Don’t Fence Your Scouts In


I recently spent a week serving as conference chair at the Philmont Training Center, which is the home of the BSA’s best training programs and best family vacations. (By the way, you can now enjoy the vacation part of PTC without the training part, thanks to the new Family Adventure Camp offering.)

When I was visiting one of the week’s conferences, I got to hear a presentation from a Philmont wildlife biologist about bears, mountain lions, and other animals that live at the ranch. One bit of trivia: pronghorns, the antelope-like mammals found all over Philmont, are very fast runners but very bad jumpers. Unlike the ranch’s mule deer, they can’t jump fences, so they either duck under a fence’s bottom strand of barbed wire or get stuck where they are. That’s why the U.S. Bureau of Land Management recommends putting the bottom row of wire 16 inches above the ground.

Later in the week, my wife and I drove through a couple of neighboring ranches and saw several small herds of pronghorns trying to get from one side of the road to another. Often, they would have to run half a mile along a fenceline to find a gap they could go through.

I think there’s an important lesson here for us Scout leaders. All too often, we erect fences between where our Scouts are and where they’re trying to get to. Maybe we don’t clearly communicate campout details and deadlines. Maybe we make them jump through hoops to schedule Scoutmaster conferences. Maybe we add requirements that aren’t BSA sanctioned (like full uniforms at boards of review). When we do that, they either run out of their way to find a path forward or they simply run in the other direction toward an activity they perceive is more welcoming.

What fences have you erected in your troop? How could you create more gates and less barricades.

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

Just an Organization?


In my volunteer life, I bounce back and forth between two worlds, Scouting and my church’s youth choir program, and I’m constantly amazed at the differences between the two. Scouting offers many things the church can’t match—an advancement program that gives Scouts a clear pathway, publications like Program Features for Troops and Crews that simplify planning, and the safety policies found in the Guide to Safe Scouting, which not only keep us all safe but save us the trouble of formulating our own rules through trial and error.

But in our strength there is weakness. In many corners of the program, Scouters seem more interested in the rules than the Scouts. We’ve all run into the uniform police, who are intent on pointing out every patch that’s sewn in the wrong spot. And then there are those advancement gurus who want to maintain the purity of the Eagle Scout badge by making the advancement process even harder than it already is.

This love of bureaucracy is something Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell himself encountered. He was quoted as saying, “First I had an idea. Then I saw an ideal. Now we have a movement, and if some of you don’t watch out we shall end up with just an organization.”

Does your troop look more like an organization than a movement? If so, I hope you’ll give some thought to something else B-P said: “Scouting is not a science to be solemnly studied, nor is it a collection of doctrines and texts. Nor again is it a military code for drilling discipline into boys and repressing their individuality and initiative. No – it is a jolly game in the out of doors, where boy-men and boys can go adventuring together as older and younger brother, picking up health and happiness, handicraft and helpfulness.”

Add girls, sisters, and “girl-women” to that quote, and it’s as true today as it was when B-P said it. Or at least it should be.

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

Within My Power


“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a boy.”

You’ve probably read some variation of those words before. But did you know they first appeared in Scouting magazine in 1950? They did, and they end a powerful essay by BSA administrator Forest E. Witcraft. Here it is in its entirety:

I am not a very important man, as importance is commonly rated. I do not have great wealth, control a big business, or occupy a position of great honor or authority.

Yet I may someday mold destiny. For it is within my power to become the most important man in the world in the life of a boy. And every boy is a potential atom bomb in human history.

A humble citizen like myself might have been the Scoutmaster of a troop in which an undersized unhappy Austrian lad by the name of Adolph might have found a joyous boyhood, full of the ideals of brotherhood, goodwill, and kindness. And the world would have been different.

A humble citizen like myself might have been the organizer of a Scout troop in which a Russian boy called Joe might have learned the lessons of democratic cooperation.

These men would never have known that they had averted world tragedy, yet actually they would have been among the most important men who ever lived.

All about me are boys. They are the makers of history, the builders of tomorrow. If I can have some part in guiding them up the trails of Scouting, on to the high road of noble character and constructive citizenship, I may prove to be the most important man in their lives, the most important man in my community.

A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a boy.

These days, of course, Scouting serves girls as well as boys. These days, of course, the world is threatened by people with different names than Hitler and Stalin. Nonetheless, the truth of Witcraft’s words remain.

I recently interviewed a leading university president who became an Eagle Scout in 1960. He told me he loved Scouting but struggled with swimming and lifesaving. Fortunately, his Scoutmaster wouldn’t let him give up. Instead, the man gave him unlimited access to his motel’s pool and, probably more importantly, the encouragement to persevere and overcome the challenge he faced. And the world is different because one man was important in the life of one boy.

Too often in Scouting, we focus on numbers, thinking we’re only successful if we have lots of kids in our troops or produce lots of Eagle Scouts. But the most important number is really one. If you change the life of just one Scout this week, this month, or this year, you will be a very important person indeed.

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

Solving the Puzzle of Youth Leadership


My toddler grandson loves working puzzles–not 500-piece jigsaw puzzles, of course, but the kind that have six or eight pieces that fit neatly into recesses in a wooden board. Many of these puzzles have an animal theme, but his favorite (shown here) features six colored shapes and three more complex pieces that together make of pictures of a couple of frogs with paintbrushes. (Because why not!)

If you study the picture closely, you’ll see that the colored shapes are same colors as the recesses they fit into, while the recesses the other pieces fit into show the exact same pictures as the pieces themselves. Simple, huh? Not really, if you’re a toddler, because a toddler doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination, analytical ability, or puzzle-solving experience of an adult. And so it takes a lot of trial and error and gentle guidance to get the puzzle completed.

It’s much the same with your youth leaders. Tasks that seem simple to you–planning a troop meeting, for example–are as difficult for them as that puzzle is for my grandson. It’s only when you can see the problem through their eyes that you can help them be successful.

Here are four tips that can help you help your youth leaders be successful:

  • Be patient. A good rule of thumb is to silently sing “Happy BIrthday to You” before you step into any non-emergency situation.
  • Ask questions that will help them find the answer. I like to say that the true mark of a great leader is a question mark.
  • Know when to offer help. Don’t let a youth leader cross the border from frustration and dysfunction. Instead, provide the guidance he or she needs to be successful.
  • Be okay with imperfection. Your youth leaders may never do a job as well as you would, but if they’ve learned something from the process and are ready to take on the next task, then they–and you–have been successful.

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

Better than Badges


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

Finding Hidden Pockets of Time for Scouting


The last time I stopped by the grocery store, a friend’s GIrl Scout troop was selling cookies out front. That wouldn’t be unusual except that it was the middle of a school day. The girls weren’t skipping school, however. Instead, our local schools were closed due to a teachers’ strike, and my friend was striking–pardon the pun–while the iron was hot. Or at least while her girls were available.

It’s no secret that kids are busier than they’ve been since child labor laws went into effect. These days it’s common for students to play multiple sports, play in the band, participate in drama club, take lots of Advanced Placement courses–AP Macroeconomics, anyone?–and still find time to maintain an active presence on social media. That makes it harder than ever to squeeze in Scouting activities, which is why smart leaders seize on opportunities like teachers’ strikes that close the schools.

Here are some other times you can potentially sneak in a little extra Scouting–like a day hike or a merit badge session:

  • Snow days when the roads are passable (often roads are clear by mid-morning)
  • Teacher in-service days
  • Three-day weekends like Presidents Day weekend
  • The day before Mothers Day–just don’t be at camp that Sunday!
  • Thanksgiving weekend
  • The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day

Have you found other hidden pockets of time on the calendar? I’d love to hear your stories.

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

Not Your Father’s Scouting Program


In the lead-up to the recent addition of girls to what is now Scouts BSA, I often wondered about what unexpected outcomes the change might bring. Among those I saw early on were a grassroots groundswell of volunteer interest in starting new units (for boys and girls alike), tons of positive media exposure, and (it appears) big improvements in uniforming options for females.

One outcome I didn’t necessarily expect was how readily male Scouts would welcome females into the program. For example, the official Scouting magazine blog recently highlighted a troop whose patrol leaders’ council voted to donate $1,000 to their linked troop for girls and described how the young men leading the Order of the Arrow’s Tamegonit Lodge worked hard to ensure that young women could join the OA the very same weekend they could join troops. (The young women in question were Venturers, which is how they qualified.)

That second story reminds me of an important truth we adult leaders often fail to grasp–perhaps especially if we’re decades removed from our time as Scouts. To paraphrase an old Oldsmobile slogan, this is not your father’s Scouting program. Scouting today is different in large and small ways from the program of past generations, and when we fail to recognize the differences we fail to serve current Scouts well.

A case in point that has nothing to do with girls: When I was Scoutmaster, I did everything I could to get my Scouts to sing like my troop mates and I used to do. They never bought in to my vision, and I wasted a lot of energy that could have been better used in other ways. (Ditto for getting them to wear neckerchiefs.)

Today’s Scouting program is not better or worse than the program I enjoyed; it’s just different. That’s why we adults in Scouts BSA troops need to get out of the driver’s seat and leave the driving to our youth leaders–even if they’d rather not drive an Oldsmobile.

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