Tuesday Talkback: When youth leaders aren’t allowed to make decisions

Tuesday-TalkbackFather (or Mother) knows best?

Maybe, but that’s not how a Scout troop, Varsity team or Venturing crew is supposed to work.

Scouting is a youth-led, youth-run organization. Your responsibility as an adult leader is to train the young men and women, provide direction, coach and empower. Then you step aside.

That means you’re observing from the back of the room, not barking out orders from the front of it. Scouts and Venturers are free to make mistakes; that’s where real learning happens.

For today’s Tuesday Talkback, tell me this: Do youth leaders make the critical decisions in your unit? If so, how do you prevent adults from taking too big a role? How do you resist the urge to step in? If adults are the leaders in your unit, how can you change that?

Leave a comment below with your thoughts, and let’s have a discussion about the best way to handle this important issue. 

13 years ago…

Read what Scouting magazine readers said in response to a similar question in 2000.

Photo from Flickr: Some rights reserved by stepol

96 thoughts on “Tuesday Talkback: When youth leaders aren’t allowed to make decisions

  1. I have been a Scoutmaster now for 4 years, and I am a strong proponent of a Boy run Troop. Lately though I have been running into a new kind of problem with my SPL’s. Our troop has been blessed with a string of great SPL’s. They have all aged out and the Scouts who have come up behind them have gotten used to them doing all the work. Now they are in leadership positions and are basically just going through the motions without actually doing the follow up and work that is required to run the Troop. I am very concerned that now that we are into our 2nd SPL like this that the younger scouts will lose interest and start looking for something other than scouting to spend their time doing. I am thinking of getting the scouts into NYLT but in our council it is an expensive undertaking, the cost is similar to Summer camp costs. I am doing everything I can think of to motivate them but it’s very difficult at times.

    • There’s no rule that says they can’t go to another council’s NYLT if that is feasible. I know our NYLT is going to be <$20.

      • Our week-long NYLT is $250, and in other councils in Michigan it is $200. How does your council do it for less than $20? Which council are you in, JC Caron?

        • It’s definitely overpriced in most councils who use it as a profit center even though everyone working the training is a volunteer and usually pay for their handouts and stuff out of pocket.

    • NYLT is basically free labor for setting up our councils summer camps. Several SM’s have complained about the quality of the training.

      I have nothing to base a comparison too, so I have to take their word.

      • In my Council, the camp preparation is usually performed as a Lodge event. There are usually 2 NYLT sessions, 1 before and 1 after the summer camp season. Unfortunately, I personally cannot obligate the necessary time to NYLT &/or Woodbadge staffing, so I do not know the fine points of the NYLT course.

      • I thought that was what the OA Ordeal did? That seems to be the purpose of them in my current council and in my council as a youth.

    • This may sound a bit harsh but you really need to start with leadership traning for troops. The guidelines are easy to google and NYLT should be reserved for those scouts truly interested in future leadership roles.
      NYLT should be affordable and I agree that if they somehow manage to do it for $20, there are probly issues. Maybe it will be ok, but I. Doubt the quality. We are sending youth out of council because we do not have the trained youth to put on. Camperships get our cost down. Our cooks are no charge and much of the meals are donated through gifts in kind. It does still cost to provide adequate facilities.

      I strongly suggest NYLT, and your adults need Woodbadge. Mainly, make your expectations clear., and occasionally review them with your troops youth leadership.

  2. Unless you have a brand new Troop or are in the midst of a complete overhaul due to some kind of mass Scout exodus, why would you even consider the adults running the Troop? I have never understood Troops that attempt to micromanage their Scouts. That is antithetic to the very reason why you enter your son into Scouting. Scouts become self reliant by doing. Going somewhere else to have yet another adult tell them how to do things is NOT attractive. Do new Scouts need training? Sure, thats what old Scouts are there to do. Scoutmaster Conferences are where the effectiveness of those efforts are measured. Do I supervise my Scouts? Well, heck yes. We hold leadership development sessions, too. Theyre informal and open to all of them. I require my Scouts who wish to be SPL to attend NYLT. I have not yet had one tell me that he wanted to go, but couldn’t afford it. I admit that we are in an area where the economics work out well. My Scouts (and their parents) know that if it was a problem, they can come tell me and the Troop will find a way to get it done. I have been blessed with Scouts who want to have a good time and understand that competent leadership on their part is the MOST VITAL component of doing that. Because my Scouts do a good job of leading — setting camp, deciding program, running meetings — I dont need to be on them about those things.

    So, to those of you in the 2 situations which I descibed at first — I hear you now — What do I do? You start by taking your Scouts and teaching them basic campcraft. Each time you camp, you try to step back a little bit. Get your PLC to develop a list of tasks that have to be completed to set camp. Discuss with them how to improve their list. Point out the good things and praise them on them. Show them the hiccup points and how to eliminate them. When you go to Camporee or Webelos Woods or Summer or Winter Camp, talk to them about the Troops around you — which ones have things that they like and why? Things that they dislike and why? Who does some of the same things that you do and how does it look from the outside? Ask your PLC if they want to change things or try something different.

    I have been active with my sons’ Troop for 13 years now and been Scoutmaster for 8. Our Troop took top honors at Camporees and District event before I came and will after I’m gone. We were a Troop of about 60 just before I moved up with my oldest son and we shrunk to a tight group of 10 about 7 years ago. We garnered awards in both situations. It’s not my doing from the standpoint of managing it. All that my Assistant and I did was exactly what we did with our own sons. We expected that excellence and expected that our Scouts would be willing and able to provide it.

    Dont sell your youth so short. They will rise to exactly the level that you set for them.

    • I believe that, in general, adult run scout groups are symptomatic of over emphasizing the importance of a successful event or activity badge seeking. I often see adults stepping in, to the detriment of the youth, because they think they can do the event or activity better. They fail to realize that events and are not the focal point…the youth are. I also believe the message is conveyed to the boys that they are not as important as the event…also a very incorrect message to be sending.

    • Have you figured out the reason for the 87.5% decline in membership? The Troop my son is in has declined from 3 patrols to 2 patrols with about 15 active Scouts. If it continues in such a downward spiral, I am going to have to get the Committee involved to see if we can reverse the trend. I think I might know a couple of the reasons, but since I’ve only been there 6 months I am still considered an outsider.

      • On the subject of declining membership: I believe one of the Scoutmaster’s most important jobs is recruiting. I spend a lot of time working with Webelos and their leaders to make sure we get a good number of Troop visits every year. We have a fall campout which we invite Webelos to attend, and our District has a December event which we offer to host them to attend with us for a weekend of camping and Scout skills. All right in time for February crossovers.

        • Before I took over as SM of our Troop we had several bad recruiting years and the program had become a merit badge factory to the point that my then 11 year old son was working on merit badges before he was TF. The SM that took over before me got the program back on track but we were holding our own at best, he was SM for 2 years. I took over 4 years ago and my main job for the next 3 years was to recruit. I worked with cub packs and my charter org to pull in new Scouts. We had several good recruiting years and stabilized and grew the troop. Our last low recruiting year Scout will age out this school year. We had 2 years where we only got 2 younger brothers into the troop.

          I’m happy to say we’re now at 33 Scouts, up from low 20’s, and the unit is much more active. We picked up a Pack that needed a home and it is now growing nicely at our Charter Org and is feeding us 3 or 4 Scouts a year. Our Venture Crew is active with about 25 males and females. They took two Crews to Philmont and sent a number of youth and adults with the council contingent to the Jambo. Our Troop sent a full crew to Sea Base for a SCUBA live aboard this past summer.

          One of our challenges is we have one unit a mile away with ~120 Scouts and huge Pack. They’ll regularly bridge 25 Scouts a year from the Pack. I work to show prospective parents that bigger isn’t necessarily better. With 125 Scouts they are very limited where they can go as a Troop on outings. They never canoe and rarely backpack nor mountain bike or road ride. Their camping trips all tend to be “flop and drops” at Scout camps. We’ve had several Scouts start with them and transfer over to us when they see what we’re doing outings wise.

  3. I think it depends on the type of unit. For instance, in the regular boy scouts I’ve seen good leaders take charge and adults taking a mentoring role. I’ve also seen ones where you wonder what in the world are these boys thinking of. I guess that’s true also in venturing. My sons moved from regular boy scouts to Sea Scouts – and my ship is based on and train the scouts based on the foundation and meaning of what Admiral Powell wanted done. Our leaders in National haven’t got the foggiest clue as to the real purpose of Sea Scouts. I also teach in high schools and meet a lot of students who want what our ship does and realizes the importance of getting ahead. Both boys and girls who want a future in the Navy and want experience before they go in. The unfortunate part about this is the fact that they have little knowledge or even true knowledge of a life at sea. So it takes our adult leaders, who are military veterans, to teach them. My oldest son who went through JROTC is now our training officer and teaches them military protocol. Because we teach them this protocol we’ve been requested by at least 2 cities to provide color guard at major events. We’ve also been recently asked to set up a medical tent for a city’s 125th anniversary. Because of what we have taught them our ship is getting local recognition and local support from two local cities now. However, we do leave it to our boatswain to lead the ship – ideas for training, where to go for the training, fundraisers and recruitment. We work as a team and that’s what scouting is suppose to be- the elders passing down their knowledge to make better scouts and scouts taking the lead to get things done on a timely basis.

  4. Very timely and good topic. We just had a similar discussion going on in our troop.

    Google “Scoutmaster Whisper” and you will find a very good essay by Steve Roberts, (SM Troop 495) on his thoughts on the Scout run troop.

    If the adults are calling the shots you do NOT have a Scout troop, plain and simple. The scouts CAN do it and will surprise you if you let them. They will stumble, they will fall, they will fail…..THAT is where you come in, to help them get it right the next time, not to do it for them.

    The worst part of scouting sometimes are the adults who don’t “get it”.

  5. I believe that a scout troop/team/crew, should be ran by the boys. BUT they must sell their plan to the support members of the unit, the parents. Without the support of the parents they don’t go on campout weekends. That’s why a good Patrol Leaders Council with well trained leaders should have no problem with “THE SELL”. It shows that they planned out all the logistics. Also a good leader takes/shows how to do it to the up and coming leaders. It should never be a secret how to be a good leader. Yes, capitalize on all the youth training feasible. Some unit in our district, actually run their own YLT. They keep passing on the information.

  6. We have had similar problems with adults when we run our low COPE programs, the adults want to give advice to the scouts on how to solve a problem, The way we solve the problem is to take the adults aside and ask them to let the boys do it, if that does not work we give them a neckerchief to tie around their face below the nose to sort of act as a gag. They get it every time.

  7. Letting the Scouts run the troop is a basic tenet of Scouting; always has been. But you can’t just drop boys into a leadership role. Even if you have older Scouts who attend meetings and activities regularly, if they were trained by “dropping them in it,” they have little more clue than the young Scouts as to how to lead and proceed.
    Leaders MUST spend time GUIDING the PLC, in the PLC meetings as well as in the troop meetings and activities. They must review the agenda with the SPL/ASPL before the meetings start, and they can remind or suggest that something, but they should not have to stand up in front of the troop to say the SPL/ASPL forgot something (in any way). It’s OK for Scouts to try and fail and learn, but that has to be based on good training and guidance. Without those, the Scouts will try, fail, and bail because nothing good is happening. If the troop is disorganized and does not follow the meeting plans to a large degree, it’s likely the PLC is not getting the help they need from the leaders.

    • Mitch, our PLC is pretty much just the Scoutmaster and Scouts, every once in a while an ASM or other leader if we have a big activity or event coming up the scouts may need a hand with planning. Even at the PLC the Scouts run the show. At our regular meetings, no one interacts with Scouts but the SM or ASM, sometimes another leader if teaching something specific or the Advancement Coordinator, that’s it. It is the Scouts show, and we guide…whispering in ears often, but they do everything.

      I am curious, do you conduct Troop Leadership Training with your Scouts? Ours is pretty good, and we really go over leadership and all of the positions and follow the training program. This keeps you from “just dropping” Scouts into leadership roles. I highly recommend it.

      • Yes, PABill, we do conduct TLT, but in a fashion that does not necessarily give each new leader the specifics of his duties, let alone the day-to-day guidance I perceive they need. I understand what you’re saying; I just think there is a level of “hands-off” that exceeds the need of the Scouts.

  8. BSA needs to return to encouraging independent patrol overnights (without adults). The more parents know that the goal is to get boys functioning successfully on their own for 24+ hours straight, the more they will set goals for themselves in terms of stepping back.

    • While I doubt rather strongly that that’ll ever happen (due to all of the nasty little things that could happen that would end in lawsuits) I do agree that encouraging independent patrol funtions such as hikes, cookouts and even patrol meetings away and independent of troop meetings was a major factor in developing independence and leadership among the young scouts in our troop.
      Part of the problem stems from all of the youth protection we now have to follow. I’m not saying that Youtyh Protection is unnecessary or at fault! It’s how it is interpreted by adults, especially considering this entire “we must protect our precious children from any possible harm” society we now seem to have! Independent patrol meetings or hikes were a given when I was going through scouting in the early 70’s but we also rode our bikes to school, were told to “be home by dinner” and generally were pretty much unsupervised. Nowadays, schools are clogged each morning and afternoon by parents bringing their children to school. Very few bikes are in evidence. If a child leaves the house, we want to know where they are going, how long they will be gone and if any change in schedule, that they call us from their cell phone! Call it peace of mind in a fear crazed world but we as a society are giving up the very notion of independent action and are drilling it into ourselves bit by bit. Is it any wonder that we tend to want to try and “guide” our precious children since we “obviously” know better and can “protect” them from themselves?
      I would like to see patrols doing things independently of the troop. Otherwise, what you have is a seating arrangement with a flag at troop meetings.
      I really do believe it’s as simple as that! We have become so ingrained with the “nanny state” mentality that we don’t even recognize when we do it to our own children! That’s the real tragedy, what once was done as a natural couse of events now has to be taught, re-taught, and sometimes it still isn’t enough!

    • As a Patrol Leader in the late ’50s, we took several day hikes without adult involvement (streetcar to edge of town park, climbing and exploring, wood fire and cooked lunch, more activity and some scout skill work, and public transit home with dirt covered skin, shoes and uniforms). A mostly impromptu Scout bicycle “20-mile” adventure was less successful when several of the bicycles did not prove up to the task.
      After doing this without asking beyond informing the Patrol member’s parents (what are written permission slips? travel permit?) and not consulting the Scoutmaster (never heard of PLC), this was viewed as good leadership and initiative — though honestly I never heard of this being done as day-long activity by other Patrols or Troops.
      The downside was that little counted for advancement because this required signature of SM or ASM.
      We talked about developing a camp site and camping for several nights in the summer at a deserted area (no idea of property ownership or needing permission) along a local river bank, but nothing was done.
      Overnight camping and camporees involved at least one adult for the Troop.

      • One_Old_Scout,

        Oh my, you went camping by yourselves? With no cell phones or other forms of instant communication? And you did not have any electronics with you to entertain yourselves. What did you do with yourselves? You mean the adults actually thought you could take care of yourselves unattended? Be …T.T.T.T….Trustworthy? Be R.R.R.R….Responsible? What was wrong with them? They must have been out of their minds!

        On district or council camporees, the adults in my old troop would attend Cracker Barrel meetings and leave us all alone. Other adult leaders thought they were crazy for doing this. Their response was, “That is what board of reviews are for?” Sometime they would be gone for 3-4 hours. Our scouts knew that if you screwed up and found not to be trustworthy, you were not allowed to attend troop activities…Period!

        Everybody behaved and were good scouts. It is still the same today – if you allow the scouts to be scouts.

  9. Helping youth leaders make well informed decisions is our primary task. But not every decision is one that a youth can or should make. Could youth decide to stop having a flag ceremony, or decide to adopt a different uniform? Should they chose campouts without first ensuring that they have enough adults willing and able to provide transportation and supervision? Should they be able to choose an all-pop-tart menu for a campout? Could they choose to do an activity that violates the GTSS or youth protection?

    If your knee-jerk reaction is that boy-lead means they can choose anything they want, then I suppose you’d have to say yes to all these. I think that adults should help set the plaything field for the youth leadership so that they understand the available choices and then choose among them. Adult leadership may look passive, if done right, but it is anything but.

    • It is important to define the brand, so no, Boy Scouts have no room to shirk on citizenship.

      Obviously, if a boy is not a first class scout (in the true sense of the word, not one who accidentally has the patch due to a misguided “1st Class 1st Year” heresy), he does not qualify to take his patrol hiking and camping. The point of advancement is to identify the youth who are qualified to make responsible decisions. If it’s taken them four years to become first class scouts, you will have a good gauge on who those youth are.

      When young men and women who have a track record of trustworthiness come to me with a good plan for an independent overnight, I’ve encourage them. (Sometimes I’ve given them the keys to the car.)

      I may be a sample of 1, but multiply that my however many there are like me, you likely have millions of youth across America are doing this. It’s a pity they have to be outside of BSA to do it.

  10. For Cub Scouts I think it is implausible to think you can let the youth have free reign over event, activity, hiking, or camping decisions or financial decisions. Youth protection is not just about protecting them from abuse, it is about protecting them from themselves. Sometimes youth do not realize financial responsibilities, insurance responsibilities, two-deep, trained leadership requirements, the list could go on and on.

    At a Cub Scout-level, the Pack Committee should make the majority of decisions but in conjunction with parents and youth input. At a Boy Scout-level, the majority of decisions and suggestions can be made and should be made by the Patrol Leaders Council, however if your unit does not have an effective PLC or you don’t have enough members for one, or you don’t have the experienced Scouts, then the Troop Committee with the Scoutmaster should help guide and teach the boys, teaching them how to start having more and more input, understanding risks and requirements to outings. The same goes for Explorer or Venturing units, a combined dialogue and cooperative effort from the youth and adults can go a long way to make sure everyone has a fun, safe, time.

    • In other countries the equivalent of cub scouting is lead by den chiefs, and the equivalent of cub master is probably the age of an older venturer. Those youth leaders answer to one scoutmaster, perhaps the only older adult in the unit.

      We have set up an organization that pushes capable youth completely out of the picture. I bet if our den chiefs were tasked to put together a program for the little ones, most of them would do a bang-up job.

      Now, I love adults who put in all this time in ensuring awesome programs for our kids. But, we really shouldn’t presume that a massive committee is needed to manage our youth. Adults *should* step in when discipline or safety is an issue, but those times should be rare in a healthy unit.

  11. We have had a series of very good SPLs who both ran the program successfully and considered advice from adults when making decisions. We as adults did a pretty good job of letting them make those decisions and when necessary letting them learn from mistakes. Now we have an SPL who takes “boy-led” to mean that he can do whatever he wants without reference to Troop budget, tradition, or policy. He seems to be ignoring all adult input. Weekly attendance has fallen and some parents have indicated they are ready to find another troop. We are at a loss as to how to handle the situation.

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