Ask most people what they know about Boy Scouting, and the most frequent responses you’ll get are either “Are they still around”? or they’ll cite the negative attention BSA has been getting lately about its policies and past practices.
Ask most Scouting families, and they’ll tell you that Scouting’s purpose is to go camping, for the boys to earn merit badges, and that most eventually become Eagle Scouts if they stick around long enough.
Boys will respond along a range of reactions, anywhere from “my mom makes me go” and “we wear dorky uniforms and sit around in meetings” to “it’s fun!” or “we go camping and have gone on some great adventures”.
Aims and methods, values, mission and vision are rarely mentioned, yet these are at the core of our movement. The boys are the participants and beneficiaries, but the program neatly disguises these elements in a wrapper of fun and adventure.
Parents and adult leaders, in an effort to provide a good experience for the boys, go through the motions of fulfilling requirements, holding meetings and going on campouts without understanding really why we do these things. To some, we are not much more than an outings club that, when left to the boys, runs anything but smoothly, and many feel the need to “fix” things by taking over so the activities are well-planned, efficient, and successful.
If you look at Boy Scouts from the perspective of the mission of Scouting and the aims and methods of Scouting, however, you’ll see that there’s much more than flags and games, tents and hikes, canoes and campfires. You have to look at Scouting from the inside out to see why we do what we do, and why we are supposed to do things the way we are trained to do them.
- Going camping allows boys to get up close and personal with nature and gain an appreciation for the world around us. But in a larger sense, we go camping because it builds leadership. The outdoors is not only the laboratory for learning about ecology and conservation but also for practicing leadership and teambuilding. Boys, camping on their own without adult intervention and direction, have to lead themselves cooperatively, surmount obstacles, figure out how to feed themselves, and work together toward completing tasks. This builds citizenship (working with others) and leadership (by learning how to serve as well as lead).
- Tying knots, learning first aid, cooking for themselves and family, figuring out how to use a map and compass – these are the basic skills needed in order to go camping. You have to be able to tie knots correctly in order to put up a tent, clothesline or bear bag so it will stay up or drag wood to your fire, find your way to the campsite and out and around, and be prepared in case someone gets hurt.
- The Tenderfoot requirements for feats of physical fitness introduce the boys to some of the activity they’ll encounter while camping. Many boys these days don’t get much physical activity, other than their thumbs and index fingers on phones or game controllers. It also helps them to realize that they can improve themselves in meaningful ways, starting with something they easily understand – chin-ups, sit-ups and running. Likewise, the five-mile hike. It’s not about the hike – it’s about planning, preparation, and working together to find your way.
- Troop meetings give the boys a place to learn and practice the skills they’ll need to go camping. They also give the youth leadership an opportunity to learn how to lead. Notice I said “learn how to lead” – just as we measure their improvement in physical feats after thirty days, so too we measure improvement over time in their ability to lead. When youth are truly leading, things will very likely look messy and disorganized to the orderly adult eye. If a patrol leader is a better leader after a six-month term than he was at the start, we have succeeded, regardless of how chaotic the troop meetings and campouts still are.
- Merit badges serve to help introduce boys to subject areas and fields of endeavour that they may not otherwise have a chance to experience, but the process helps to improve their communication, cognitive and interpersonal skills in making contact and working with adult merit badge counselors. It’s not supposed to be “Scout school” – they get six or seven hours of school a day already.
You can think of it as a doughnut. The sprinkles are the fun that the boys see. The icing is the outdoor program – camping, hiking, high adventure – and the preparation needed to get there. The cake is the methods, the handbooks and uniforms, the rank requirements, the rules of safe Scouting, safe swim, climb and trek. But the hole – the part that you can’t see – is the mission and values of Scouting that are at the core of our movement.
While Scout skills are an important part of the program, what ultimately matters when our Scouts become adults is not whether they can use a map and compass, but whether they can offer leadership to others in tough situations, and can live by a code that centers on honest, honorable, and ethical behavior.
From the very start of the Scouting movement, our founder, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, cautioned us to approach our work while “keeping the main aim in view.” The main aim of Scouting is embodied in the mission statement: to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes, using the Scout oath and law as guideposts. There’s no mention of camping as an aim, or calisthenics, or merit badges. Those are just the outer layer of Scouting. As you dig down inside, you get to the real reason we do this, and if you look at Scouting from the inside out, you’ll gain a clearer understanding of why.
- The Aims of Scouting – ScoutmasterCG.com
Image: Liz Aragon/Creative Commons 3.0