Evolving Opinions and Mixed Feelings about the Boy Scouts

When my son turned 8, I wasn’t excited about him doing Cub Scouts. I didn’t like the amount of money and man/woman power the church put towards the organization, when it didn’t seem to me that girls the same age got nearly as much. I didn’t like the paramilitary undertones of the organization. (I’ll never forget the chili dinner Boy Scout fundraiser at the church that featured soldiers with rifles in our cultural hall.) I didn’t like all the bureaucracy. I didn’t like the awards portions of pack meetings, where sisters clapped and cheered for their achieving and recognized brothers.  I didn’t like that girls couldn’t participate in the pinewood derby in a meaningful sense. I didn’t like the organization’s history of homophobia. I had no intention of having my son get his Eagle Scout award. I just wasn’t interested in supporting this organization, which I considered problematic on many fronts.

However, my feelings began to change when my son got close to age 11. By that time he had discovered video games. He was obsessed and was asking to play them constantly. I was often yelling at him to get off the Xbox or Wii. He was and is a good kid – strong student, responsible, generally kind, etc. But the video games really bothered me. What a time suck. I wanted him to be looking at the world around him and doing good things in it, not staring at the screen in front of his face.

And that’s where the Eagle Scout award came in. When I found out that the church was leaving the Boy Scouts and that interested girls were being incorporated into the BSA organization, some of my issues with affiliating with the organization were resolved. Now that so many church resources would not be directed towards the organization and that there was a possibility of more equitable programming for girls and boys in the church, I felt better about the whole thing. And the organization did seem to be doing better with LGBT issues.  As I looked into what it took to get an Eagle, I realized that nearly everything the program encouraged boys to do – learn about the world and the environment, camp, cook, be a good participating member of the community and family – these were all good things. Sure, the bureaucracy of finding counselors is and was a nightmare, and the military-esque uniform still made me shudder, but the activities themselves were not bad at all. I’d far rather my kid spend time getting merit badges than try to play video games.

So now it’s my second summer of helping my almost 13-year-old work toward his Eagle.  We’re over halfway there—just a few more merit badges and the big project. On the whole, I’m glad we’re doing it. If my son had been passionate about sports or music or some other worthwhile extracurricular that engaged his attention, I probably would have passed on Boy Scouts. But in the absence of those other interests, Boy Scouts has been useful. It’s expanded his vision and gotten him to learn about new things. I was thrilled when I had him watch a high school debate as one of his requirements for the Communications badge and he later told me he wanted to join the speech club in high school. Victory! He found something worthwhile to be interested in! And it has nothing to do with video games!

However, one huge warning to all parents thinking of going down this road: getting these merit badges has taken serious effort on my part and my husband’s. Hours and hours of work on our parts has gone into teaching him how to cook, taking him various places, organizing 15-mile bike rides, cracking the whip over him to fill out various parts of the merit badge workbooks, etc., not to mention the hours it’s taken to even understand the requirements, which are confusing. Honestly, if I were a full-time wage-earner, I don’t see how we could have done this. This reality of the depth of commitment it takes from parents has made me wonder if getting an Eagle is ultimately a mark of privilege—the privilege of having parents or other caring adults around with enough disposable time, energy, and money to devote to all this. That realization of what this Eagle means—the privilege it connotes—gives me pause. I find myself even wondering if having the church involved in Boy Scouts actually helped, in some cases, to even out the access, monetary issues, and privilege that I now see are a part of getting this award. I wrestle continually with my mixed feelings towards this organization and hope we’ve made the right decision to move my son along this path.

I live with contradiction, dissonance, questions, and uncertainty as I spend large portions of my summer helping my kid get these merit badges. As is the case for so many Mormon feminists, I am no stranger to these feelings in my Mormon life. Somehow it seems appropriate that these questions of privilege, power, and access have followed me as I follow the Boy Scouts into its new phase apart from the institutional church.

What are your feelings about Boy Scouts? Has your son found it worthwhile to participate? What are your feelings on the church disaffiliating with BSA?


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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17 Responses

  1. EmilyB says:

    I am torn. BSA still segregates girls into girls-only dens in our non-Mormon pack (per BSA rules), but those girls LOVE it, though I wonder if it is because they are so happy to finally be able to join that they don’t realize they are still being segregated by gender?

    and when hit with a hefty child sex abuse lawsuit verdict this past year, the BSA simply filed for bankruptcy rather than pay the fine—I thought that was socially irresponsible/reprehensible of them because they and their insurers could more than afford to pay it.

    Mostly I think it very telling that Mormons stayed with the BSA even after they decided to admit gay leaders and gay boys, but announced they were going to sever their relationship right after BSA announced that girls could join.

    • Caroline says:

      EmilyB, I hadn’t realized that girls could only be in girl-only dens, I guess because our school Cub Scout pack has both girls and boys together in dens. I guess Boy Scouts separates the girls out. Sigh. At least these girl dens get access to Boy Scout lodges, sea bases, etc. now, if that’s what they want. Though personally I really like Girl Scouts and will keep my daughter there. I also hadn’t heard about BSA filing for bankruptcy. Yikes. That makes me wonder how much longer the organization can even survive. And yes, totally telling that the church pulled out when girls entered the organization. Double sigh.

  2. Bryant says:

    This is a thoughtful piece which I appreciate. As a 60+ man who has literally spent his life working with young men in scouting, I think that I understand your concerns and evolution of thought. I have most recently been the Cubmaster in our ward for many years.

    I have 3 daughters who were raised sans-scouting experience, however, one daughter worked at Tracy Wig-wam (a BSA Cub Scout camp in Millcreek canyon in the Salt Lake area), and another worked for a summer at East Fork of the Bear (a Boy Scout camp in the Uintah mountains on the border of Utah/Wyoming), living there all week and coming home on weekends.

    With all that being said, I feel that girls in the church have been short-changed, not so much simply because they weren’t allowed to be scouts, but that the activities that girls have been “allowed” to participate in are no where near the level of adventure, fun and learning that scouts get. The funding in wards is heavily skewed towards the boys and scouting. When I was young mens president, I tried to get our girls involved with some of our activities in the outdoors, as well as teaching them a little auto mechanic-ing and home repairs. I got some pretty good push-back, but of course it was the 80’s and 90’s. I for one would like to see a lot more flexibility with activities for young women.

    I do get your concerns about the psuedo-military aspect of scouting which dates back to the earlier days of the founders. Having never served in the military, I felt that I got a good dose, however, from my teenage scout-master who served in Korea who was all-in on having us disciplined and uniformed.

    I am a little surprised now that there hasn’t been a good preliminary roll-out of what the new program is going to look like next year when the church fully abandons scouting. I would think that with a program that is going to affect 100’s of thousands of youth and adult leaders that there would be some sort of roadmap/direction that says what is going to happen. I would hope that the programs for all youth are much more equal in learning and adventure. I am hoping for a program that keeps youth engaged, learning and serving others in a real way.

    As far as getting the Eagle Scout badge, I believe it to be a worthy goal, in spite of some of your mis-givings about things. I know that those who receive the Eagle come into the military a step higher (in pay) if they have their Eagle. I have also used the Eagle to help me decide on employees I might hire, even though I know that their parents (and particularly Mom) were the main drivers. The fact that he persevered and got through it does build character. So I would continue with your push forward on this.

    I am also a little depressed every time the bishop calls up a young woman to receive her medallion in sacrament meeting and awkwardly stumbles around trying to make it something, when in reality, there should be the equivalent of a court of honor night for her and her acheivements. There is a lot of effort to get that thing and should be recognized more that 15 seconds in sacrament meeting.

    • Caroline says:

      Bryant, thanks for your thoughtful comment. It sounds like you’ve had a lot of experience with Boy Scouts, most of it quite positive. I admire your attempts to get the girls involved in some activities and agree that it’s a shame girls couldn’t participate in more adventurous activities. I’m hoping that the new youth program will equalize those opportunities. As for recognition of girls, I agree that it’s a real problem. At this point I don’t intend for my daughter to get that medallion. I’m planning to point her toward the Gold Award from Girl Scouts, which is supposed to be equivalent to the Eagle. If my daughter is going to put that kind of effort into serving, learning, etc., then I want it to be something she can put on her resume when she applies for college.

    • Andrew R. says:

      ” I feel that girls in the church have been short-changed”

      I feel it is worth mentioning that it is only girls in the US that have been “short-changed”. In almost all of the rest of the world both boys and girls have been short-changed. Or, they have had the same as each other, but not what was to be had in the US. I have three nephews who have made Eagle scout. Their three UK cousins never even had the opportunity without joining British Scouts – which, along with Church commitments would have been virtually impossible, and a lot of Sundays.

  3. EK says:

    When I have complained about the imbalance in the past, I am frequently told “boys need this!” And actually, I agree, they do need something like this. My problem is simply that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Just because boys need something, doesn’t mean girls don’t ALSO need it. They do!

    I have been doing girl scouts with my daughter for the past year and have been so impressed with the quality and activities, it also helps that girl scouts is CHEAP compared to boy scouts so financially it was easier as a family to do on our own. I can’t picture fully paying for boy scouts without a budget adjustment in our home.

    • Caroline says:

      EK, I too am tired of arguments about males needing X, therefore they get X and females don’t, even though they need it too. It’s part of the general androcentricism of the church, which is pervasive. The bottom line is that our church is very male-focused, starting from age 8 and going forward. It makes me wonder how many young women our church will hemorrhage as they realize that the church is the source of the greatest gender inequity in their lives. Though with the removal of Boy Scouts, maybe the church will be able to keep things a bit more equitable until age 12, when of course the real differences set in.

      I too really like the Girl Scouts. I love it’s female empowerment focus.

  4. Anon says:

    I have a 12 year old boy in scouts. This is our second year in a non-LDS troop.
    I also had a chip on my shoulder about scouts until they let girls join. Our troop now combines activities with the girls troop. It is great. I love seeing the girls.
    Honestly, I am so disappointed in my ward right now. For the past two years, they have charterd a troop, but they have done absolutely nothing to support scouting – not even one activity. It is a troop on paper only – such a waist. That is why we had to go to a non-LDS troop. Our young men’s night is just a mix of random activities, but no scouting.
    As far as the church bleeding girls and women as members – I say, let it bleed. Let it bleed until someone at the top finally wakes up and changes the church to be more fair for girls and women.
    I am a net loss for the church because I resigned my membership. For me, it was too many years being bossed around by leaders, or being ignored completely because I cannot serve in a priesthood (male-only) calling, and just feeing totally worthless as a woman.

    • Caroline says:

      Anon, I’ve heard that non-LDS troops are often quite good. Those who are involved are involved because they really want to be there, and that can make a big difference. Cool that activities are combined with the girl troop. And sad that your ward’s troop is so defunct. Our ward’s troop is still going and in fact, it’s making a major push to get our 12 and 13 year olds close to being done with the Eagle. We’ll be going strong until Dec 31, it seems. And I know what you mean about letting the church bleed the girls. I sometimes think too that that’s what it’s going to take before we see serious changes.

  5. Ziff says:

    Great thoughts, Caroline. I agree with you that I appreciate most of the things that the merit badges push the boys to learn or do or experience, and it seems like such a great break from video games. I’ve found myself in the odd position of not having been a scouter myself (I didn’t like camping, didn’t like outdoor activities, didn’t like merit badges, and was too shy for the meetings) but now having both of my sons get their Eagle Scout. Of course, as you observed so well, this is almost entirely due to work by my wife to move them along, and we’ve been fortunate to have the time and resources for her to be able to do so.

    • Caroline says:

      That is an odd position, Ziff. But it sounds like Scouts has been good for your boys? you and they are glad they did it? I’m really hoping this will look good (at least a little bit) on college applications. Please let this award not connote white privilege conservatism!

  6. Emma says:

    I also have a like/dislike relationship with scouts/yw disparities. I don’t say love/hate, because I realize I have a lot of sway in the issue and just choose to opt out when it doesn’t meet our needs. I’m glad you can see some positives and that it is helping your son. Each kid is so individual. Our oldest son got his eagle on his 18th birthday–barely made the cutoff. It was torturous, but he wanted it. Our other son has most of the merit badges, but has no desire to get his eagle. We support that. He’s a great kid and would rather pursue basketball. Our youngest would rather do sports and totally despises scouts. His deacons leader pushes hard and thinks that’s the only way to salvation. Our son wouldn’t even even go if we paid him. We support them all based on their desire. Our daughter is an amazing young woman who loves camping and adventure and pushes it whenever she can. Sometimes it is frustrating, because many of her yw friends don’t like high adventure, and would rather talk and text and be on social media than go out and do something outside. But she doesn’t give up, and sometimes just chooses to hang out with the guys who want to do the fun stuff. The gender imbalance is real in the LDS church, but so, too, is it real in so many cultures, traditions, religions, careers and institutions. It is sad. But the LDS church does not have a corner on the market. Women in middle eastern cultures covered head to toe with only their eyes showing comes to mind. I do have hope because I am starting to see a shift. I recognize, however, that because there is a hyper focus on control and traditions of men within this church, that leadership will only go so far, and the shift seems to trend very slowly. The church cannot be everything to everyone, which it is unfortunate that we even think it should. In my opinion, we should be encouraging each other to find our own relationships with the Lord instead of thinking we have to rely on an intermediary. My husband and I choose to view ourselves as creators. We can’t rely on anyone else–especially the arm of flesh–to make or break our family and the balance that we are creating there. It’s a beautiful thing to be so empowered, and to have our children so empowered. To see a balance in God, male and female…that is another story. When you know who you truly are… Haha. Sorry…just realized I’m on a soap box. I’ll step down now.

    • Caroline says:

      Emma, I totally agree that getting this award depends on the individual kid. Luckily my kid is generally compliant about scouts and doesn’t have much else going on in terms of other activities, so it’s working out. I’m glad your daughter has found opportunities to do those outdoor adventure activities she was drawn toward. Amen about us finding our own relationships with the divine with no intermediary.

  7. marcella says:

    I served in scouting for many years (as an LDS woman ) as a primary leader, as troop committee chair – gasp, serving with men! 🙂 and at the stake level too. My continual gripe with scouting was that it was a mandatory activity. Not every boy is interested and not every family is interested and sometimes those are two different things which causes other issues. It’s also really hard when a leader is “called” and not interested in scouting which happens more often than not. Despite what leaders from SL have said at leadership meetings those men did not magically receive a testimony of scouting and become stellar leaders. The Church leadership added too many nonsensical rules – like the number of campouts an 11 year old boy could participate in – making things worse and harder to connect with the BSA leaders. I long wished that if we had scouting that leaders be allowed to volunteer, that parents who had sons who wanted to be scouts were required to be involved…you know, like “real” boy scouts. Since we couldn’t rise up to that, I’m glad it’s soon to be gone as the boys who want to really do scouting will be far better served in a regular pack/troop.

    And for a little history…back in the 1970’s my sister was allowed to participate in Explorer activities with the YM’s explorer troop including going on a number of backpacking trips. How things have changed!

    I worry that both YM and YW activities are going to be further diluted in the upcoming years. Our YW camp is so short and lacking in adventure now, that it’s really pathetic.

    • Caroline says:

      Marcella said: “I long wished that if we had scouting that leaders be allowed to volunteer, that parents who had sons who wanted to be scouts were required to be involved…you know, like “real” boy scouts.”

      Yes! This would have been the way to go. Calling people uninterested in scouting to scouts is not going to give the kids the best experience. Hopefully now, like you said, those who are interested will self-select in and everyone will have a better experience.

      Awesome that your sister did Explorer activities! Sigh. Why did that have to change.

  8. Emma says:

    The new youth program for 2020 will be unveiled the end of August. Our daughter was in a focus group of other youth this past spring to share her opinions of a portion of the program. She was paid for her time and participation, and she said it looked a lot like personal goal setting without the rewards and certificates. We shall soon see, at any rate.

    • Caroline says:

      I’m nervous and hopeful about the new program. I really hope it will be good. Cool that your daughter was involved in that focus group!

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