I’m Running a ‘Common Sense Camp’ for My Kids This Summer

Forget Zoom Mandarin class — they’re learning how to change a tire, balance a checkbook, and read a map

A family looks at a map at home.
Photo: Oliver Rossi/DigitalVision/Getty Images

One of my favorite single-panel comics from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” features a boy pushing mightily against a door marked “pull.” Above him, a sign announces the building as a “School for the Gifted.”

It’s an image I’ve thought about more than once since becoming a parent. As my kids — now 12 and 17 — got older, it became clear that they were, let’s say, heavy on the book smarts. Sometimes, when my husband and I would observe our children struggling with ordinary tasks, we’d joke that they could benefit from Common Sense Camp.

The joke was never entirely that funny. In her book How To Raise an Adult, a manifesto that exposes the harms of helicopter parenting, Julie Lythcott-Haims asks, “Did the safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem-promoting, checklisted childhood that has been commonplace since the mid-1980s, and in many communities has become the norm, rob kids of the chance to develop into healthy adults?” When my kids enter the real world, I want them to know how to pay a bill, change a tire, and be a good neighbor.

So with normal summer options off the table this year, we knew this was the moment to make Common Sense Camp a reality.

My husband and I are both working from home and have the privilege of flexible schedules, so we put together an eight-week life skills curriculum, using Catherine Newman’s new tween guidebook How To Be a Person as a reference. We’re dedicating each week to a major topic, ranging from quotidian household chores to offering condolences, exploring the material through a mixture of direct instruction, independent research, and hands-on practice. (To keep the conversations going, we’ll be watching on-theme movies as a family. I’m looking forward to the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi to kick off a discussion about knife skills.)

Of course, it wouldn’t be summer camp without camp T-shirts, s’mores, tie-dying, and lanyard-making, so we’ll carve out time for those activities, too. We’re reserving plenty of room in the daily schedule for rest, play, boredom, creativity, and — because we’re realistic — screen time. But our overall goal is to help our kids develop conscientiousness, confidence, and empathy. So we came up with a Common Sense Camp motto: Be Observant. Be Useful. Be Kind.

Here are our eight weekly camp themes. Feel free to adapt them for your own family based on your kids’ ages, skill levels, and interests.

Kitchen confidence

We’ll go over the fundamentals, like reading a recipe, knife skills, and cleanup. The week will culminate in a dinner for four, prepared without any adult assistance.

Do it yourself

We’ll cover how to use common tools, change a lightbulb, and make small home repairs. To supplement our lessons, we’ll draw from Dad, How Do I?, a charming YouTube channel featuring a dad named Rob Kenney who teaches viewers how to do basic tasks. The kids can choose any one of these final projects: hanging a picture, assembling a piece of IKEA furniture, or painting a wall.

House cleaning and laundry

Because our kids are already adept at basic household chores, we’ll focus on deep cleaning and raising the standards for daily upkeep. They will also demonstrate laundry proficiency, from noticing the pile of dirty items (which so often sits right next to the hamper… why?!) to ensuring that clothes are clean, folded, and put away.

Safety and emergency preparedness

Living in Los Angeles, home to earthquakes and fires, we are due for a refresher on disaster preparedness and response. In addition to practicing our emergency plan, the kids will take online courses in CPR and first aid, and our teen driver will review roadside safety.

Personal finance

We’ll address everything from the logistics of old-school paper checks to using a banking app. And now that our kids have their own debit cards, they are ready to dive more deeply into budgeting, saving, investing, and donating. For all of those topics, we’ll be using Ron Lieber’s book The Opposite of Spoiled as our trusted guide.

City savvy

While it’s unlikely we’ll be able to go too far from home this summer, we are eager to equip our kids for future adventures. We’ll review how to get oriented (they’ll get a quick primer on how to figure out direction based on the sun — not just Google Maps), read a paper map, and navigate public transportation. Each child will research and plan a day of activities at places we’ve never been before, and we’ll look forward to putting the itineraries into action when it’s safe to do so.

Social skills

It will be a while before we’re freely socializing in person — and formalities such as handshakes might be a thing of the past — but we will still review basic manners and communication skills. Being a good friend and community member is something our family values deeply, and we want our kids to have a thorough understanding of privacy, etiquette, and kindness, whether they’re at a party (someday), walking in the neighborhood, or on a group chat. And because we want to go beyond just “being polite,” we will practice having difficult conversations, such as apologizing, offering condolences, and responding to an offensive joke.

Anti-racism

We understand that anti-racist education is not something that can be completed in a week — instead, it requires a lifetime of deep and uncomfortable work. We’ll spend some focused time building on ongoing conversations, leaning heavily on Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein’s Google doc of resources for white families. Topics that we’ll continue to discuss include microaggressions, Juneteenth, lesser known events from Black history, and practical steps for becoming better allies and activists. Everyone in the family will present a social justice action plan.

I want my kids to learn specific life skills, yes, but more than that, my hope is that Common Sense Camp will help them develop compassion, can-do attitudes, and a desire to make the world a better place. [Blows the whistle] Let camp begin!

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