I have been thinking lately about my fear of awkward moments. I am not talking about those unfortunate moments when I trip on the floor mat at the entrance of H-E-B. No, I am talking about those short, awkward moments in between active conversations or activities when I know I should be saying or doing something but fail to do so. You know what I’m talking about? One minute you’re having a great group conversation or activity and the next you can hear a pin drop and people start looking at their watch or the host with that “what’s next?” look in their eye….awkward.
My mother had an almost unnatural fear of those awkward moments. When she found herself in the middle of one, she would typically do one of two things; jumping jacks or recite her secret 7 layer dip recipe. While watching a 70-year-old woman in a floor length skirt do jumping jacks can be somewhat entertaining, listening to the order of ingredients involved in the making of a 7 layer dip is not.
As a result, our family developed preventative measures to minimize the opportunity for an awkward moment to happen. The introduction of the “dinner time activity” proved to be quite successful. The “dinner time activity” infused a game, trivia questions, memorization puzzles or the occasional charade in between the meatloaf or Banquet chicken (this choice was dependent on the cook’s preference or the lack of available frozen pizza.) Incidentally, as a sanitary measure, Uncle Frank was banned from the “dinner time activity” due to his inability to participate with his mouth full. The “drive time activity” was also added to the daily agenda. The goal of the drive time activity was to eliminate any chance of an awkward moment while traveling. Typical activities included the traditional license plate game, road sign alphabet, and finding which passengers’ head would fit in the glove box.
As you can tell, I am a strong proponent of the “alternate activity.” It is my position that this type of spontaneous distraction – if implemented timely and correctly – can potentially erase the awkward moment regardless of the crowd, setting or context of the gathering. As such, I have attempted over the years to implement the use of “alternate activities” in our YMCA Youth Programming Sessions. My original goal (which still remains today) is to have a team of well-trained, well-equipped YMCA staff who recognize the onset of an awkward moment, are prepared, and immediately respond to it with an “alternate activity.”
Our pioneer efforts to implement alternate activities into YMCA programing were less than successful. To be truthful, in those early years, we focused our attention solely on the identification of the tell-tale signs associated with the onset of awkward moments. During this period, YMCA workers became extremely adept at predicting when kids were getting bored with an activity but were woefully unprepared to administer the actual “alternative activity.” As a result, a great number of mud pies were made, dandelion stem lengths were being compared, and the awkward moments were not significantly reduced.
With time, our strategy improved and evolved to include the distribution of a copious amount of snacks to fill the void during the awkward moments. Our research now shows that providing Fruit Roll-Ups to children (especially the blue raspberry type) actually increases the number of awkward moments. While we have no definitive proof, a couple of our research analysts believe that the children eating the snacks may have “figured it out.” I do not prescribe to their assumption but acknowledge that their opinion exists…I like Fruit Roll-Ups.
Skeptics may argue that the need for alternative activities is “bunk.” They may lean on the memory of their own individual “Glory Days” when they played hours of uninterrupted kick the can, red rover or freeze tag, never once experiencing the need for an alternative activity until the street lights came on and mom called them in for dinner. This may be true; however, I believe times have changed.
Today’s childcare worker needs to be diligent and ready to save a lackluster game of Duck, Duck Goose with a preplanned alternative that is kept in the bag “just in case.” The energy, excitement, and spontaneity of a fully engaged youth counselor, camp director or coach, is the “secret sauce” that helps build memories which can last a lifetime.
It seems like we live in a time when kids’ attention spans are calibrated by the expectation that “fun” and “entertainment” can be turned on and off by an adult leader like a spigot. Our YMCA has a magical way of finding, mentoring and inspiring our youth workers who know how to turn on the fun spigot, reach into their bag of tricks and provide an alternate activity at a moment’s notice. I love to watch a day camp counselor “catch the scent” when an activity is about to run out of steam. Their chin lifts, their hand reaches instinctively for the Bingo game or Connect Four and they kick into overdrive…this skill is a gift that can be shared over and over again.
We owe it to our kids, they expect it from us, and it’s what we do….what’s the alternative? Hearing about 7 layer dip?