Crossing The Recreation Path On Reality TV

Whether we admit it or not, most of us have watched a reality-TV show.

A few years ago, I received a call from the producer of the FOX reality show, “Trading Spouses.” The premise of the show is to have the moms from two different families switch places. After sheepishly admitting I had never seen the show, I nonetheless agreed to turn in the paperwork.

Before we knew it, my husband Allan and I, along with our 15-year-old daughter Sondra, were in Los Angeles being “screened.” This meant three days of psychological testing (I guess we passed), drug testing, extensive background reviews and creativity testing in front of 15 producers.

Evidently they felt we were “reality-show-worthy” because soon I was flying cross-country to live with a family of complete strangers while that mom flew to live with Allan and Sondra. For the first two days, each mom lives the lifestyle of her new family. On the third day, each mom says, “Now, we’ll do things my way!” And, just to answer the number-one question I am asked … no! I did not sleep in the same room with the man of the house!

Spending the week with complete strangers who have a totally different lifestyle was an eye-opening experience. I learned several things that apply to the recreation field:

1. Not every family sees the importance of positive recreational activities.

My “new” family had three children who had never signed up for a parks and recreation program. The family didn’t attend free concerts, Halloween carnivals or even a street fair three blocks from their house. No one attended dance classes, Spring Break day camps or craft classes. In fact, the 8-year-old girl didn’t even have construction paper and markers for simple art projects. Basically, they spent all their time watching videos and TV.

When I brought out my arts-and-crafts projects, the dad cussed at me for the stupidity of my idea. I insisted we go on a family hike and again, the dad used obscenities to express his displeasure at having to take a walk. The kids were so out of shape that a consulting doctor for the show cancelled the hike halfway through. (This was a hike popular with mothers and preschoolers!)

Lesson learned:

There is a huge, untapped market of families who can benefit from recreation programs. These families don’t look at “Leisure Guides” or school fliers describing various programs. The challenge is to reach these families through untraditional avenues.

2. Sometimes you have to be direct.

As recreation professionals, we strive to be polite, tactful and, of course, politically correct. During my 25 years in the field, I’ve held my tongue as I watched parents put undue pressure on their kids at sporting events. I’ve kept quiet when parents berated children, saying, “Why can’t you get that bean bag in the box? You are so uncoordinated.”

After living with a dad on “Trading Spouses” who constantly belittled his children, I realized he needed to hear the truth. When I suggested he spend an hour doing something fun with his daughter, he said, “Why? I don’t like being with her. She talks too much and is hyperactive.” His daughter was seated next to him!

His son wanted to go to a natural history museum but again, the dad said (on camera), “Only sissies go to a museum. Want me to hold your hand like a little girl as we go to the museum?”

While it was outside my comfort zone, I did talk to the dad alone at dinner one night. Calmly, but also directly, I told him how damaging it was to constantly call his “tween” son “sissy,” “girly,” “goody goody” and some unprintable descriptions.

His actions and language were detrimental to his daughter’s self-confidence. When he repeatedly told her, “You are a lousy reader,” it was no wonder she didn’t like to read.

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