Better than Badges

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In the lead-up to welcoming girls into what is now Scouts BSA, one of the selling points was that girls would be able to work toward the Eagle Scout Award. The BSA even created a special one-time policy allowing older girls to apply for time extensions if they’re unable to complete all the requirements before their 18th birthdays. (The policy also applies to boys who join late this year.)

I’m excited about seeing girls become Eagle Scouts, and I’m fine with the temporary policy. However, it’s important to remember that advancement is not the purpose of Scouting. Too often, I’m afraid, we focus so much on the earning of badges that we forget about the learning that leads to them.

Years ago, I came across a quote in a Cub Scout handicrafts book that I love: “It isn’t what the boy does to the board that counts; it’s what the board does to the boy.” Similarly, it’s not the badge on a Scout’s chest that matters; it’s the heart that beats beneath that chest.

This focus on badges isn’t new. In Aids to Scoutmastership, Robert Baden-Powell wrote:

There is always the danger of badge-hunting supplanting badge-earning. Our aim is to make boys into smiling, sensible, self-effacing, hardworking citizens, instead of showy, self-indulgent boys. The Scoutmaster must be on the alert to check badge-hunting and to realise which is the badge-hunter and which is the keen and earnest worker.

Unfortunately, many Scout leaders have become badge-hunters on behalf of their Scouts, only planning activities that lead directly to advancement. In doing so, they risk robbing Scouts of experiences that really matter, even ones as simple as exploring the world around them.

When I interview prominent Eagle Scouts for Eagles’ Call magazine, I always ask them about their favorite Scouting memories. Recently, I interviewed a man who’s active in promoting conservation and biodiversity, and he described an unusual memory: One time his troop was camping in a farmer’s pasture, and he and a friend used a seine to see what was swimming in the water. They were amazed by the abundance of life they found in ordinary water. He told me he still thinks about that simple activity when he’s working in the field.

Wouldn’t it have been a shame if his Scoutmaster has told him and his friend to quit fooling around because it was time to work on a merit badge?


Need more great troop program ideas? Check out The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook, which is available in both print and e-book formats at https://www.eaglebook.com/products.htm#scoutmasters.

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3 thoughts on “Better than Badges

  1. Dave

    So what do you recommend that a Scoutmaster does to check badge-hunting? How do you impact this without being discouraging to the Scout. I know of several who in their first year are not yet 2nd class, but they’ve earned 10 or more MBs. Many are driven by their parents and quickly come to think it’s a race to gather a legnthy list of badges. This is in part a byproduct of seeing other Scouts who are working on earning all of the possible merit badges. This is seen by eager parents of young Scouts who then start looking for MB opportunities outside of working through the Troop and begin signing them up to attend weekend classes.

    • Good question–one I wish I had a good answer for! It’s tough when the parents are so achievement-driven, but that seems to be the nature of our society.

      I think part of it is controlling what we can control, such as not taking shortcuts on in-troop advancement. (If the requirement says the Scout must camp in a tent he has pitched, don’t say, “Well, it’s okay that we’re actually sleeping in a cabin this weekend.”) We also need to be polite but firm when Scouts ask, “Will we get a badge for this? (like when they’re doing a service project). Another idea is to report merit badge counseling concerns, as described in the Guide to Advancement: https://www.scouting.org/resources/guide-to-advancement/the-merit-badge-program/. If kids are going to classes where they see presentations rather than actually do the requirements, that should absolutely be reported. Finally, I think we have to keep telling stories like I did here about people who have benefited from Scouting in ways that go beyond badges.

      I hope these ideas help. I’d love to hear what you think.

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