One night after a regular weekly meeting a single mother approached me. She said she depended heavily on male Scout leaders. They provided the father figure role models her son needed.
This conversation reinforced something I already knew: Scouting matters to a great many people. Never has this been more true than today when society is undergoing such rapid changes.
My maternal grandparents were born, raised and buried in the same small-town community. They knew, and were known to, just about everybody who lived in the area. In times of trouble they could count on these long-time friends for support. But society has changed.
As transportation became cheaper and people more mobile, the extended family gave way to the nuclear family. Several decades ago when I attended high achool, in my class of thirty-five kids, perhaps only one came from what was then called a "broken home". A few others came from families where both parents were forced to work. They had to make do without a mother at home. These children were objects of our pity. We spoke of them in whispers and made allowances if their behaviour was erratic or occasionally antisocial.
Today the nuclear family is crumbling. Only about 12% of families with children have the "traditional" pattern of one parent staying at home while the other earns a living outside the home. One third of Canadian marriages end in divorce, while more than 70% of pre-school children are cared for on a regular basis by someone other than their parents.
These changes have a profound affect on youth. Single parents especially depend on Scouting to provide some formative support of their children.
A Laval University study shows that after an 'average' Canadian divorce, 60% of mothers who win custody of their children end up living below the poverity level. Most often the reason involves a "deadbeat dad" not paying child support. His children too are caught in the trap. For some children, it's a trap that follows them all their life.
Poverty is not the only harmful effect of divorce. A Princeton University study show that children who grow up in single parent families caused by divorce are more likely to drop out of school, marry in their teens, have children out of wedlock and experience a marriage breakdown of their own.
Children from "broken homes" tend to blame themselves for their situation, even though they didn't create it. This too influences their lives in a negative way.
Naturally our Movement cannot cure all of society's ills, though it does perform occasional miracles. But we Scouters have no magic formula. Our group tries to build responsible, self-confident young people by starting at a basic orientation point: Care about your Scouting youth.
Here are some field-tested ideas and techniques to show you care. They've worked well in our Scout section.
A good leader is a good listener. Young people often don't know any adults who will listen and take them seriously. Whenever possible, give those kids who really need it time to talk and open up. Start each week fresh. Don't dwell on past problems and mistakes. Lead by example. Don't be a phoney; it will throw doubts on all your efforts.
If we talk about what these mean, then we are indirectly emplasizing the importance of people - including the Scout himself. In our troop, we usually focus on this when we invest a new Scout. We may also include the Law and the Promise in other activities, like an obstacle race or during an outdoor hike. We encourage discipline by occasionally pointing out behaviour that does not correspond with the oaths they've chosen to take.
We expect nothing from people who are worth nothing. If you set high standards and let your Scouts know that you expect them to excel, then you send a clear, direct message:
We accomplish this through activities and badge work, but in more subtle ways as well. We inspect uniforms and deduct patrol points for even minor lapses. Leaders always compliment the Scouts on new badges sewn on, and let them know that we're proud of what they've done.
While we don't expect a new badge every week, we keep prodding (supportively, without criticizing) so the Scouts work toward their set goals. The message is always: we expect a lot from you because we know you're capable of it.
Even though ours was one of the first troops in Toronto (celebrating our 75th anniversary this year) the minister who founded the group called us the 58th because he had served as chaplain for the 58th Canadian Regiment in World War I. May decades later, we still take our Scouts into the church where the 58th's regimental colours hang. It gives the youth a sense of history, stability and permanence - something children need especially in today's hurried world.
Your section might not be as fortunate as ours, but seek similar means to broaden youthful horizons. For example, leaders can explain to any Scouting group how they form part of one of the largest, most successful organizations in the world. Ask them: Did you know you would be welcomed in other Scouting groups in more than 150 countries? The organization to which they belong has a great history. Scouting youth have a right to feel real pride in this tradition. As one child proudly said after hearing the story of our Scouting group, "I guess this means we're somebody from somewhere, doesn't it?"
Kids want to provide input for their activities and programs. Not only is it flattering for them, but it helps them develop greater self-respect. Consult them often and discuss options. Leaders should be quick to admit mistakes and apologize when appropriate. Following this advice, our troop experience shows that youth will not only treat leaders with greater respect, but each other as well.
Whatever you do, care about your Scouting youth.
Our troop accomplishes this through weekly badge work. We help the kids plan their next goal and map out how they can move toward accomplishing it. Most badge work is completed in groups, but in some cases leaders will detail a senior Scout or a Venturer to help younger kids. This sends at least two messages:
Once a group of boys has started working on Personal Fitness Awards, the entire troop takes part in calisthenics at meetings. This is entirely voluntary, but no one has opted out. Their pride won't let them.
A running competition exists between our patrols. It begins with inspection, and extends to games, all activities, even fantasy role-playing contests at camps. Competing with their peers in a friendly way encourages youth on to even greater achievement levels. They look up to patrol leaders (or assistant patrol leaders) and seek to become one themselves.
Achievement is great, but have fun! Our troop meetings ring with a lot of laughter. It's easy to take ourselves too seriously, but if your gatherings aren't fun, how long will your troop last? Not long! Everyone, including leaders, should enjoy their Scouting experience.
Our leaders regularly talk to individual youth about what they've achieved so far, and what they need to work on to make themselves better Scouts.
We had one Scout who was tearing his way through challenge badges as he worked to earn a gold chain in his first year. There was only one problem: his clowning around was often disruptive to others. We explained to him that everything he had done so far involved individual achievement. That wouldn't win him the Chief Scout's Award or a position as patrol leader. We challenged him to work toward becoming a leader by watching others in his troop. "A good leader must sometimes be a good follower," we pointed out. After many months of concentrated, (though enjoyable) work, this Scout is close to earning his Chief Scout's Award, even though he's only in his second year.
We talk to individual parents when they come to pick up their boys. If that isn't possible we speak to them over the phone. Leaders discuss how the child is doing, what we expect of him, and ask the parent to help in specific ways. We also call on parents for specific needs such as driving kids to camp or organizing events. We don't wait for volunteers to step forward; we take the initiative. Even if parents don't want to help, they like to be asked. It makes them feel part of the team.
Like all troops, we lose kids to other activities. Sometimes they just don't find Scouting fun any more. When they leave we present them with a certificate recognizing their Scouting years. If they have a badge coming that we didn't have in stock before they left, we'll call their home and drop it off. Even months after their departure, when our Scouters see them in the community, we greet them by name, stop and chat.
We want them to understand that they're important - and not just while they wear the Scout uniform. It's also a reminder that all the good things they experienced in our troop are still waiting for them, if they decide to rejoin.
This approach to building up young people works wonders. It helps form them into responsible, caring citizens. We've noticed a real difference.
The Toronto 58th has 11 Scouts and five Venturers. One of our Venturers who has his Queen's Venturer's Award (as well as his Chief Scout's Award) is serving as an assistant Cub leader. Two other Venturers have their Chief Scout's Awards. As for our senior Scouts, four are close to earning their Chief Scout's Awards. One is already serving as an assistant Beaver leader. The younger troop members are eyeing the older Scouts' badges and chevrons hungrily, and working feverishly to catch up. They are a credit to the community and a fine example.
Does Scouting matter?
It sure does. Families depend on our programs to deliver more than just ninety minutes of fun activities. Our miracles may be small, but they affect the lives of young people in many ways for decades.
- Richard Worzel is an assistant Scouter with the 58th Toronto Group, ON. A professional futurist and speaker, he is the author of Facing the Future: The Seven Forces Revolutionizing Our Lives, which is dedicated to Lord Baden-Powell and the Scouting/Guiding Movements.
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