By Chris Thurber
I keep wondering why I didn’t wear my helmet on that nearly fateful sled ride a few winters ago. The videos I’d taken of my sons the day before had been so funny that they insisted I take more the next day with my smartphone. And when my son Sava asked me to jump on the sled and shoot a point-of-view (POV) video, I behaved in a manner that was exquisitely non-smart.
Adults have more experience, more training, more formal education, and a greater ability to reason hypothetically than children. They should also have a heightened sense of safety and risk management. All of that makes it unconscionable and inexplicable that I failed to put on the helmet I had brought to the slopes that day.
Fail indeed. If you type “fail” into the YouTube search box, you’ll see millions of examples of adults behaving in idiotic ways. Most of the incidents look more painful than my sledding accident, but none hits home harder. As soon as my son said, “Tata, do a POV,” I sat down behind him, thinking to myself, It’s just one run. I don’t need my helmet, the helmet which I’d bought for just such an eventuality.
We lost control a quarter of the way down the slope and began sliding backwards. I tried in vain to slow us down by dragging my feet, but with one arm wrapped around my son (who was wearing his helmet, of course) and the other crazily attempting to shoot the video, my attempts to control our descent were futile. We narrowly missed the trunk of a towering white pine and slammed sideways into a chain link fence, narrowly missing one of the galvanized metal posts that held it in place. My bruised thigh could easily have been a severe concussion. Sava was shaken but unharmed.
What Was I Thinkimg?
In the years since that plunge in both topography and judgment, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about how a parent and camp professional with a Ph.D. in child psychology could have brought his helmet to the slopes with the intent of setting a good example for his children, but then lapsed. I’m intrigued by what I perceive to be a universally human vulnerability to do dumb stuff.
My keynotes on this topic have focused primarily on how recognizing this vulnerability engenders patience. As part of my presentation, I give audiences 60 seconds to come up with as many underlying causes for making a nearly lethal choice to leave my helmet at the top of the hill. Members have come up with dozens of responses, all of which fall into six categories. Together, these concepts form the acronym SHATIE. Consider the following as you reflect on a few of the dumb things you’ve done in your life.
- Social norms. Humans, like other animals, determine how to behave partly as a function of what their peers are doing. Fish school, geese flock, buffalos stampede. And I guess when dads look around and no other grown-ups are wearing helmets on the snow-covered 18th green, the one who brought the helmet is less inclined to put it on. Consciously or unconsciously, I may have behaved in accord with the other adults on the hill. I don’t remember thinking I don’t want to be the only one wearing a helmet. In fact, I’m usually proud to be one of the few adults wearing a life jacket in whatever boat I’m in. However, there’s no denying that social norms shape our behavior.
- History. I grew up sledding Calvin-and-Hobbes style with my neighbor Matthew Drivas and my brother Byron. We would trek into the woods behind my house, sans helmets, of course, and drag our three-man toboggan to the top of the highest hill we could find. Not only was the goal to go as fast as possible but we did rock-paper-scissors to determine who would win the front seat. And because none of us ever hurt ourselves, despite all of the close encounters with oak trees and granite boulders, I was lulled into complacency. In my personal history, people had not been injured sledding. Ergo, there was no reason to believe sledding with my boys on a golf course would be any different.
- Appearance. How we look matters. Aphorisms, such as Beauty is only skin deep, may be true, but we still care. Witness the ski-boat drivers at your camp who protest donning a life jacket because of the funny tan lines and bulky look they create. Even today’s style of casually untucked shirt tails, knee-length shorts, worn jeans, and tousled hair are intentional fashion decisions, designed to create an attractive appearance. Perhaps my choice to leave my helmet on the ground had something to do with how I wanted to look, perhaps not. Either way, fashion decisions can undermine safe practices.
- Track record. More immediate than a history of behavior are the feelings of invincibility that come from the data directly in front of us. Both of my sons had sledded down the hill that day over and over without incident. So had dozens of other kids and their parents. Our immediate track record made helmets look superfluous. Most smokers will say they know someone who has been smoking his or her whole life and has not gotten cancer. Psychologists call this “the availability heuristic.” We are persuaded by the compelling examples in front of our noses and ignore aggregate data. Had I thought about it, I would have considered that head injuries are more common in participants in downhill sports than in spectators. And I might have put on my helmet.
- Impulsivity. When my son asked me to hop on the sled with him, I was taken by the spontaneity and novelty of the idea. As I noted above, I used the perilous adverb just, as in I’ll hop on the sled just this once. And so, with the predicted behavior at a minimum frequency, we predict the odds of something going wrong as acceptably low. My self-statement was in the same category as I’m just going to the corner store; I don’t need to put on my seatbelt or I’m just making this single chop with the power saw; I don’t need to put on safety glasses or I’m just going to be at the beach for a little while; I don’t need sunscreen. Using just is a dangerous roll of the dice.
- Excitement. Strong positive and negative emotions can impair judgment. Anatomically, the limbic system (inner brain structures, including the amygdala, basal ganglia, and hippocampus) literally takes the frontal lobes (the part of the brain right behind the forehead) offline by blocking the connecting neural pathways. Who cares? Well, we all should, especially when our safety is in question. Strong emotions—especially of the positive variety—are wonderful to experience. We must realize, however, that our hypothetical thinking is crippled in these moments. Whether we’re having an orgasm, a panic attack, or a temper tantrum, we’re not thinking clearly about how A could cause B or result in C and D. I was so excited to jump on the sled with Sava and crank out a fun selfie-video that I didn’t consider the potential risks.
The goal of exploring SHATIE practices is to learn from our mistakes. Only then can we skillfully nurture the development of wisdom in the young people we serve. I’m fond of using YouTube “fail” clips with camp staff to spark discussions about foolish behavior and the various techniques to teach campers prudence. Equipped with an understanding of our human vulnerability to do dumb stuff, we can operate our camps more safely.
Because our impact against the chain link fence was significant, the bruise on my leg lasted three weeks. The truly significant impact has been on my insight and judgment.
Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.