Just about every youth activity touts that it teaches “life skills.” Baseball teaches life skills. Karate teaches life skills. Dance teaches life skills. Church groups teach life skills.
And Scouting teaches life skills – but ours are different.
Most other activities teach the game or activity they play as their primary aim. Their main purpose is to give children the opportunity to play ball, to be a better dancer, to split boards in half. They say that they offer the ability to concentrate and improve, to develop and learn, to be on a team with others and be supportive, to overcome uncertainty and enjoy success. Some even go to the extreme of recognizing each and every participant with a trophy, whether they are good or not, whether they contribute or not, even whether they play every game or merely warm the bench, intending to boost self-esteem.
Much of the time, parents buy into these encouraging evaluations. “She’s a natural on the monkey bars” or “he’s a natural born ice skater” which sets up the hopes in both parents and children that they’ll be a guaranteed success in gymnastics or hockey. Usually it leads to the expenditure of large sums of money and spans of time in the hopes that these underlying “life skills” will get instilled along with the life skill of being able to accurately shoot a hockey puck.
But any life skills that are picked up through these activities are usually ancillary to the playing of the game itself. And it’s not equal opportunity, either: Coaches and trainers pick the ones that will do the most good for the team; the rest usually fill in the second and third strings. Now that’s a life lesson. Not all kids are star hitters or ace pitchers but they say “everyone can contribute” – most often, it’s moral support on the sidelines.
Now take a look at Scouting. Let’s start with the rank requirements. At age eleven, a boy is learning to cook, to get along with a tentmate, to find his way using a map, to interpret a weather forecast, to treat an injured person, to know about their government, to confidently talk to adults, to freely give of himself in service to others, to rescue someone in danger.
Keep going and he’ll have dozens of opportunities to learn about hundreds of different subjects of his own choosing – as many as he wants! – to lead and be responsible to others and for others, and to sell a detailed plan for community service to multiple authority figures, most of whom he doesn’t know.
How’s that for life skills?
Nervous on the pitcher’s mound facing the other team’s batter? No problem after you’ve walked a rope thirty feet off the ground in a COPE course at summer camp.
Worried you can’t get the ball in the net? A week at the archery or rifle range will improve your aim.
And the game is still there. Scouting has been a game ever since Baden-Powell codified Scouting for boys a century ago. Scouting’s difference is that life skills are the aim (citizenship, character, fitness) and the game helps teach them. The aim of most other activities is to learn to kick a soccer ball or perform with a dance troupe, and nebulous “life skills” are supposed to materialize.
Being part of a team is an important part of youth activities, but it’s the main thing in Boy Scouts. Everything happens in the patrol, and a boy learns to get along and support his patrol mates. Not only that, but the patrol is self-governing. They choose their own activities, decide what to eat, elect their own leadership, and everybody pitches in on their own terms.
Leadership? Sure, most other youth activities include some form of leadership, but in nearly all of them that leadership comes from and belongs to the adults – coaches, program directors, instructors. But in Scouting, leadership is of and by the youth! Adult “leaders” are mentors and facilitators who make it possible for the boys to lead themselves.
I’m not disputing that these other activities have value. Sure they do – what’s life without a little fun? Playing ball is fun. Gymnastics, dance or music – they’re fun too. They’re skills that can give enjoyment for years to come. They could even lead to a career, and in very rare cases, a scholarship.
So if it’s life skills you’re after, Scouting gives the biggest payback for time and money spent. Skills acquired are immediate and usable now, and will provide a solid foundation for the future.