For more than 30 years now, I’ve been hearing Scout leaders bemoan the loss of their high-school-aged Scouts. And more often than not, these leaders have blamed “the fumes”–perfume and gasoline–arguing that high-schoolers leave Scouting when they discover girls and cars. (Obviously, the first part of this equation has changed with the inclusion of girls in Scouts BSA.)
I always thought there was some truth to this argument, even though I knew Scouts also leave because of sports, academic pressures, part-time jobs, and other reasons. But lately I’ve decided that the “fumes” argument is not only incomplete but completely backward.
If Chap Clark is to be believed, our high-schoolers haven’t left us; we’ve left them. Or, to use Clark’s intentionally provocative term, we’ve abandoned them.
So who’s Chap Clark? He’s a pastor, youth-ministry expert, and author of Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, which came out in 2011. That book is based on both academic research and Clark’s own experience spending more than six months at a public high school in California, observing, interacting with, and (most importantly) listening to high-schoolers. (This project was akin to how embedded journalists report on the military.)
I think everyone who works with high-schoolers ought to read this book, but until you get the chance here are five key takeaways:
- High-schoolers are not plus-sized middle-schoolers. Since the 1990s, social scientists have almost universally agreed that adolescence now includes three distinct phases: early (roughly the middle-school years), middle (roughly the high-school years), and late (roughly the college and early-career years). When we infantilize teens, we not only insult them but also hinder their individuation, which Clark says is “the overwhelming motivational task of adolescence.” (I often say it’s far better to treat teens as the adults they’re becoming than the children they were.)
- High-schoolers crave adult attention. Hurt 2.0 quotes a student who says, “We spend no time with adults from junior high on–maybe fifteen minutes every other day is the best we ever get.” And don’t let teen callousness deceive you. Clark says, “They often act as if they believe that adults are unnecessary. Yet this is never the whole story, for at their core each one is crying out for an adult who cares.”
- Adult association is critical to teens’ development. As child-development expert David Elkind has argued, “Identify formation requires a kind of envelope of adult standards, values, and beliefs that the adolescent can confront and challenge in order to construct and test out her own standards, values, and beliefs.” (Sounds sort of like Scouting, doesn’t it?)
- Almost no one today is putting teens first. I find this passage troubling, but true: “Organizations, structures, and institutions that were originally concerned with children’s care, welfare, and development have become less interested in individual nurture and development and more interested in institutional perpetuation (or the competitive, even pathological, needs of the adults in charge).” (Think of overbearing sports parents who are reclaiming their lost youth through their kids, and you’ll see what Clark means.)
- The stakes are high. Near the end of Part 1, Clark quotes William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi, who wrote the following in Generation Alone: “No society that alienates its youth and sets them adrift can continue to exist, for it is already in a state of collapse.” I would say the same truth applies to youth-serving agencies.
Fortunately, there’s good news for us in Scouting. As I’m sure you know, adult association is one of the eight methods of the Scouts BSA program, although it doesn’t get the same emphasis as advancement, the patrol method, and all the rest. Moreover, well-designed troop programs offer plenty of opportunities for teens to develop mentoring relationships with adults that could mean the difference between triumph and tragedy.
To paraphrase Forest Witcraft, it is within your power to become the most important person in the world in the life of a Scout–and every Scout is a potential atom bomb in human history. How will you use your power?
NOW AVAILABLE: The fourth edition of The Eagle Court of Honor Book is now available from EagleBook.com and on Amazon! Updated to reflect the inclusion of girls in Scouts BSA, the book features gender-neutral ceremonies, a new Scouting segment called “Scouting for Girls,” and downloadable boys’ and girls’ versions of all ceremony materials. Print versions will be available soon from Amazon and ScoutStuff.org.