Rules and Damned Rules


Once upon a time, some officious official told Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell that an idea he’d suggested was against the rules. “Damn the rules!” B-P said. “Call it an experiment!”

I love that story, partly because it hints at B-P’s character but mostly because it illustrates a fundamental truth of Scouting. Even a century removed from its founding, Scouting is still a work in progress. What works for one troop in one community won’t work at all for another troop in another community–or even for the same troop in the same community after a little time has passed.

That’s why I always worry when officious volunteers talk about “the rules.” Now, I’m not talking about the policies found in the Guide to Safe Scouting or the Guide to Advancement; those we must and should follow. I’m talking about the rules Scouters make up along the way, Like saying a Scout must serve as patrol leader before running for senior patrol leader. Or requiring that a Scout must show up in full uniform, complete with dress shoes, for a board of review. Those might be good guidelines, but they shouldn’t be codified as rules.

Part of the challenge is making it clear when you’re quoting a rule and when you’re offering a suggestion. In The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, for example, I talk about the “Rule of Thirds,” which says a Scout should earn a third of his way to camp through fundraising, a third of his way through spending his own money, and a third of his way through cash infusions from the Bank of Mom and Dad. A similar rule related to advancement says a Scout should earn a third of his merit badges at summer camp or advancement events, a third from counselors within the troop, and a third from counselors outside the troop. I like both those guidelines and think most Scouts would benefit from following them. However, I would never seek to enforce them like I would enforce Youth Protection rules. They’re really rules of thumb, not rules of law.

What kinds of rules does your troop have? Do people get rules and rules of thumb confused? Do they prevent you from viewing Scouting as the experiment it continues to be? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Need more great troop program ideas? Check out the new edition of The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is now available in both print and e-book formats at

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