Happy campers

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by Katrina on July 5, 2010

A family vacation sounds good in theory, but in practice it has three things going against it. Traveling with young kids is

1. expensive

2. not relaxing

3. requires cleaning, shopping, packing, unpacking, repacking, and unpacking again. And cleaning.

Which is why we haven’t taken a trip with all three kids since our youngest was a baby.

For two tired working parents who desperately need a real vacation, adding to the to-do list sounds dreadful. Why pay for that?

After a couple years, though, the “stay-cations” were getting stale. Then in May, Jake turned three, which meant he entered the travel-compatible years. So we cleaned, shopped, packed up the minivan, and drove to family camp.

Family camp is hands-down the best thing ever invented for parents who want to enjoy their kids without being run ragged. We signed up for the Tuolumne family camp near Yosemite, which is run by the city of Berkeley.

A group of cheerful, outrageously energetic young people set up our tent and cooked us three meals a day. They even unpacked our car for us. (One fellow camper told me he thought he’d died and gone to heaven when he found out he didn’t have to to unpack his own car.)

There were activities for our big girls—basket-weaving, tie-dying and other arts and crafts, drama, and various sports. For the 2-5 year old set there was a “kiddie camp” where Jake happily drew pictures and played in the sandbox while Brian and I got some precious alone time.

It was not cheap, but far more affordable than, say, flying the five of us to Hawaii. And it was certainly more fun than staying in a hotel with a 3-year-old who’s changed his name to Robin Hood and needs a lot of room to run around and shoot arrows at the bad guys.

We passed an idyllic week swimming in the Tuolumne River, hiking through the Stanislaus National Forest, collecting giant pine cones, eating (a lot of eating), reading, giggling in our tent…

While Jake played with trucks at kiddie camp and the girls explored the lower beach, I sat in an Adirondack chair by the river to read “Raising Happiness,” a new book by a Bay Area author named Christine Carter. She’s the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and her book explores scientifically proven methods for raising happy children.

It turns out our state of (un)happiness is only partly related to circumstances and genetics. Research shows that about 40% of our capacity for happiness has to do with how we perceive our circumstances. Which means we have a lot of influence over our children’s and our own ability to be happy.

In the book, Carter talks about the importance of teaching our kids to dwell on happy memories by practicing gratitude. This is an excerpt from Chapter 4:

Practice gratitude? Like multiplication tables? Yes. Americans live amid such incredible abundance that we tend to be out of practice when it comes to feeling appreciation for what others do for us…

Will we let our culture influence how happy our children are when it insidiously models cynicism, revenge seeking, and entitlement? Or will we consciously teach our children to practice gratitude, forgiveness, and optimism?

By learning to soak in our happy memories, the author explains, we can actually wire our brains to be less depressed, and more optimistic. Scientists have found that people who “practice gratitude” feel 25% happier (yes, they measured it!), are more likely to be kind and helpful to others, and even sleep better.

This knowledge came in handy on our last day at camp. I could see Brian was feeling a bit glum. I was, too. We were not looking forward to a day of driving, unpacking, and cleaning, nor the idea of reentering our busy lives again.

We packed up the car, strapped the kids in their seats, and started down the windy road home in silence.

“Let’s think about three happy memories from this week,” I suggested. It sounded hokey, even to me, but Brian, bless him, agreed to play along.

My memories: Practicing yoga by myself in the early morning next to the river. Watching the kids pretend to be fireflies by hopping up and down with flashlights between their legs. Dancing the soul train with 7-year-old Ruby at the camp dance.

Brian’s memories: Climbing the giant slabs of granite by the river with Martha. Watching Ruby shimmy around the cabin, twirling a crepe paper streamer over her head and exclaiming “I can’t stop dancing!” Cuddling with Jake on the deck at nap time, looking up at through the branches of the black oak tree.

The kid joined in with their favorite memories. Jake said he liked the corn dogs. Martha loved the ribs and the pancakes, and pulling her dad’s float across the river. Ruby liked that our cabin was “dirty and nice”and she loved watching the camp nurses impersonate Sonny and Cher at the Tuesday evening talent show.

“Oh, and working in the candy store,” she added.

“Oh me too! The candy store was the best!” Martha agreed.

Each person’s happy memories triggered new happy memories. There was the fishing rod Martha made out of found objects, reading books with a flashlight, and of course, the donut-on-a-string game.

When we pulled into our driveway, there were no robust 18-year-olds waiting to unpack our car, and no prepared meals in the fridge. Once we unpacked, the mountain of laundry was formidable. But it didn’t matter, because we were still basking in the glow of our happy memories.

Thank you, Berkeley family camp, for creating such a wonderful place for our family to be together. Thank you, Christine Carter, for reminding us to savor it.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }


Of course – it’s just my crappy attitude! Why didn’t I think of that?



Ha! Right. Which is why I have mixed feelings about all this happiness research that is coming out right now.

We have to hold that 2 things are simultaneously true:
1. Life can, at times, be full of adversity, and our negative feelings have an important message
2. Sometimes it’s good for us to deliberately focus on the positive



Katrina, love that you finally got a relaxing vacation. I too just experienced the pleasure of family camp. Getting an opportunity to be with the kids away from the stress of daily life certainly puts me in a place where I can focus on the positive things in life. It is hard to have a good attitude or appreciate our many luxuries if you feel so exhausted and overwhelmed.

Being in the woods and just playing. The kids didn’t ask for anything (besides sugar) or whine the whole time. It was amazing. It was so refreshing to want to be with the kids.



We recently went out to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary. My husband (uncharacteristically) suggested we look back and enumerate the highlights. We haven’t had such a great evening out in a long time! I wonder if part of the happiness business is that things, like travel, ‘look more glamorous in retrospect’…and there’s generally no worry related to stuff that has happened like there is fretting now about what is to come. (e.g. laundry!)


Carolyn and Alan

Thanks for making our day. We are those camp nurses who impersonated Sonny and Cher. And our son, Ian was on staff at the Nature Center last year and will be working on staff again this year. Our family has been going to BTC for going on 12 years now and it’s a part of us….our kids loved it when they were little and they still love it as teens. It’s a wonderfully magic place.


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