How Scouting helps identity development

seven_arrows_200Last week I attended an orientation session at the university my son is attending in the fall. There were separate sessions for the new students and for the soon-to-be parents of a college kid. Besides the expected talks on dorm life, financial aid and how to pay the bill, several university staffers presented segments on various aspects of adjusting to college life.

One of the most interesting talks was on the topic of student well-being. Going beyond adjusting to a roommate and using the health center and recreation facilities, the speaker enlightened us on the steps of identity development that our students would most likely go through during their years in college. She brought up as a blueprint for this process researcher Arthur Chickering’s Theory of Identity Development, originally published in his work Education and Identity. His theory explores the seven steps that most students of higher education transition through on their journey through four years at college.

These seven steps, or vectors, are:

  • Developing Competence
  • Managing Emotions
  • Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence
  • Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships
  • Establishing Identity
  • Developing Purpose
  • Developing Integrity

Because I tend to look for a Scouting connection in such things, it occurred to me that these vectors are virtually a parallel to our advancement ladder in Boy Scouts. Consider:

  • New Scouts develop competence by mastering the Scout skills required of the early ranks, beginning from the get-go with the Tenderfoot skills. They learn and practice the skills they need to take care of themselves in the outdoors (and in a larger sense, life) and be helpful to others. Chickering tells us there are three kinds of competence: intellectual, physical and manual, and interpersonal. These skills get developed as the Scout becomes involved with his patrol.
  • They learn to manage emotions by being a member of a patrol and contributing to its success. In the more immediate and personal sense, learning to get along with a tentmate helps to crystallize how their emotions affect others (and is good practice for dorm life with a roommate). The fear and tension coexist with the wonder and awe that nearly every Scout experiences at one time or another.
  • Being an essential cog in a patrol helps to reinforce their need to be interdependent on their patrol mates and start to realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them. The Scouting experience also encourages greater reliance on peers and adult association and helps a boy learn to pursue goals and be less bound by what others think of him.
  • With experience and time in the troop, many will take on a role such as patrol leader or another position such as grubmaster that requires that they start experiencing interpersonal relationships. It’s difficult to do the grocery shopping for a patrol without having to relate with each and every other patrol member. Certainly, leadership positions are based in interpersonal relationships as well. And Scouts learn to be tolerant of others who are different from themselves. The uniform emphasizes that we are all Scouts despite our differences.
  • Through the trail to First Class and beyond, a Scout’s identity gets established. Other Scouts learn his personality, his tendency to be helpful, and his body of knowledge about practical outdoor skills. A Scout can become known as a good cook, an expert at lashings, or knowledgeable about hiking gear. Identity builds on all the preceding vectors as the boy becomes more comfortable with himself.
  • Finally, on the rise toward Eagle, a Scout develops a sense of purpose, that his knowledge and character can serve as a beacon for others to follow. He learns about his purpose among fellow Scouts and the community through service to others, culminating in the Eagle leadership service project. Many Scouts eventually realize that the purpose of Scouting itself is not to earn ranks and merit badges but to allow him to experience a variety of situations in which he can improve and strengthen himself. On the whole, his Scouting experience can go a long way toward developing integrity – the ability to internalize the values of others, the establishment of behavior consistent with his own values, and the ability to make decisions based on what’s best for the situation at hand.

It’s almost a shame that for most of our youth, this development process doesn’t start to take place until they are in college, which is what Chickering observed. One of the many benefits of Scouting that often goes unrealized until after it has happened is that we are developing young men of character and preparing them well in advance for their futures. It’s no wonder that so many high-achieving, successful college students learned these lessons early on as a Boy Scout.

Image courtesy of sheelamohan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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