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Issue 365 – September 28, 2013

Dear Andy,

In a recent column you said there’s no place for merit badges in the troop meeting program or on campouts. I thought there was a portion of troop meetings for skills instruction. In our troop, we have the Scouts arrange to do merit badges, and we set aside the skills instruction time during the meeting to do this. Is this wrong? You also stated that we shouldn’t work on merit badges during campouts. I might be wrong, but many of the merit badges call for requirements to be met during campouts. Camping merit badge is a great example. Here’s another: Our troop is working on Orienteering merit badge right now and the Scouts have to participate in three orienteering courses. Also, Cooking merit badge requires the Scouts to cook meals and prepare a duty roster. Can you please clarify what you mean when you say that troops shouldn’t work on merit badges? (Mark Kociemba, SM, Northern Star Council, MN)

Two of the most important elements of Scouting are for youth to gain self-confidence through the acquisition of skills and knowledge THE SCOUTING WAY, and never to merely “earn a badge.”

So first do a websearch for “troop meeting plan.” There, you’ll find seven parts. Indeed, one of them—the third—is titled “Skills Instruction.” This is intended to be mainly Scout-to-Scout (although instructors with special expertise might be called upon from time to time), and covers everything from the skills required by the three foundational ranks as well as special skills that might be needed for a particular upcoming patrol or troop activity.

Here are some examples of what’s included in the “Skills Instruction” part of troop meetings, straight from the SCOUTMASTER HANDBOOK:
– Announce the date, time, and place of for the upcoming troop hike; discuss and display the proper clothing and footgear to wear on the hike.
– Explain the job of the Senior Patrol Leader… Take a vote for the next six to twelve months.
– For a hike, have a run-down on last minute details… (and) invite the troop’s Youth Protection Chair show the video, “A Time to Tell.”
– Older Scouts work on a Venture patrol activity of study a topo map for the hike destination to lay out an orienteering map.
– Experienced Scouts plan a simple community Good Turn project.

And here are some more, also for the “Skills Instruction” part of the troop meeting, from the BSA’s excellent book series, TROOP PROGRAM FEATURES:
– Review “Leave No Trace” principles; discuss ways they apply to the troop’s next outdoor activity.
– Practice how to pack and portage a canoe.
– Review U.S. Flag courtesies and protocols.
– Invite a local elected official and learn what he or she does for the community’s citizens.
– Plan a conservation project with the aid of an invited state or federal conservation expert.
– Develop a program for a campfire at the next troop camp-out.
– Review (or learn) what to do if lost (on a hike or camp-out).

Notice that not one of these has anything to do with “group instruction for merit badge requirements.” This is absolutely not by accident. Nor is it intended to be shoved aside at whim because “somebody invented something better.”

As for Scouts who have individually or with a Scout buddy met with a Merit Badge Counselor to earn a particular merit badge, they would certainly take the initiative to volunteer to be the patrol cook for a selected number of meals, or offer to lay out an orienteering course for all of the patrols to participate in, or review how a troop mobilization plan will work and when it will be put through a dry run. In other words, completing merit badge requirements within the context of troop activities is up to the individual initiative of the Scout himself. He’s never, ever “spoon-fed” this stuff and the troop as a whole is never, ever “marched in lock-step” through any merit badge requirements. Ever.

Now this doesn’t mean that a troop can never use this segment to, say, visit a firehouse and learn its operations. But it does mean that the stated goal is to learn about local firefighting; never to “complete a requirement.”

Thanks, Andy. I think we’re on the same page now, as far as troop meetings and activities are concerned. But I wonder how summer camps fit in to this concept. Most summer camps offer a wide variety of merit badges, so how are these summer camps different from our troop meetings or troop and patrol campouts? (Mark Kociemba)

The summer camp situation is entirely different from troop and patrol “environments.” At camp, Scouts take the initiative to enroll in merit badge sessions and then work with a counseling team in the same way that they’d work with a MBC back home. This is still Scout initiative-based.

In a troop meeting setting, there’s just no room whatsoever for “merit badge classes.” However, if a small group of Scouts wants to work on the same merit badge together, and they can convince a MBC to work with them in sessions prior to the troop meeting (such as gathering 30 to 45 minutes in advance of the meeting’s start-time) this is fine. But, as you saw from the two BSA documents, “Skills Instruction” (the third part of the Troop Meeting Plan) has an entirely different purpose and it’s not appropriate to make an arbitrary decision to “re-purpose” that part.
Dear Andy,

It seems to me that a national problem in the BSA is Scouters who stay too long. Many of the Scoutmasters I’ve seen are in their retirement years; they’ve been in Scouting for 60, 70 years or more, and that’s more than half the BSA’s total existence. This sets up three problems. First, it leads to statements like “We’ve always done it that way.” Second, what happens to the troop when the old salt dies on the trail? Third, it makes recruiting new (younger) leadership difficult.

After a decade or two of running a troop, force of habit kicks in. No one remembers anymore when the Scoutmaster had a son in the troop. Other volunteers are afraid to make changes because “we’ve always done it this way, so don’t upset the apple cart—the Scoutmaster likes it this way, and we can’t afford to lose him!” Or, “there are several families that’ll leave if he leaves, and our troop is too small right now, so don’t make waves!” So, for the previous decade or two, although there were probably several chances to change leadership, the “old guy” is still going strong…until the day he’s not, and then nobody else has ever been trained to take over. In this way, the hardship on a troop comes from not changing up the volunteers, and you eventually lose the energy that comes with fresh faces.

So where do we go from there? I’d appreciate learning what your thoughts are on this national problem. I’m asking you to blog about it, if you’re willing. (Neal Cleary)

I don’t write “blogs.” I’m going to make an exception and give you my personal take on your particular perspective here. The following thoughts are in no particular order…

The British Scout Association (the “other” BSA) has a longstanding policy that, at age 60, a Scouter is no longer eligible to hold a position that has direct contact with youth. Scoutmasters, Den Leaders, Beaver Leaders, and any other “direct contact” volunteer must, on his or her 60th birthday, join what’s called “Scout Fellowship”–an important part of British Scouting. (Group and unit committee members, district and council volunteers, and Commissioners may retain their positions past their 60th birthday because these don’t have direct youth contact.) The reason for this is a simple one of age gap: A 60+ year old and an 8 to 18 year old are separated by at least one intermediary generation–they’re two generations apart! This makes their life experiences, challenges while growing up, and even the world in which they grew up too disparate to have much in common (i.e., they’re too far apart to be able to much relate to one another any longer).

This isn’t, as I see it, an inherently “bad” way to go, but it’s hardly “perfect.”

The British culture, we need to acknowledge, is quite different for that of America. Where, in America, there’s much more of an open, positive, “can-do” approach to life in general, in Great Britain the culture is much more laced with cynicism and understatement (e.g., when an American Scout becomes First Class, his Scoutmaster’s more likely to say “Good job! Keep going!” whereas his British counterpart might say, “Not half-bad. I suppose you might want to do more?”). Couple this with comments like “Well, in my day…” compared to “When I was your age…” and the generation gap begins to expand rather than shrink.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can have youth-contact adult volunteers who are simply too young (i.e., too inexperienced in working with boys and young men, because they’re themselves barely beyond that age group themselves) to have the wisdom it takes to “lead boys from behind, with a feather instead of a Louisville Slugger.” In “our” BSA, when the original (i.e., green uniform) Explorer program was around, one requirement for Crew Advisor was to have had (or be currently engaged in) a parenting experience, the thinking being that one has to have walked in the shoes of a parent in order to be an effective guide to youth.

This wasn’t a “bad” rule either, although it was—again—hardly perfect.

In some scouting units, just as in many councils, there an “unwritten rule” of “three years and out,” so that the volunteer position one holds doesn’t become one of “tenure for life” or a “reign.”

Not bad, but not perfect, either.

Are “grandparent-Scoutmasters” the problem? Not necessarily, and certainly not inherently. I’ve known one Scoutmaster who held that position for nearly 30 years and got every year wrong because, effectively, he had had one year of experience repeated 29 more times. I knew another of similar tenure who “got it”—he got what Scouting’s really all about; he had a truly model troop, with all of the right trimmings, and kept guiding the troop’s youth leaders correctly for his entire tenure.

Is it really all about troop size? It’s been said that a “large” troop (four full patrols, minimum) will function “better” than a small troop (one or two patrols, or none at all, so that the Scoutmaster is actually functioning as “The World’s Oldest Senior Patrol Leader—or in some cases “The World’s Oldest Patrol Leader”), but if the Scoutmaster of the large troop had a “World’s Oldest SPL/PL” himself, care to guess how he’s going to manage his large troop?

Is the problem one of training? Sometimes it is. If a Scoutmaster, Cubmaster, etc. takes his training and rejects it because “that’s not how we ran my troop/pack when I was a Cub/Boy Scout” he and his unit are doomed to repeat a corrupted model. If he doesn’t take his training, but was in a truly model unit as a boy, guess what: He’s likely going to fare just fine! The third scenario with regard to training–and I’ve seen this happen far, far too often–is when the trainers themselves either (a) get all wishy-washy on the fundamentals (e.g., “Well, so long as you wear Scout shirts, that’ll be OK…”) or resort to the “Well, in MY troop, every Scout with a position badge on his left sleeve was a member of the PLC” malarkey, as if a troop can do whatever it likes because “This BSA stuff is just guidelines…”

I personally think the bottom line is this: CRs, CCs, and even parents don’t take the time to find out (or be sure that) the candidate for Den Leader, Cubmaster, or Scoutmaster is “Boy-Minded.” Or, when they’re visiting a unit for the first time, they’re not thinking in terms of “I want my son to have a Boy-Minded” adult as his guide and role model. The general approach is too often one of “a successful pulse-check and you’ve got the job!”

Leaders of youth who want to keep their jobs “forever: typically have two fundamental emotional problems (or, sometimes, they’re actual strategies): The refuse to delegate (guarantees no one else will want to do all that they’re doing–but shouldn’t) and/or they’re fundamentally dictators (they make certain everyone believes “the committee reports to the Scoutmaster”). These problems are augmented by parents who walk small around these kinds of people, afraid to speak up and say “this is just wrong” for fear that the guy’ll walk away (when that would actually be the best solution).

So, is there a “perfect solution”? Probably not, but here’s an approach that can work pretty well (it’s the same one I’ve used in business for decades): Hire for attitude first; skills can always be trained. Look for the “Boy-Minded Adult”—”The Boy-Man,” as B-P put it—and you’ll be pretty close to right almost every time. ________________________________________
Dear Andy,

Does a local council have the authority to impose sanctions on a troop? I’ll admit it—Our troop has been pushing the line a bit at Camporees and at summer camp. Can a council “un-invite” a troop to summer camp, and exclude them from participating in council or district events? (Name & Council Withheld)

Can you give me a heads-up on what “pushed the line” and “a bit” actually mean? No, I don’t need a “master’s thesis,” but it would help to know what’s actually going on here.

Well, Andy, our troop as a long history (20-30 years) of being district “top dogs.” We consistently win the Klondike Derby—this year we had patrols take First Place in all three divisions. As an apparent result of this, the Klondike committee decided not to award trophies (as they’ve always done in the past), but instead hand out patches for First, Second, and Third Place. OK, we can live with patches instead of trophies. But then the committee decided that, instead of announcing the winning patrols at the Derby itself, in front of all participants, they’d make the announcement at a Roundtable two weeks afterward, and give the patches to the Scoutmasters (not the Scouts themselves), who would then re-present them back in their home troops. When the Scouts of our troop heard about this, they (and me, their Scoutmaster) decided that these Scouts would go to the Roundtable themselves, for their recognitions. Well, the committee was furious, and sharply reprimanded us all.

But then, at the Spring Camporee this year, we had a four Scouts leave the Camporee grounds and, among other things, start a small fire in a nearby sand pit. They were caught and brought into headquarters, where the folks in charge told them that, if they chose to, these Scouts could be reported to the police for trespassing. (After scaring them a bit, the guys in charge let the Scouts go back to their troop site.)

I guess the final straw was at summer camp this year, when one of our Scouts moved a camp soccer goal and street hockey net from the sports field to our troop site, where the camp staff would be sure to see it when they did their daily troop site inspection. A couple of our Scouts also “smuggled in” a couple maritime air horns, which they blew at 5:30 every morning for the first three days, while the rest of the troop marched through camp, singing.

Yup, I’m the Scoutmaster. I’m proud of our troop’s accomplishments, but not so proud of this mischievous behavior. Our troop regularly produces anywhere from three to five Eagle Scouts every year, and we have a bunch of Scouts working toward Palms. We camp every month. We have Scouts from age 11 right up to 18, and all of them show up for meetings and activities. I’m getting some pressure from our district folks, but I’d hate to have to step down as a way to resolve the issues, but I will if this would assure that our Scouts wouldn’t be prohibited from participating in council and district events. Can you give me any suggestions here? (Name & Council Withheld)

Sounds like you’ve got a pretty high-spirited bunch of Scouts! Congratulations! I’d take this any day, over a dreary, sodden-spirited bunch! I do think, however, that their energy needs to be aimed a bit better, and they need to get a bit smarter.

OK, you’ve described three separate incidents, the only common denominator being they’re all Scouts from the same troop. I’m going to give you my take on all three of these, but in a different order from yours…

Let’s start with the Camporee and the Scouts who left the area and started a fire. They get sent home on the spot. Instead of this nonsense about “trespassing,” how about this: It’s arson. That’s right, and there’s zero tolerance for this. Home they go, and the way to have handled it is that each Scout calls his parents, tells them he needs to be picked up immediately, and tells them why. Then, at the next troop meeting, they’re told to arrive early (set three different times), with their parents, for individual conferences with you and Committee Chair. Here’s where they get to—n t “fess up,” since we already know what happened and by whom—describe what they believe should happen to them next. (But keep in mind that there’s no “punishment” because that’s not what we do in Scouting. Instead, maybe they become responsible for teaching and making sure every Scout in the troop earns his Firem’n Chit.)

Next scenario, the Klondike Derby. When Scouts succeed, the Scouts who succeeded are rewarded or recognized; not their adult leaders. The Scouts should, unquestionably, have been acknowledged as the winners of the Klondike—Heck, they won, didn’t they? Had other Scouts won, would this same nonsense about “we’ll do this at a Roundtable with the adults and not the Scouts” have happened? Of course not! And, until some other patrol of Scouts, in some other troop in the district, finally says to themselves, “Hey, it’s time for somebody else to win, and it’s gonna be us!” your Scouts deserve to keep on winning! As for the curmudgeonly behavior of the folks in charge, shame on them for not recognizing the winners, in public, right then and there!

Finally, pranks in camp. The Scouts’ only problem with their little escapades is that they hadn’t figured out how to pull them off so nobody could figure how who the “masterminds” were. Heck, they didn’t “harm” anyone, and frankly, this sort of stuff has been going on is Scout camps since as long as there have been Scout camps! I sure wouldn’t tell them this, but had they put that goal and net on, say, the waterfront dock, or in the middle of the dining hall, everyone would get the laugh and the “culprits” could only have been suspected. And any Camp Director worth his salt would have scratched his head, chuckled to himself, and acted out a semi-comical hissy fit for his audience, after which you and your Senior Patrol Leader would have gone to him, fessed up for your Scouts, and asked for a special camp service project your troop could carry out in its remaining time at camp.

Supposedly, we “teach” Scouts to have spirit and show initiative. The Klondike and summer camp incidents certainly fit that. Unless, of course, we want to have a bunch of proles and trolls. But your job’s to be the eyes and ears of what’s sensible and essentially harmless, so you’ve got your work cut out for you, and you continue to work through your Senior Patrol Leader. ________________________________________
Dear Andy,

I was a Scout in my troop and now that I’ve aged out I’m an Assistant Scoutmaster. My concern is that the troop is being run incorrectly. Can you help me with three questions? Here they are… Is the scoutmaster supposed to sit on the troop committee? Does a Scoutmaster have a troop committee vote? Is a Scoutmaster supposed to attend a committee meeting the full time? I’d always thought that the Scoutmaster is to come in to a committee meeting, convey his concerns and such, and then leave and allow the committee to make decisions. Any advice here would be very helpful. (Curtis McQuerrey)

A Scoutmaster isn’t a member of a troop’s committee; he’s registered as a Scoutmaster (Code: SM), not as Code CC or MC. He is not an “ad hoc” member of the committee, either. The Scoutmaster, in fact, reports to the troop’s Committee Chair and committee-at-large. The Troop Organization Chart in the SCOUTMASTER HANDBOOK makes all of this crystal clear.

The Scoutmaster’s role, with regard to the committee, is to take maybe 10 to 15 minutes, maximum, describing to the committee what the Patrol Leaders Council has planned for the coming month, and ask for any assistance (e.g., filling out and submitting a Tour Plan to the council service center, paying any needed event registration fees, reserving a campsite, contracting with a canoe rental company, assuring that all parental release and medical forms are complete and current, etc.). He can also take back to the PLC any suggestions the committee might have regarding what the PLC has planned (Special Note: Neither the committee nor the Scoutmaster has “veto power” over a PLC’s plans except in the areas of health and safety or BSA policies.)

As for “voting,” the troop committee isn’t a legislative body; all necessary policies regarding health and safety, advancement procedures, etc., have already been established by the BSA (and are to be followed). Therefore, the committee, in its function of supporting the troop program as decided on by the PLC, has quite literally nothing to vote on. The committee is expected by the BSA to operate collaboratively. This is not a “Robert’s Rules of Order” assemblage.

Thanks, Andy. I’ll bring these answers to our committee chair’s attention, so she can go about making things right. Meanwhile, I have one more question… When I was a Scout in this troop, was an Honor Patrol. Have you heard of this and, if so, are there requirements that need to be set for this, or is it a more troop-based recognition? (Curt)

You’ve got a good memory; it serves you well. Pick up a copy of the PATROL LEADER HANDBOOK (SKU #32502A), then turn to page 34. The National Honor Patrol Award is presented to patrols every three months (it’s a star “rocker” that circles the patrol medallion—worn by every patrol member!), when a patrol fulfills eight specific requirements.

The patrol is every Scout’s natural “home,” where he bonds with his fellow Scouts, goes on adventures with them as a team, and helps his fellow Scouts advance in rank and get the very most out of Boy Scouting. It’s a nuclear group and the foundation of all Boy Scouting. Yes, a Scout is registered in a troop, but he’s truly a member of…his patrol first and always.

Happy Scouting!


Have a question? Facing a dilemma? Wondering where to find a BSA policy or guideline? Write to Please include your name and council. (If you’d prefer to be anonymous, if published, let me know and that’s what we’ll do.)

[No. 365 – 9/28/2013 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2013]


About AskAndy

Andy is a Board Member of the U.S. Scouting Service Project, Inc.

Andy has just received notification by his council Scout Executive that he is to be recognized as a National Distinguished Eagle Scout. He is currently serving as a Unit Commissioner and his council's International Representative. He has previously served in a number of other Scouting roles including Assistant Council Commissioner, Cubmaster, Scoutmaster, Den Leader, and--as a Scout--Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. His awards include: Kashafa Iraqi Scouting Service Award, Distinguished Commissioner, Doctor of Commissioner Science, International Scouter Award, District Award of Merit (2), Scoutmaster Award of Merit, Scouter's Key (3), Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award, Cliff Dochterman Rotarian Scouter Award, James E. West Fellow (2), Wood Badge & Sea Badge, and Eagle Scout & Explorer Silver Award.

Read Andy's full biography

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