I wasn’t five minutes into my first visit with a new Troop I had been asked to cover as a Commissioner when Ed, their Scoutmaster, started bragging…
“Yep, Andy, this Troop’s advancement-focused. Why, we have merit badge classes right in our Troop meetings, and every time we go on a hike or campout, we tell the Scouts to bring their handbooks and get those requirements knocked off. We make sure we have at least a couple of Eagles every year. This stuff is real important to our boys, and us leaders make sure they don’t forget it! I conference with every Scout, regularly, and my ASMs make sure they keep delivering on those requirements!”
Fast-forward about six months…
“Gee, Andy, I’m at my wit’s end here. It’s like pulling teeth getting these boys to spend any time on service projects. If service hours aren’t needed for a rank advancement, they turn into ‘no-shows.’ And, heck, the ones that do show up, well they’re outa there on the stroke of the hour – They don’t give one minute of extra time, even if it’s to help another Scout with his own Eagle project. Talk about lousy ‘Scout Spirit!’ Now, when it comes time for their Scoutmaster’s Conference, I tell ‘em they’re not doing enough and they argue with me! They tell me they did the work, for the time, and so I hafta tell ‘em that they didn’t put their heart in it. Can you beat that!
“It gets worse, Andy… They don’t do any patrol cooking on our campouts anymore. They just open up some foil-packed junk they bought at some supermarket and stuff their faces. When I ask ‘em about it, they tell me they’ve done the cooking requirement already, so why bother. I’m tellin’ you, Andy, Scouting Spirit’s gone right down the ol’ porcelain fixture!”
Poor Ed. I guess he doesn’t even realize his Scouts are doing exactly what he taught them to do: Do nothing that isn’t a requirement. Ever.
Somewhere along the way, this sorry Troop forgot that our Scouting program has eight methods, and advancement’s just one of those eight. And it’s not even the first one! It’s actually pretty far down the list!
B-P put it this way: “Advancement’s like a good suntan… It’s something you get effortlessly while you’re having fun in the outdoors.” Boy, I wish I’d said that! What a powerful thought… Have fun in the outdoors and let your ranks be happy surprises at the end of the day!
Sure, advancement’s important. It builds self-esteem. Teaches new skills (ones that may even save a life some day). Provides accomplishable goals, and recognizes those who have achieved competency in various areas. But, gone haywire, like in Ed’s Troop, slavish pursuit of badges for their own sake teaches “good enough is good enough,” “don’t work too hard—you don’t have to,” “follow ‘the book’ and that’s all,” and other stuff that doesn’t seem exactly in line with what Scouting’s really all about.
Another Troop I know is almost the opposite, but just as sorry. In this Troop, they set a limit the number of merit badges a Scout can earn in summer camp: Two. That’s it. Want to do more? Tough. The Scoutmaster won’t give a Scout more than two “blue cards.” Why not? Here’s what they tell me…
“These camps are ‘merit badge mills’ – We don’t want our Scouts spending all their waking hours doing merit badges; we want them to have fun.”
Maybe these sad Scouters haven’t figured out that, at Boy Scout age, these young men are absolute sponges – they gobble up new learning like there’s no tomorrow! They can’t help it – it’s part of the maturation process they’re all going through. Heck, that’s exactly why there are merit badges in the first place—these 120 different subject-areas provide all sorts of experimentation so Scouts can find out what they’re interested in learning even more about and, just as important, what they aren’t! And, their merit badge counselors are often young men who just a few years before did the same as this current generation of campers are doing. Scouts teaching Scouts – It doesn’t get much better than that! To my way of thinking, there’s really no such thing as a “merit badge mill.” That’s simply what a camp that offers a wide variety of opportunities to learn new stuff is called by those who just don’t get it.
Do you“get it”? Do you encourage your Scouts to seek out and learn new stuff? Do you recognize the achievement by rewarding the learning? Do you consciously and consistently instill in your Scouts the concept of growth through learning and skill development? Do you guide hikes and campouts so that requirements are met “by accident,” in a manner of speaking? Do you insist that a camper earn at least two merit badges, as a way to get him out of his tent and into the world of Scouting and the out-of-doors?
If you do, you ‘get it,” and my hat’s off to you!
Manuel was a new Scout in my Troop. He and his family had just moved to town from Mexico, and he wanted to be a Boy Scout because (yes, he and his father said this) “That’s what American boys are—They’re Boy Scouts.” He came to summer camp with us, but when it came time for the routine Troop check-in and swim-check, Manuel hung back. I figured I knew why.
“Hey, Manuel, don’t feel like swimming today?” I asked quietly.
“I can’t swim…Nobody in my family can swim,” he sheepishly told me.
“Hmmmm… You know, Manuel, I’d much rather you tell me you haven’t learned how to swim yet, and not that you ‘can’t’ swim,” I said.
“OK, Andy,” he replied. “I haven’t learned how to swim, yet.”
“That’s OK, Manuel, you don’t have to go in the water today at all.”
A couple of days passed. Then, one morning while he and I were on our way down to the waterfront to check out some fishing poles, I asked him, “You know, Manuel, the other day you told me you hadn’t learned how to swim, yet. Today’s a fine day. Sunny and warm, and not much wind on the lake. In fact, it’s an almost perfect day. Do you think this might be a good day for swimming?”
Manuel gave me a grin. “Sure, Andy. Today’s a fine day for swimming!”
And so that’s what we did, he and I. With the waterfront staff’s permission, we went into the shallow end (I personally hate the expression, “Non-Swimmer’s area”) and within about 20 minutes, Manuel was swimming. Not Olympic free-style, mind you, but definitely swimming.
That night, at dinner in the mess hall, we went around the table and asked each Scout to tell a little about what he’s done that day—something we did every night at camp. Of course, Manuel’s story was about swimming, but it’s how he said it (and what he didn’t say) that gave me my “Scoutmaster’s paycheck” that night.
“I went swimming today,” Manuel announced. He didn’t say, “Andy taught me to swim.” He didn’t say, “I passed my Second Class swimming requirement.” He simply said, “I went swimming today.” That’s advancement.
Got a question? Send it to me atAskAndyBSA@yahoo.com-be sure to let me know your Scouting position, town, state, and council!
(Mid-June 2005 – Copyright © 2005 Andy McCommish)