How the Boy Scouts Work

By: Amy Hunter
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The Boy Scouts was created to connect city kids with nature.
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In 1909, Chicago publisher W.D. Boyce was visiting London when he learned about the scouting movement. Robert Baden-Powell, a British general, had established scouting in England two years prior. Boyce brought the scouting idea home to the United States, where he established the Boy Scouts of America in 1910.

At the time, many people were concerned about the population movement away from farms and rural life. Some people believed that as more of the population moved into towns and cities, the children of the day would lose important skills. If kids weren't spending time outside, as their parents had, it was feared that knot tying, tree climbing and other hallmarks of childhood would disappear.


The YMCA was an early supporter of programs that encouraged mental, social, physical and religious development in young men. There were two other groups that focused on these ideals -- the Woodcraft Indians and the Sons of Daniel Boone. Other smaller clubs were scattered across the country as well. In 1910, these clubs were brought under the umbrella of the Boy Scouts of America. The original intent of the Boy Scouts of America, as stated in the articles of incorporation, was to teach patriotism, courage, self-reliance and kindred values. This mission has been updated over the years, and the current mission of the Scouts is: to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.

The motto of the Boy Scouts is, "be prepared", and the Boy Scouts of America aims to prepare young men for the future. The youngest scouts join the Tiger Cubs -- a group for boys in the first grade. They participate in club activities with an adult volunteer, typically a parent. The Cub Scouts is for boys from second to fifth grade. Ninety-five percent of Boy Scouts participated in the Cub Scouts when they were younger. Boy Scouts is for boys who are at least 11 years old and not older than 17.

There are two other groups of scouts: Varsity Scouts are aged 14 to 17 and they participate in adventure sports. Venture Scouts is open to boys and girls from the age 14 to 20. In Venture Scouts, members develop leadership skills and teach others while pursuing specialized skills.


The Scouting Life

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A Boy Scout washes a car.
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Life for the Boy Scout revolves around camping, merit badges and community service. The Boy Scouts organization believes outdoor activities, such as camping, water sports, and hiking, develop the character traits -- leadership, courage and self reliance -- they wish to nurture. It believes that outdoor activity helps develop character, citizenship and personal fitness.

Merit badges are an integral part of the Boy Scout organization. There are over 100 merit badges that a Boy Scout can earn, and they range from communications to camping to first aid. A Boy Scout may earn whatever merit badges he wishes; there's no requirement to attain certain levels or rankings in order to receive a merit badge.


The process of earning a merit badge is the same for all badges. When the scout decides which badge he would like to earn, he speaks with his Scoutmaster. The Scoutmaster arranges for the scout to meet with a volunteer leader who is trained and knowledgeable about that badge. In this meeting, the leader will explain the expectations and requirements for the badge. In this and all other meetings in the Boy Scouts, the Buddy System -- a policy initiated to reduce the risk of sexual abuse -- is used. This means that whenever a child meets with an adult, a friend, family member or other scout must be present.

The scout works on the expectations for the merit badge, and when he believes he's ready to demonstrate proficiency, he gets together with the leader who's advising him on the merit badge. The Boy Scout demonstrates what he's learned, and, if he meets the merit badge expectations, the leader will sign off on the badge, and the Scoutmaster will order the badge.

The skills required to earn a merit badge vary. For example, the fire safety merit badge requires that the Boy Scout:

  • demonstrate the "stop, drop and roll" method
  • explain how injuries from burns can be prevented
  • name the most frequent cause of fires
  • draw an escape route from his home in case of fire
  • demonstrate the safe method to set up and extinguish a cooking fire, camp stove and lantern
  • describe a fire-related career that interests him
Army clothed in war textile for armed forces.
The Boy Scouts are well known for their merit badges, which mark accomplishments in specific skill and knowledge categories.
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In addition to targeting and obtaining merit badges, Boy Scouts do a lot of camping. There are many types of camps available to Boy Scouts. Some camps are short term, like an overnight or weekend camp. Others are long term and run for a week or more. Camps may be local, or the troop may travel to regional or statewide meetings to participate in a camping trip. Three camps are given the designation of National High Adventure Areas with the Boy Scouts of America. These include:

  • the Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico, where campers participate in a variety of backpacking treks in the high country of New Mexico
  • the Florida National High Adventure Sea Base, which allows campers to participate in aquatic programs and activities in the Florida Keys
  • the Northern Tier National High Adventure Program, which offers wilderness canoeing and cold weather camping adventures.

Regardless of whether a Boy Scout is participating in his first overnight camp, or spending a week in the wilderness areas of New Mexico, the organization believes that camping helps develop character, leadership skills and physical training.

Camping and merit badges are only a piece of the scouting life. Boys also work toward awards and honors.


Boy Scout Badges, Awards, Events

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This uniformed Cub Scout salutes the camera.
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The Boy Scouts of America rely heavily on tradition and awards to inspire each new generation of scouts. One award, the Order of the Arrow, is held by only 180,000 of the 110 million scouts who have gone through the scouting program. The Order of the Arrow is awarded to boys who live the Boy Scout Oath and Law in their everyday life. A boy that has achieved the level of first class rank and has spent at least 15 days and nights camping in the previous two years may be placed into consideration for Order of the Arrow by his troop and with the approval of his Scoutmaster. An exemplary scout who has received the Order of the Arrow and held that honor for two years is put in the running for the Vigil Award. This award is for outstanding service, and only one in every 50 lodge members may receive this award.

Perhaps the highest award in scouting is the designation of Eagle Scout. The process of earning the rank of Eagle Scout is not to be taken lightly. The first step toward earning the rank of Eagle Scout is to become a Life Scout. This ranking is earned by holding leadership positions in the troop, performing community service and earning merit badges. The Life Scout is expected to live the Scout Oath and Law. He must provide personal character references and earn 21 merit badges, including some specifically targeted at the Eagle Scout ranking, such as first aid, camping and personal fitness. He must design and implement a community service project. At the completion of his community service project, he must take part in a Scoutmaster conference and complete an Eagle Scout Board of Review.


Annually, the Boy Scouts of America celebrates its birthday on Feb. 8. Other celebrations include National Scout Day, where Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts work in public parks to recognize National Public Lands Day, and Keep America Beautiful, Inc., has partnered with the Boy Scouts for its Hometown U.S.A. award. This award recognizes the efforts of scouts to improve their communities through developing and maintaining community gardens, building nature trails, adopting areas to keep them litter free and participating in other conservation and improvement efforts.

The boys choose programs that interest them, but the leaders of the troop also drive its involvement. Good volunteers are the backbone of the Scouting program.


Scout Leaders

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Boy Scout and Girl Scout salute the American flag, circa 1960s.
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Scouting leaders receive extensive training through the Boy Scouts. Leader training is comprised of two different parts. New Leader Essentials is a 90-minute program that's required for all new leaders, regardless of where or how they plan to volunteer. All leaders who are new to Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturing receive this training. New Leader Essentials provides the volunteer with information about the history of scouting, its purpose, Boy Scout values, aims and goals of the program.

Once the new volunteer has completed the New Leader Essentials training, he participates in Leader Specific Training. This training teaches the new leaders specific skills that are important in the area in which they plan to volunteer. Leader Specific Training is often a multiple day program. Many times, new volunteers receive their New Leader Essentials training at the beginning of a Leader Specific Training workshop. While some leader specific training occurs over the course of a weekend retreat, other more intensive training is available at places like the Philmont High Adventure Camp, and can last one week. The programs at Philmont are invitation only, and the Scoutmaster must make arrangements through his council.


There are four parts that make up Leader Specific Training. Three parts get into the operations and procedures within a troop, and the fourth part covers outdoor leadership skills. The outdoor skills section is broken into three parts: Tenderfoot, Second Class and First Class. The volunteer leader will learn how to: 

  • navigate with a map or compass
  • identify plants and animals
  • cook outdoors, using fire preparation techniques
  • select a campsite
  • pack and hike 

The outdoor skills training is self-paced, and volunteers with outdoor experience can complete the program quicker than those with none.

A fully-trained Scoutmaster has completed orientation, New Leader Essentials and all four sections of Scoutmaster and Assistant Scoutmaster Leader Assistant Training. Once the leader has successfully completed this training, he can move on to Wood Badge for the 21st Century. The Wood Badge emphasizes leadership, listening, communicating, team development and problem solving, and it focuses less on outdoor skills.

Once the Scoutmaster has received training, he can continue to develop by completing self-paced learning through continuing education courses that are available on the Boy Scout Web site.

The Boy Scouts of America has taken child abuse concerns very seriously and has a strict program in place to screen volunteers and train boys about the dangers of abuse and how they can avoid it. In the late 1980s, the Boy Scouts developed the Youth Protection Program. As part of this program all volunteers must undergo background checks before they can become involved with the children. Every year, each Boy Scout troop receives training in the 3 Rs. The 3 R program teaches boys to: recognize situations where they may be at risk for abuse, understand that they have the right to resist abuse, and know that they must report any attempts of abuse.

The Boy Scouts also has a variety of rules in place to keep the boys safe from abuse, and leaders safe from unjust accusations. This includes two-deep leadership, which means that there must be two leaders present at all meetings. One-on-one contact is not permitted at any time. The boys' privacy is always respected during outings, and the boys don't share accommodations with leaders during trips. These rules are in place not only to protect the boys from abuse, but to protect the Boy Scouts from lawsuits.


Discrimination in the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts of America has long refused admittance to what its lawyer once referred to as the 3-Gs -- the godless, girls and gays [source: Cloud and Rivera]. While its policy of excluding homosexual boys and leaders has been in place since the incorporation of the scouting program, it wasn't widely known until a series of court cases thrust the issue into the national news.

In 2000, a discrimination case brought by James Dale, a former Eagle Scout and Boy Scout assistant troop leader who was fired from the position because he was a homosexual, made its way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, stating that the Boy Scouts can bar homosexuals from being troop leaders. It argued that to force the organization to accept gays would violate its constitutional right of freedom of association and free speech [source: CNN].


But that ruling didn't end challenges against the Boy Scout's policy. Most recently, in 2007, the city of Philadelphia threatened to start charging the organization rent for its space in the municipal building, which it had inhabited rent-free since the 1920s, unless the organization would change its discriminatory policy toward gay people [source: Fox News]. The Boy Scouts has refused to alter its policy.

As for the girls and the godless -- both have challenged the Boy Scout's policies at one time or another. In the 1980s, Catherine Pollard lost a lawsuit against the Boy Scouts when she challenged the organization to permit women to be scout leaders. But after the Connecticut Supreme Court sided up with the Boy Scouts on the matter, the organization wound up altering its policy to allow women to lead troops [source: New York Times]. And on Oct. 11, 2017, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it would allow girls into the Cub Scouts in 2018, and allow older girls into a new, unspecified program that would allow them to earn Boy Scout ranks up to Eagle Scout starting in 2019, according to news reports.

The Boy Scouts has also removed a Scoutmaster who was Muslim (not exactly godless), when the troop was chartered by a Presbyterian church. Its reasoning for such a removal is that the chartering agency, whether church, school or other organization, ultimately has the authority to approve or deny the leadership role [source: Associated Press].

Has the bad press hurt Boy Scout popularity? Who's to say? But, in the last ten years, boy scout participation has dropped. At the end of the 2007 reporting year, there were 484,000 less Cub Scouts than there were in 1997.

So, what option is there for the boy who questions his sexuality? The Girl Scouts, while nondiscriminatory in regard to sexuality, doesn't allow boys in its troops. But the Campfire Boys and Girls Club, originally opened only to girls, began allowing boys into its groups in 1974. Its statement is firm and clear: It does not discriminate based on race, religion, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation or any other area of diversity.


Lots More Information

Related Article

More Great Links

  • Bierbauer, Charles. "Supreme Court Says Boy Scouts Can Bar Gay Troop Leaders." New York Times. June 28, 2000. (Sept. 19, 2008)
  • Cloud, John and Elaine Rivera. "All for a Scout's Honor." Time. August 16, 1999. (Sept. 10, 2008),9171,991775-1,00.html
  • Chu, Jeff. "Duty, Honor and Allah." Time. August 23, 2005. (Sept. 10, 2008),9171,1096510,00.html
  • Donaldson-Evans, Catherine. "Boy Scouts' Rent Skyrockets in Philadelphia to $200K Over Gay Ban." Fox News. Oct. 19, 2007. (Sept. 19, 2008),2933,303420,00.html
  • Laidler, John. "Scouting a Cultural Bridge." Boston Globe. June 12, 2005. (Sept. 10, 2008)
  • Madden, Richard L. "A Woman Wins Her 14-year Fight to Be a Scoutmaster." Feb. 17, 1988. (Sept. 19, 2008)
  • Polling Report. (Sept. 11, 2008)
  • Ritsch, Massie. "Group Comes to Defense of Boy Scouts." Los Angeles Times. Dec. 4, 2002. (Sept. 10, 2008)
  • "Sexual Abuse in the Boy Scouts Video." (Sept. 19, 2008)
  • Urbina, Ian. "Boy Scouts Lose Philadelphia Lease in Gay Rights Fight." New York Times. Dec. 6, 2007. (Sept. 10, 2008)