Your unit’s complaint form

Regardless of how hard you try, you just can’t please everyone. The sentiment goes all the way back to the Greek slave Aesop, whose fable about the miller, his son and their donkey concluded with “he who tries to please everybody pleases nobody.”

I enjoy reading each issue of the Scouting advice blog Ask Andy as soon as it comes out, much the same way that I put other reading material aside to read through Scouting magazine when it arrives in the mail. Andy deals with a variety of thorny issues, many of which involve parents complaining about the way things are done in their pack or troop. (Andy does try hard to please everybody who writes in with questions, and while some may not like his advice, it always rings true.)

The latest Ask Andy addresses a question of whether a troop can require Scouts to attend a court of honor. (Apparently the troop’s court of honor isn’t compelling enough for the boys to attend voluntarily, and Andy’s advice involves ensuring that boys are advancing and are recognized at the court of honor.) His advice in extreme cases is usually to find another unit to join, but discussing the issue with the Scoutmaster or the troop committee is often advised first.

Certainly nobody likes to complain, and those of us who volunteer many more hours than the traditional one per week don’t like to receive complaints, yet for some who don’t understand and apply Scouting’s methods correctly, complaints sometimes arise from parents and youth who don’t feel they are getting what they expect to get out of our program. In all too many cases, the intuitions of these parents are right and the adult volunteers are wrong about something, and most often they are wrong about not listening to the right way to do things.

A fellow Scouter likes to say that her troop’s complaint form is the adult application. It’s very astute – if a parent is involved enough and interested enough to complain about the way the unit is running, these are the parents you want to get active within the volunteer structure of the unit. In the case of the parent asking about mandatory court of honor attendance, a solution might be to invite the parent to volunteer for the troop committee and work with advancement, or helping with court of honor planning.

Troops and packs which make up lots of rules and regulations to govern the way their Scouts and families behave or to establish procedures need to ask themselves if they are doing so to further the aims of Scouting, or to merely justify their existence as a committee. Most of the rules we need to follow are in the Scouting literature and in the oath and law itself. The misapplication of Scouting’s principles through rules that we devise are bound to be in conflict with the true nature of Scouting, and are certain to rankle some parents who have a good sense of what they expect for their sons.

Next time one of your parents has a complaint about some aspect of your unit’s operation, go back to the ideals of Scouting and consider whether you’ve inserted unintentional roadblocks along Scouting’s intended path. And, look for an opportunity to leverage that parent’s ideas and talents for the benefit of your pack or troop.


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3 Replies to “Your unit’s complaint form”

  1. I believe that this requires discernment. Many parents “intuitions” about Scouting are wrong. Particularly mommys. If the parents understand how Scouting works and they have a legitimate issue, then we should listen carefully.

    “Most of the rules we need to follow are in the Scouting literature and in the oath and law itself. The misapplication of Scouting’s principles through rules that we devise are bound to be in conflict with the true nature of Scouting, and are certain to rankle some parents who have a good sense of what they expect for their sons.” It tends to be the parents who don’t understand the “real” rules of Scouting that push to have all those extra rules and regulations in the first place.

    For instance, the attendance issue. It was a person that doesn’t understand Scouts and Scout Troops that initiated that kind of rule in the first place. They did not understand Scouting so they decided to “fix” things. Often, leveraging “that parent’s ideas”, will lead the unit in the wrong direction. We need to listen, explain, train, and occasionally just stand up and say no.

    Anyway, I’m a little bit confused. I see two types of “complaints”:
    1. Something is wrong in this unit (really!) and we’ve rooted it out and here it is.
    2. Something is wrong and we need to fix it so we are going to institute a bunch of rules to fix what Scouting didn’t provide for us in the first place.

    Basically you have units on two different trajectories. A unit is either advancing towards the “ideal unit” or it’s devolving into a “mess”.

    “go back to the ideals of Scouting and consider whether you’ve inserted unintentional roadblocks along Scouting’s intended path”. Now this is a really good idea. Go back to the source, as Andy does, chapter and verse, find out what the right way is. I think that I know who this post is pointed at, but we need to be careful that we’re not in the business of trying to make every parent happy. We’re in the business of Scouting.

    Let’s assume that I run a pharmacy. One of my best customers comes in and complains that I don’t sell camping equipment. He wants me to sell backpacks, camp stoves and tents!

    I tell him, no I’m not going to do that because that’s not what my store is all about. We sell medicine and some other, related products (related in my opinion).

    He continues on and insists. So I tell him to try BassPro or Cabelas.

    Eventually I drop the subject and just ignore him. There is no way to communicate.

    One of these subjects that continually pops up is the issue of using “scout accounts” for whatever the Scout wants. He can $10.00 for food for the next campout. He can get $2.00 for something down at the Scout Shop he wants. And so on. This is typically ridiculous, as it just wears out treasurers. Basically, almost no Scout rasises more than a week of summer camp. Fund raising used to be considered exclusively for summer camp. The Troop raised money to go to summer camp as a Troop. The accounting was split up amongst Scouts to encourage individual initiative.

    Eventually, the mere existence of “the Scout Account” leads many parents(!) to want all sorts of benefits during the year from that account. I’ve even heard parents gripe that they didn’t have enough to make that big summer camp payment but their son raised enough to cover it. So Troops make all sorts of rules and spend enormous amounts of meeting time deciding what an individual Scout can use “his scout account” money for. Those units often get a new treasurer every year. It gets ridiculous.

    I was Scoutmaster for while in a Troop with a Committee Chair and Treasurer that just ignored all parental griping, complaining and moaning about this subject. All funds raised, that did not go into the general Troop account, went to summer camp. The treasurer wrote three checks a year (an initial check, first payment and final payment to camp). The treasurer was there for eight years. If a Scout earned more money in “his Scout Account” than he needed for summer camp, it just rolled over to the next year. I had two Scouts earn more than a summer camp fee and each one did it just once.

  2. Larry,

    As always, great insights, especially on the two directions that a troop could be moving in.

    It does require balance and a thorough knowledge of Scouting’s aims and methods in order to be able to discern whether a complaint is valid or is a misunderstanding. True, many parents coming into Boy Scouts don’t understand their role vs the role of the boys, having been indoctrinated through five years of Cub Scouts. Parents who push hard for their own personal vision of Scouting sometimes subdue the committee or Scoutmaster and get their way, wrong as it may be.

    (Scouting, as we know, is totally different in its structure from nearly every other youth activity, which naturally leads to misunderstandings and misconceptions by parents as to how things should be done. I know this, because I was guilty of some of it at first myself.)

    As for Scout accounts, in our troop we allow boys to spend their fund balances on campouts, gear and annual registration in addition to summer camp, and we haven’t driven a treasurer insane yet. Our boys are pretty good at not nickel-and-diming the process. Every troop is different in this regard – and in an ideal troop, the Scribe would be doing the record keeping and the treasurer would basically be the cashier.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. And yes, I totally agree about the Scribe. We just don’t delegate to the Scouts enough sometimes. But of course you knew that 🙂

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