teach us a very prescribed version of the truth with no subtlety or room for hard questions.  That just didn’t work for me and I couldn’t respect the idea that there was only one right answer and that this church, or any church, had the One True Way.  I felt like I was being told not to think.

At that church I experienced for the first time the hypocrisy and theatre that can be involved in religion.  I looked up once when we were all supposed to have our heads bowed in prayer while the pastor asked for people to raise their hands if they had opened their hearts to Jesus that day.  He acknowledged several, and yet no one in the congregation had a raised hand.  I completely stopped taking it seriously after that, but I had a lot of fun socially, really enjoyed the pageantry and singing for the holiday programs, and learned to ski.

Throughout high school and college I continued to try to find a religious community that supported intellectual thought in addition to the social support and spiritual experiences.  I tried Baha’i, nearly every stripe of Christianity, Buddhism, and got seriously into Wicca for several years.  I read books, oh so many books.  I joined online forums and real life communities.

Some churches that were accepting of differences had no real direction, and others that seemed to have clear ideas were often so intolerant as to be intolerable.  Wicca helped me find that connection to the divine for a long time, but it seemed that most people were there because they had had horrible experiences with the more traditional churches and were essentially on the rebound.  I wanted a community of people moving toward something rather than away.

My last year or so of University I joined a Catholic RCIA program on campus and experienced for the first time an environment that inspired deeply intellectual and passionate discussions about religion and spirituality.  My RCIA instructor was writing a book on ethics for engineers and we would talk for hours about the whys behind the catechism, the nature of good and evil, God and the church.  I was hooked, then later baptized and confirmed into the Catholic church and haven’t really regretted it in the intervening years.

After moving to a much more conservative area after college I lost the intellectualism and philosophical stimulation.  I have not had anyone to really talk with about religion since.  There were bible study groups, but they were only interested in getting the ‘right’ answer.  No one wanted to think about it much and resented my attempts.  I still consider myself Catholic, but am not active as I once was.

My husband is a cradle Catholic who has been disillusioned by local church politics and we eventually had a son.  Now my son is of an age to ask questions about God and where people go when they die and I am struggling to answer him.

I still hold onto the conviction that grew inside me when I was a girl that there is a force, another dimension, God, gods, an Over Soul, something bigger and connected to the universe that we humans can tap into sometimes.  The Jesus story was a key part of my original conversion, but most of the time does not resonate with me much.  Is there really a Heaven, a Hell, Purgatory, reincarnation, etc.?  I don’t know and frankly don’t find that question very compelling anymore.  I am much more interested in how to make a real connection with the divine from here on Earth, in this life.  These days I get most of that connection through the rituals of yoga, although the Mass does still speak to me.

Religion and Parenting

My son is asking questions that I don’t know how to answer about religion.  Part of me wants him to find his own answers, as I did.  Another part of me wants to share with him the sense of connection that I have found in religion.  The ritual of the Mass takes me to that space, and yet, some of the values taught in church are not what I want him to learn.

This is my real struggle and I have answered his questions as best I could, though I find myself saying a whole lot of “I don’t know, what do you think?”  The problem with that is that he does not have the tools to make informed, thought out, deep, decisions.  How is it possible to give him those tools without pushing an answer on him?  If I take him to church it is like I telling him that this is what he should believe.  If I do not, am I not doing the same thing in the other direction?

I would like to invite a respectful conversation.  I am hoping to find interesting people with differing views who can have a really deep conversation without judgment or rancor.  Especially these days with so much division in the world.  This is my story, what are your thoughts?

Organized Activities, The Goldilocks Dilemma in Parenting

In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Goldilocks finds the Bear’s porridge too hot, too cold, or just right.  Just as in the iconic children’s story, many parenting questions come down to finding the “just right” balance for your child.  Today I am thinking about formal, organized activities.  Childhood for my son is not as fluid as I remember mine being.  I remember that I often had an activity such as gymnastics or dance, but I don’t think I ever did more than one at a time.  I spent a lot of hours in independent play, either alone or with friends.

I really struggle with deciding how much is too much, how much is too little, and what is just right for my son.  He is currently in soccer, karate and music lessons every week.  There are other things he does occasionally and more structured activities and clubs he could join through school.  Each week he has just one school day and one weekend day without an appointment .  Plus he must practice the music and deal with any school obligations daily.  Each activity was chosen for very good reasons and there are always more things that we could do, other activities that seem really cool.  We often have to decline invitations because he has something already in that time slot.

So I worry that I am over-scheduling him, that his childhood will be too busy to really be childhood.  I worry that he does not have enough time to just play.  We spent most of last Sunday building a truly massive Lego structure as a base so that Lego Batman could defend himself against the Power Rangers Zords.  It was intricate and he had a fully developed story for the lead up to the battle.  He had a plan and we made it happen.  I haven’t taken the time to just play for hours with him in way too long.  I am often with him, shuttling him here and there and everywhere, and we do have great car conversations as we are rushing from place to place.  We are so busy at various activities that home life is suffering as well.  We are out and about so much that when we are home we are just as busy, taking care of food or laundry or any of the other myriad things that always need to be done, so that he very rarely gets my undivided attention.  He asked again for Lego-mania several times during a hectic weekend, so finally last night we got in an hour before bedtime.  It showed me how much he craves doing something with just Mama and no distractions.

On the other hand, none of the grown-ups in his life are particularly active.  We are all older than most of the parents of kids his age and much less bouncy than we used to be.  In addition, we live in a little bit of a rough neighborhood.  There is just enough going on that I cannot in good conscience tell him to go outside and play unsupervised as I used to do as a child.  He could go into the backyard I suppose, but we never got him into the habit of it since there were hazards there as well and it is not an inspiring place to play.  I have started to try to encourage that, but he has no desire to be out there by himself, so unless I am out there with him he doesn’t get outside time.  The upshot is that without formalized activities, he wold not get enough physical activity.  Most of those formal activities are scheduled in the evening so that parents can be off work, but they are thirty to forty-five minutes from home so that we get home only in time to eat and sleep in a rush.  For me, I put him to bed, often fall asleep doing so  because I am so tired, then get up to finish chores and end up going to bed too late because I got just enough of a nap to make it difficult to go to bed when I should.  He isn’t getting enough sleep either, which is very worrisome, although we are improving on that front.

When I was growing up, we would spend hours wandering the neighborhood with friends, at various houses or parks.  There were kids I could play with on our street or  I could just hang out with my sister.  I got as much social interaction as I wanted in a very natural way.  On the other hand, my son is an only child and all of his friends live a town away so that social interactions must happen through either formal activities or play dates which are their own scheduling hassle.  There are few children on our street and they are not let out to play either.

That old way of life has closed down at least in this area, the whole society is afraid and a parent who lets her child wander is considered dangerously negligent.  I could buck that trend, with difficulty, except that I am also infected with that fear to let him out on his own.  My husband is even more protective than I am.  I want him to grow into a strong, independent person and I know that he has to be able to make his own mistakes in order to do so, but I don’t know how much independence to give him or when to do so.  What is too much, what is too little, and what is just right at this stage in his development?  Will the benefits he gets from the music or sports or anything else outweigh the cost in time?  Time is so precious and childhood time more so.  What is the best use of his time to help him become a well rounded, creative, independent, good person?  For us, when soccer season ends, I am going to try to resist the temptation to fill that time slot with more activities and to instead prioritize those few hours at home, so that evenings can be a time that we can enjoy as a family.

How about your family?  How do you balance formal activities with free play?  How about social interactions, is school enough, or does your child have neighborhood friends to play with?  Does your child roam free?  What is “just right” for your family?

 

 

 

The Goldilocks Dilemma in Parenting - How much is too much?
The Goldilocks Dilemma in Parenting – How much is too much?

How do I raise a bilingual child?

Before our son was born, we thought we had it all figured out.  I would speak English and my husband would speak Spanish and our son would grow up with both in his ears and magically begin to speak both.  Only it didn’t work out that way, funny that.  My husband was diligent for the first two years, then got discouraged since our son never seemed to pick up on it.  Part of the issue is that our schedules were so hectic that our son didn’t see his Papa except just before bed and on weekends.

A good seventy percent of our boy’s time was spent with my family, who were speaking a complex, educated English to him.  We never held back or simplified, with the result that he is an insanely articulate five year old in English.  His ability to articulate is actually greater than his ability to understand concepts.  He can talk passionately about an idea that he has for several minutes even though his logic string is often wackadoodle.  But, well, that is part of being five.

I think he had a very strong need to master one language to the exclusion of the other.  Nothing we did in Spanish seemed to stick.  After a while he ended up having an intense emotional rejection of all things Spanish.  He would say, “Tell me in EeeNGLISH!”  My husband and I decided that it would be counter productive to turn it into an ongoing battle and backed off.

We faced palpable disappointment from the community when it became clear that our boy could not speak Spanish.  Several people told me that I should be teaching him, although no one had any constructive ideas.  It felt like it was somehow my fault, as the white half of the partnership, that I was somehow cutting him off from his culture and heritage, that it was a betrayal of their acceptance of me in some way.

We let some time pass and I found a couple of children’s music CDs that he likes, so we play them in the car once or twice a week.  My son is highly attuned to music, he is absolutely loving the fact that his kindergarten teacher seems to have a song for everything.  He sings them to me every time there is a new song in class, which is several times a week.  My husband also loves music and is beginning to make a point of playing the Spanish music at home.  We are hoping that music will be the wedge we can open his brain with, to let the Spanish inside.

We are also speaking Spanish to each other more and more often.  It can be difficult for me, my grammar is less than perfect and I hate that, and towards the end of the day my brain is tired and Spanish requires me to actively use my brain.  I learned it as an adult and may never feel fully comfortable with it.  However I am persevering because I think it is very important that he have the advantage of knowing more than one language, and avoids the disadvantage of being monolingual.  If he learns Spanish, he will have the neural pathways to learn another language of his choice later on.  I also have a gut feeling that if he doesn’t have a firm grasp of Spanish he will never be able to be quite comfortable with that side of his heritage.

Slowly he is starting to show an interest, he knows numbers, colors, and a few animals, so we are making progress.  I wish there were a class or program designed for young kids in our area that would make it fun.  He responds well to more deliberate structured learning in other areas.  I have looked, but haven’t found anything.

Is it important to you that your child speak the languages of your heritage?  Why or why not?  If so, how have you approached it?  What has been effective, and what hasn’t worked?  Did you grow up not speaking one of the languages of your parents?  How did that affect you within the family and community?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Parenting when styles are completely different

All of a sudden, when we knew it was real and we really were going to have a baby, all of the deep seated assumptions and cultural biases came out with a vengeance.  We had been married for years, had developed calluses over any sore spots and were rubbing along fairly well.  Then we got pregnant and all of that went away.  Now, five years later, we are still working and negotiating through it all.  I think it will be a never ending process as our deepest beliefs and upbringing show up when it’s time to make decisions, big or small.

My husband’s parents were loving authoritarians and mine were hippies.  He was raised to respect authority and always use titles of respect.  As a grown man, when his mother called his name, he would respond with “Mande Mama” (literal translation: “Command me mom”).  Now, don’t get me wrong, there was a deep love there which is why he does his best to raise his son in a way that his mother would approve.

I was raised with what I will call talk therapy.  My parents got through the ‘why’ stage by actually explaining, in sometimes excruciating detail, the hows and whys of whatever we asked.  Later, we spent a lot of time looking things up in the dictionary.  An actual big Meriam Websters dictionary with a place of honor in the home.  My husband could ask why, but only after he had completed whatever was asked of him.  My family would talk it through, and still does.  I am sometimes frustrated at how long it takes to come to a decision about anything, but decisions, once taken, are well thought out and not often regretted.  We do sometimes suffer from analysis paralysis.

There are pros and cons of each approach and we have decided to take a middle road.  We encourage the use of honorifics for adults and are teaching our son to say “Mande Usted” when we call his name.  On the other hand, we do explain why we are changing plans or asking him to do something.  We also invite his input when appropriate and let him make decisions (like wearing all of his clothing backwards, which has been a thing for months now) as often as possible.

We are constantly looking for the sweet spot between the approaches of our parents.  Luckily we are both able to see the value of the other approach and that helps a lot.  We also back each other up even when we disagree and hash it out later.  My husband has softened his manner immensely and I am constantly trying to find a balance.

Each day presents new challenges because, of course, there are some commands that must be obeyed without question for safety reasons.  Also, without some control over behavior, each and every thing that you try to do would become a constant negotiation.  I am not willing to do that.  On the other hand, I committed to treating him as a person from day one.  Part of that commitment includes explaining why I ask him to do what I ask him to do and not do.  Sometimes he gets it and sometimes he does not, but he always knows that there is a reason, even if it is that I am tired and just need things to be easier that day.  Most of the time he responds very well.

Most of the time I allow him to make choices, and most of the time I say yes when he asks for something.  However I also fully own my prerogative as his parent to say no or that he must do something.  He knows that when that happens, it is not negotiable and complies.

My husband, I think, will always tend more toward the authoritarian model and I more toward mentorship parenting where I act as a guide in his quest to learn about the world and who he will become.  I find that having both in the household is striking a balance and our son is learning how to behave in different situations.  When we are with his father’s side of the family there are certain expectations of behavior, which are different from the expectations of behavior with my family and at school.  For example, hugs are expected every time you say hello and goodbye to anyone on the Mexican side of the family.  This includes if you are at a party with thirty people, you must seek out each person to acknowledge them when you arrive and when you are about to depart.  It is a beautiful custom, but it did take me a while to get used to it.  One effect of learning this custom is that I hug my parents more often than I ever did before.  My son is easily able to follow that custom when he is with his father’s family, and the more casual greetings for mine.  It works for us.

For now, we will just keep muddling through, enjoying our bright, beautiful boy.  How do you decide on the type of parenting or customs to follow, especially if you come into parenthood with very different backgrounds?