People Do Dumb Things - A Reflection on the 2019 Camp and Youth Workers Conference

Introduction

Six of our Diocesan Family attended the 19th Annual Youth and Camp Workers Conference at Antiochian Village in Bolivar, PA from Wednesday, 1/23 – Saturday, 1/26, 2019.  Instead of offering everything, including the schedule, the type of food, the activities, the different workshops, who spoke, etc., the article below is offered.  It reflects some of the thoughts of the Conference’s Keynote Speaker, Dr. Christopher Thurber.  Visit his website at drchristhurber.com to find out more about him and his work.  The Conference itself is put together each year by the Orthodox Youth Directors in North America and is then hosted by one of their number.  Last year our Diocese hosted it in Atlanta, GA, together with the Ukrainian Archdiocese.  This year the Antiochian Archdiocese hosted it.  As usual, it was a tremendous Conference filled with awesome speakers, small group discussions, great networking, and a whole lot of fun.  It was really and truly inspiring!  For anyone involved in Youth Ministry, whether you are a parent, a church school teacher, a priest, or a parish youth worker, the Conference has something to offer you.  Consider attending next year’s Conference, which is being hosted by the Serbian Diocese from 1/22 - 1/25/2020.  Go to orthodoxycc.org to look at the past Conferences and their content.  

Reflection For Youth Workers and Especially Parents

People do dumb stuff!  Even smart people do dumb stuff!  Take for example Ben Franklin, who was for any day and age a pretty smart guy.  Was flying a kite into a lightning storm smart?  No, not really, but if you read the story of his experiment (he wrote an article about it which you can find online) you’ll find that he did take precautions to protect himself.  His article came too late for a Russian scientist who tried the same experiment and died because he got electrocuted conducting it.  Another example of people, even smart people, doing dumb stuff (and not realizing it was dumb) is Marie Curie.  Ms. Curie did pioneering research on radioactivity.  She was the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the first and only woman so far to win it twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different sciences.  How did she die?  Unfortunately, she died of cancer because of all her work studying radioactivity.  She would carry radioactive material in test tubes in her lab coat pocket.  Turns out her daughter, who was her lab assistant, died of cancer as well.

Yes, even smart people do dumb stuff.  Might seem fine at the time, but in retrospect, and with some degree of hindsight, not so smart, not so fine.  But let’s remember this:  All behavior makes sense to the actor.  What does that mean?  A quick story to explain:   A kid who wants the cookie on top of the refrigerator and is willing to stack chair upon chair to get it believes that what they are doing makes sense.  They want the cookie.  They need to get up high to get it.  Chairs stacked on each other will get them high enough to reach the cookies.  Makes sense….to the child.  To mom and dad chairs stacked on each other is dangerous…and dumb.  To mom and dad it doesn’t make sense at all.  But to their son or daughter the Dr. Seuss-like structure of chair upon chair makes complete sense.  All behavior makes sense to the actor, to the one engaged in the behavior.

All of the above is how our time at the 2019 Youth and Camp Workers Conference began with the Keynote Speaker Dr. Christopher Thurber.  Dr. Thurber, who is a clinical child psychologist, college professor and very experienced Camp professional, told some funny and fascinating stories about people doing dumb stuff and made the point that to every “actor” (the person doing the stuff) their behavior makes sense.  And this led to one of his core messages talking to Youth Ministry workers (parents included):  Fight to understand, not to win.  Fight to understand your child, your camper, your Altar Server, your student.  When they exhibit behavior that you think is simply dumb, when they do even dangerous stuff, fight to understand why they did it.  Fight to help them understand WHY they did what they did.  Don’t fight to win an argument, to make your point, to get your way.  Why fight to understand and to help them understand?  Because as Dr. Thurber pointed out, people are more apt to make wiser choices when they realize what makes them make unwise choices. 

That’s difficult though for any parent, any youth worker, anyone working with or responsible for children and their formation, because fighting to understand requires a great deal of humility.  It’s a whole lot easier to tell a child what to do or not to do, or to yell at a child for doing something we KNOW is dumb (say it’s dangerous or perhaps obscene or hurtful to someone else) rather than trying to understand the WHY of what they did and then helping them understand how they were influenced, how their own thoughts influenced dumb, hurtful and/or even dangerous behavior.  Helping our children discover what causes them to make unwise choices helps them grow up making wiser choices.  Here we are talking mainly about teens and 20-somethings.  We are not talking about the 2 year old who puts the fork in the outlet.  With that we are simply capping the outlets and thanking God nothing but a black finger and straight hair happened.

What causes our kids (and us for that matter) to make poor decisions?  Lots of things really.  Wanting to impress friends, wanting to feel accepted, wanting to be the first to do something, wanting the rush of doing something dangerous or risky, wanting to try something different or new, pressure from peers (which can be simply overwhelming), seeing other people having “fun” doing it, being afraid of missing out on something, and the list can continue of reasons why our kids (and we too) do dumb stuff.

Before the adults reading this say that they don’t do anything dumb or dangerous let’s mention a few things that might “hit home”.  (And mind you, most of this article is just a re-working of things Dr. Thurber mentioned).  As an adult, have you ever not put on your seatbelt because where you are going is “just up the road”?  But at the same time we will ream out our child when we discover their seatbelt isn’t on.  As an adult, have you ever made a child put on a life jacket going on a boat ride, but you yourself didn’t or don’t because you feel you can swim just fine?  But you’ve forgotten that the life jacket is not just for those who can’t swim or just for a child, it’s also in case something happens and you get knocked unconscious and go overboard.  If you’re unconscious in the water, you’re going to drown for sure if you don’t have a life jacket on!!  Yet, the kids have to put on life jackets, but somehow the adults don’t because the life jacket might affect their tan lines.  As adults, how many times have we told our teens to drive safe and be careful on the road, and don’t text while they drive, but somehow we take chances when driving and text freely with one hand on the wheel?  And this list can continue as well.

What are some of the reasons why anyone makes poor decisions or choices?  Well, you might be in a hurry (say you want to get to the movies on time, but you left late, so you speed to get there – it’s a poor, potentially dangerous choice rooted in hurry), or you might want to save time (I’ll just do two things at once to save time and so you text while you drive – that’s a poor AND dangerous choice), or you might not want to disappoint someone (and so you “cave-in” when your son or daughter wants you to throw them into the pool from your shoulders while standing on the diving board even though you know it’s not really safe – that might be a poor choice which is the result of the pressure you feel internally not wanting to disappoint your son or daughter), and this list can continue too.  We only need to watch America’s Funniest Home Video or queue up videos online to see ourselves doing these types of things and a whole lot more stuff that is plain dumb.

We ALL do dumb stuff plain and simple, and so when our kids do dumb stuff that we simply don’t understand, we need to be humble, take a breath and realize we’re not exempt from making poor choices even as adults.  Being a bit humble and taking that breath will enable us to fight to understand WHY (not fight just to fight, not fight just to win, not fight just to say “I told you so”) so that we can help the kids we’re responsible for understand what went into their decision, and the next time make a smarter, wiser, and better choice.  If our son or daughter, our young parishioner or student, understands how hurry affects their decisions, how peer pressure influences them, how not wanting to disappoint their friends affects them, they’ll be better equipped to make the choices we know they should, but need to learn for themselves.  Giving them the tools to make those smart choices, understanding when they fail to do so, and helping them learn for the next time is our responsibility as parents, as priests, as church school teachers, as youth workers.  Again, everyone (kids and adults) make wiser choices when they understand the factors that influence them to make unwise choices.

Research teaches us that there are developmental issues related to poor decision making.  For example, research shows us the front part of our brain (which among other things is where we assess risk) isn’t fully developed until a few years into our 20’s.  So, the child, the adolescent, the teen does not have the ability to fully assess the risks or the dangers involved in any action or behavior.  We also know that statistics show more men and boys die from accidents than do women and girls.  Sorry guys there is something to that.  (Think of the macho guy performing on camera who is about to jump off the garage roof onto the trampoline in hopes of bouncing into the pool.  Come to think of it, you don’t see nearly as many videos of females doing stuff like that.)  We also know that when adults are with kids they will sometimes exhibit Behavior Regression – the camp counselor who acts just like their campers, the dad who decides to do exactly what his daughter is doing on her new snowboard, the uncle who tries to flip off the diving board just like he used to as a kid because his niece and nephew are doing it, etc.  All these things are part of who we are as human beings.  

(On a personal note, I’m pretty sure my father’s frontal lobe never fully developed and I’m pretty sure he had the worst case of Behavior Regression the world has ever seen.  That’s what led his friends to dub him “The Eternal Juvenile”.  Whatever he had, it got passed down genetically.)

Understanding these things, understanding what motivates us to make decisions, understanding what factors influence our decision-making, understanding these things helps us to make smarter choices, they help us to teach our children HOW to make smarter choices.  It is not enough to tell our children to make smart decisions, to be smart in any given situation, to NOT do dumb stuff.  Something else is required of us as parents and those involved in any kind of youth ministry.  We must help our children think critically about their own thinking.  Why do you think the way you do?  What is influencing you?  And are those influences leading you to make good decisions in what you say and do?  But again, that takes more patience on the adults part, it takes self-control, it takes humility, so that I’m not just after winning an argument with my teen, I’m not just seeking a sorry, I’m not interested at all in yelling or saying “How many times do I have to tell you…” or “What on earth were you thinking!!” without really being interested at all in what they were thinking but only wanting to interrogate.  I’m interested in UNDERSTANDING my teen and to understand I have to listen (a lot), ask them questions about how they feel, and help them understand what has influenced and is influencing them.

Helping our children to think about their own thinking, to evaluate the whys of their own decisions, is not enough for us as youth workers (parents, priests, teacher, etc.) though.  There are spiritual corollaries to all of this.  Helping children understand the passions and how they influence decision-making is an important part of their formation.  Helping our children to learn why it’s so difficult to “hold our tongue” at times is an important part of their formation which St. James talks about in his epistle.  Teaching our children about the influence of the Evil One in our lives and how he whispers to us and incites us is our responsibility as youth workers.  These are the spiritual counterparts and corollaries to the basic point – teaching our children to think about their own thinking. 

Well, there are other reasons why kids to dumb stuff, not just because they’re in a hurry, not just because they feel peer pressure, not just because they don’t want to miss out on something, not just because they want friends, not just because they want to show off.  There are other things operating on the child who wants to curse at someone.  There are other things operating on the football player who wants to hurt or damage the other team’s player so they can’t play again.  There are other things operating on kid who wants to hurt themselves, or the kid who wants to try drinking or marijuana, or the kid who feels the attraction of the opposite sex.  There are passions at play in every circumstance.  There are demons and the Evil One who influence thoughts.  There are fallen emotions and the desire to be selfish in the mix.  These are the spiritual influences ALWAYS “in the mix” for our children.  There are however other things that are SUPPOSED to be “in the mix”.

Calling on God for help, praying, bowing before God in the heart, asking for the help of one’s Guardian Angel, and long before any of that, early in the week receiving Communion, having a prayer life with your family…all these things are SUPPOSED to be a part of our children’s decision-making processes.  These too are meant to influence them and these are the things that are meant to GUIDE them.

As anyone engaged in Youth Ministry, anyone responsible for a child’s life especially those in their teens and 20’s (not to exclude other youth, but to emphasize the years when they’ve gained a great deal of independence and do have to make big decisions on their own), we are responsible to teach them about the things that influence their decision-making AND equip them with the tools which will help them not simply make good decisions, but make decisions rooted in Christ for their OWN salvation and the salvation of those around them.

Kids do dumb stuff!  Everyone does dumb stuff!  Fighting to understand our children’s decision-making; working to help them understand the influences on them, helping them learn to evaluate their own thinking, giving them the tools (prayer, humility, patience, discernment, etc.) to do all this – this is our responsibility as youth workers whether we are parents, teachers, priests or others involved in raising children.  It’s not just about our Faith, but it’s about our Faith too.  It’s not just about what job to take, but it’s about that too.  It’s not just about whether or not to cheat or steal or curse, but it’s about that too.  And it’s not just about them, it’s about their salvation AND ours too.  If God has brought a child into our life, then we automatically have responsibility.  Teaching them about making good, sound, wise and godly decisions is one of those responsibilities.  In order to do that we have a lot of work to do, but it’s good and blessed work, the work given us by our Lord to raise children in the fear of Him, who also have faith in Him and who also love Him.

- Very Rev. Fr. Stephen Loposky, Director, Camp Nazareth.


Logo