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Issue 526 – April 11, 2017

Hi Andy,

There was, for years, a clear policy on alcohol: No alcohol when Scouts are present. It now seems to be gone; or else I just can’t find it.

I tried the Scouter Code of Conduct: “I will not possess, distribute, transport, consume, or use any of the following items prohibited by law or in violation of any Scouting rules, regulations and policies…Alcoholic beverages.” And I tried the GUIDE TO SAFE SCOUTING: “…Scouting activities are not a place to possess, distribute, transport, consume, or use any of the following items prohibited by law or in violation of any Scouting rules, regulations, and policies: alcoholic beverages or controlled substances, including marijuana.” And I even checked this out: “Model Good Behavior: If the adults in your household drink responsibly, you don’t need to go on the wagon to set a good example. In fact…kids need to see adults using alcohol responsibly. (They certainly see enough irresponsible drinking on television and in the movies.) It’s important that kids grow up in environments where it’s either not there at all or it’s there and used responsibly, says Foster…”

So should parents who imbibe wait to drink until the kids are in bed? “Foster” doesn’t think so; he says that “It’s better to have it out in the open and be able to talk about it than to sneak” (see:

What’s going on here? (Tom Linton)

The current (March 2017) GTSS, page 29, makes a more blanket statement, as you pointed out. So yes, you’re correct that the “old” and very simple language seems to have gone down the same path to oblivion as the “color order” for Scouting awards and recognitions, but this changes nothing: No alcohol is to be present at a Scouting event at which youth members are present. There’s a very simple solution for anyone who chooses to imbibe with Scouts around, claiming that “The BSA no longer says we can’t”: Take ’em out back and toss ’em in the river. Remember Rule No. 1: Stupid has no cure.
Dear Andy,

We’ve been having a spirited discussion in our troop about how Scouts fulfill merit badge requirements. Yes, we know that the fundamental answer is: exactly as they appear in the current merit badge booklet—no more; no less. But one question that came up was this: How does a Scout fulfill the intent of these action verbs: define, describe, discuss, explain, and tell? One side of the discussion—the troop’s long-time Scouters, including myself—holds that these verbs entail real-time communication with the counselor (e.g., in-person, orally) to assure that the Scout has learned the material well enough to express himself directly to the counselor and isn’t just reading from a “script” he’s prepared. Others—largely new parents whose sons have recently joined up—point out that these verbs can also include a Scout committing his thoughts to paper (e.g., a merit badge worksheet), digital, etc., and then, at some later time, presenting what he’s written to his counselor without any other interaction (e.g., postal or email) because one can “define,” “describe,” “discuss,” etc. on paper (or via computer screen) as well. The first side’s response to this is that “paper” or “computer screen” allows a Scout to copy from other sources without having to learn the material well enough to have it in his head and, consequently, doesn’t fulfill the learning intent of a requirement. Side 2 says “that’s just your opinion.”

The 2015 GUIDE TO ADVANCEMENT (Topic states: “In Boy Scouting, advancement requirements must be passed as written. If, for example, a requirement uses words like ‘show,’ ‘demonstrate,’ or ‘discuss,’ then that is what Scouts must do. Filling out a worksheet, for example, would not suffice.” This says to me that “discuss,” at least, means contact with the counselor in real time. Does the BSA Advancement Committee have a position on the other verbs, including define, describe, explain, or tell? Do these mean real-time contact with a counselor, or would filling out a worksheet ahead of time, for instance, be sufficient? I need a hard ruling on this one because otherwise “it’s just somebody’s opinion.” Thanks, Andy. (Name & Council Withheld)

Although the answer to this issue seems pretty obvious and straightforward to me, you’ve asked for a statement by the BSA National Advancement Team. So I’m writing to the Team on your behalf. Let’s see what the official word on this is….

Response from the BSA Advancement Team (complete, with no editing):

You’ve made great references to the Guide to Advancement. However, there is one more passage you should take note of. Section states, “In situations not specifically covered in this guide, advancement chairs, coordinators, or other administrators should make decisions based on the aims and mission of the Boy Scouts of America, as well as the Scout Oath and Scout Law, other applicable official and current BSA resources—and common sense”.

A merit badge counselor, when signing a blue card, is assuring that the learning experience and intent of the requirement has been met successfully by the Scout. The BSA entrusts each approved merit badge counselor to do this faithfully. It is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. As I’m sure you know, one of the methods of Scouting is adult association. Many Scouts learn to trust and respect adults through working with merit badge counselors. Most merit badge counselors are great role models. Scouts need to be treated fairly and with respect too. They know additional tasks when completing merit badge requirements is not permitted.

The only hard rule I can offer is what exists in the GTA, but by using the common sense approach most counselors can easily discover if the intent of a merit badge requirement has truly been met.

For the record, the BSA does not produce or provide merit badge worksheets. However, many Scouts find these tools (from third parties) very useful in organizing their thoughts. The worksheets are neither required or prohibited [sic].

It is ultimately up to each merit badge counselor (using their common sense) to determine if a Scout has successfully completed the intent of each requirement when they are asked to define, describe, explain, or tell. Reading from notes, does not necessarily prove learning has taken place. Referring to notes, to better organize your thoughts could be an acceptable tool. In the end, the counselor will be the one to determine if the Scout was successful in completing a requirement. (Scott Berger, Chair, BSA Merit Badge Maintenance Task Force)

I’m going to weigh in on this issue, but from a different direction…

Based on the original letter, I get the strong feeling that this really isn’t so much about “rules” as it’s about two different and opposing unit-based cultures running head-on into one another.

As you’ve described, there are two factions in this troop: For the sake of simplicity I’ll call them the “Old Guard” and the “Newbies.”

The Old Guard largely understands the fundamental twin purposes of Scouting’s merit badge program: Expanding one’s knowledge and skills in areas that may lead to a life-long career or avocation and interacting with adults a Scout likely doesn’t know particularly well, in a coach/mentor relationship. The “badge” itself, the Old Guard understands, isn’t the goal…it’s a symbol of a larger and broader set of goals.

The Newbies have likely seen their sons recently graduate from a Cub Scout pack (this is typically where some 80% of all new Boy Scouts come from). In many pack cultures—and this is unfortunate—the program is set up so that the Cubs “do something—get a badge.” The “something” is often fairly small, like shining one’s shoes or taking out a bag of trash; the “badge” might be a pin, a bead, a belt loop, or some other age-appropriate “trinket.” Couple these with the fact that the Cub Scout program is more based on “instant” recognition than Boy Scouting, where, for the latter, a week or sometimes longer might pass between completion of a rank or merit badge and actual receipt of the badge representing it.

So what this likely boils down to is…

Old Guard: Do the work = Expand your horizons (a badge is neither instant nor paramount)

Newbie: Do the work = Get a badge (the work is neither substantial nor lengthy)

When these two cultures meet, there’s gonna be a dust-up!

My suggestion is to resist the temptation to invoke “rules,” recognize what the true impasse is, and then work only toward the goal within the troop, which is to get everyone rowing in sync and in the same direction.

(Don’t worry about or try to “fix” what others, at merit badge fairs, summer camps, etc. are doing. Fix your own controversy first, and—after that—understand that the only way you’re going to “fix” a merit badge fair is to get directly involved, become the head of the group, and change it top-down [understand: nothing can get fixed from either the “inside” nor the “outside”—it has to be fixed from the top-down].)

Okay, so what’s the solution? I think both sides of this dilemma need to gather, face-to-face, with someone outside the troop who’s both neutral and knowledgeable. This may be your District Advancement Chair or someone else who carries a bit of “knowledge-weight” and has some well-honed mediating skills. Then, recognize that the problem really isn’t “outside” the troop; it’s a meeting of two cultures within the troop. Talk it through till everyone’s understanding what the merit badge program—and the entire Boy Scout advancement program for that matter—is all about, and how it’s different from what folks may have experienced as Cub Scout parents. This is also a good time for folks to refresh themselves on the fundamental of Scouting we know as “fun with a purpose.”

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. 526 – 4/11/2017 – Copyright © Andy McCommish 2017]


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.

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