Sitting down, a sigh of relief, a cup of coffee, close your eyes, and think about a nap.
Somebody walking through the leaves.
You open your eyes just enough to see the senior patrol leader striding purposefully in your direction, he stops a couple of feet away, wondering if you are awake.
After playing possum for a few seconds, you look again. He’s still there.
“Hey Mark, what’s up?” you ask.
“John and Jim are arguing,” he replies.
“Okay, you haven’t been able to sort things out?”
“No, they are still pretty angry with each other.”
“Has everything calmed down, or do I need to go down there?”
“I don’t think so, things have mostly calmed down. There was some yelling and a few things got thrown.”
“Anybody hurt or anything broken?”
“Well, sounds like a good call, Mark, I’ll be happy to help you out. Tell John and Jim I’d like to speak with them.”
There’s a few minutes peace as the senior patrol leader walks away. You turn to the assistant Scoutmaster sitting nearby and exchange knowing looks.
He begins looking for an escape route, but before he can get away you ask,“Hang around for a while, if you don’t mind.”
“Yeah, I thought you’d want me to,” he replies.
“I was ready to take a nap, this kind of thing is really frustrating, throwing things? For Pete’s sake! ” you say.
“If you are too upset to do this with a level head I’ll speak to them.” he says.
“Thanks, I really do appreciate that, but I think I am good. If I get too worked up step in, okay?”
“Sure thing,” he replies.
Soon John and Jim are thrashing through the leaves towards your chairs.
“Hello guys!” you point to a log that’s out of earshot, “Jim, have a seat over on that log there for a minute. John, come and talk to me.”
John approaches, hands in pockets, and stands a couple of feet away looking at the ground.
“John, why do you think you are here talking to me?”
“I don’t know.” he mumbles.
“No idea at all?”
“Nope.” the mumble is a little defiant now.
“Mark told me there was some sort of problem, do you have any idea what that may be?”
“I know you are upset, I’d like to help you; but you’ll need to work with me. Just tell me what’s going on.”
After some back and forth John explains that he was in charge of preparing lunch, he asked Jim to wash up, Jim got angry and they had an argument that ended up with a couple of things being thrown around the campsite.
You sit and think for a moment, ”Well, that sounds pretty upsetting, I guess I would have felt kind of angry about the whole thing if I were in your shoes.”
“Yeah,” John still hasn’t looked at you.
“John, you’ve been around long enough to understand the Scout Oath and Law right?”
“I guess so.”
There’s a flash of anger from John, “Jim was the one who got all angry, I was just trying to do my job.”
“Well, I’ll be talking to Jim in a minute, but right now I am talking to you. In all honesty, between you and me, couldn’t you have handled things better?”
John looks right at you; “Yeah, but…” he’s close to tears.
“All I am asking is whether or not you couldn’t have reacted differently, you are usually able to do that. Everybody make mistakes, it’s okay, let’s just think things through. Sometimes I don’t react well either, I am no saint, but I find that if I think things through a little it helps.”
“So tell me, what points of the Scout Law did you maybe forget when you reacted the way you did?”
John rolls his eyes, clears his throat, shuffles his feet.
You smile and say, “C’mon, buddy, we are almost done, play my little game here.”
John is looking at the ground again, “Well maybe ‘friendly’?”
“That’s a good start! Think about that while I talk to Jim. I won’t keep you guys long, go over and tell Jim it’s his turn, sit down and I’ll call you back here in a minute.”
Jim walks over and stands in John’s place. The discussion with Jim goes much like it did with John. Once Jim seems to understand, you call John back over to join you.
“I have a couple of quick things to tell you both,” you begin, “you are both good Scouts, you both have told me you understand what you missed in the Scout Law this afternoon, and I think, when I am done here, you may want to patch things up with some apologies.”
They nod their heads.
“Before you do that, though, you know we have some very high expectations of behavior, you already know them very well– the Scout Oath and Law. It really is just that simple. I think you both understand them, and I’ll be watching to see that you do.”
“You also need to understand what happens next. We expect that you will act like Scouts who understand and follow the Scout Oath and Law. It doesn’t happen very often, but some Scouts who know better make trouble. If we can’t resolve things we have little choice other than calling their parents and having them handle the situation at home. Do you both understand what I am saying?”
A couple of nods indicate they have heard you, but just to be sure; “Tell me what happens next John.”
“We can be Scouts and do the oath and law or we have to go home.”
“Tell me what happens next Jim.”
“If we throw things again we have to go home.”
“Well, that’s pretty close! I think we all understand each other. You are being trusted to make things right, and to follow the Scout Oath and Law. It’s that simple.” Gesturing towards your assistant Scoutmaster, “Mr. Black and I here argue sometimes, and we may even think about throwing things right?”
Mr. Black smiles, “Yep, everybody gets angry once in a while.”
“I’m still working on following the Scout Oath and Law, it’s nothing you ever finish doing,” you look at Mr. Black, “Right?”
“Yep,” he replies.
“Do either of you have any questions for me?”
Jim says “Nope.” John shakes his head.
“So, we are done for now, I’ll check in with you both later on today. When we talk let’s hope it’s about something other than either of you throwing things around or arguing, okay?”
John and Jim shuffle their feet, look up, nod, and mumble, in unintelligible syllables, that they have understood.
“Okay then, get back with your patrol, on the way tell Mark I want to see him when he has a chance.”
When the senior patrol leader returns you go over what’s been discussed with Jim and John, ask him to discuss things with their patrol leader, and thank him for bringing the situation to your attention.
Sometime that afternoon you’ll take the time to observe John and Jim, talk to each individually for a moment, and recognize their good behavior. You’ll also check in with Jim and John’s patrol leader and see how he’s doing.
Later that evening there’s a campfire, you’ve asked Mark if you can say a few words at the end.
“Today gave me a couple of opportunities to think about the Scout Oath and Law. I’ve seen the it in action today, and I want to say how impressed I am with you guys. I’ve seen you help each other, cooperate, and resolve differences.”
“You may not even be thinking about the Oath and Law as the day goes by. Take a moment right now and think silently about how you’ve practiced the Scout Oath and Law today, and how you have seen that in your fellow Scouts.” A few moments of silence follow.
“Who can tell me about something you saw your fellow Scouts do today demonstrate the Scout Oath and Law?”
Several Scouts offer reflections, and you conclude with; “All of us have things to work on when it comes to observing the Scout Oath and Law, it never stops. Every once in a while we run into problems, but you guys are getting better and better at resolving them. One of the best things about being your Scoutmaster is getting to see how you support and encourage each other to follow the Scout Oath and Law.”
“I am sure Mark has some things to say before you head off to bed, but I’ll say good night now.”
As the Scouts are being picked up the next day you ask Jim’s parent if they would wait a moment and take them aside with their son. “Jim had a bit of a moment this weekend, there was an argument and a few things got thrown around. I’ve talked to both your son and the other Scout involved, and I am satisfied that they have worked things through. I am telling you this so you have the opportunity to discuss this with him.”
“I don’t think we’ll have any more problems, because Jim is a good Scout. I will say that if we can’t resolve this kind of thing ourselves, and just to be clear I believe we have in this case, we have little choice but to tell parents their Scout can’t be actively engaged with us until they can assure me the situation is resolved at home. Scouts all have things to work through, and I think things are going very well, but I wanted to take the time to let you know exactly what is going on.”
Once you’ve talked with Jim and his parents you’ll talk to John and his parents, telling them exactly the same thing.
Is it Really That Simple?
This narrative simplifies what can be a complex and difficult situation. I have no illusions that every behavior problem is resolved as easily as this, but most of them are that simple.
Once you’ve worked through problems like this a few times you’ll develop confidence in a simple, fair, and consistent approach. It can be stressful and difficult but you’ll find resolving misbehavior is a precious opportunity with profound potential to have a positive influence.
This narrative illustrates the practical application a few guiding principles;
Scouting Discipline is the Scout Oath and Law.
Many of our Scouts are more used to closed systems of rules and punishments than open-ended situation where they follow principles rather than rules. An adult who asks them to judge themselves rather than issuing judgments may be something new. They will catch the spirit of this, but it takes a little time, and a consistent message.
I am not a fan of troops writing rules and regulations, we don’t need them and we don’t want them. Scouts find all kinds of ways around rules and regulations, but they can’t find a way around their own conscience when it’s motivated by the principles in the Scout Oath and Law. Rules and regulations are imposed impersonally on everyone, the principles of the Scout Oath and Law are adopted personally by individuals.
When the Scout Oath and Law are applied in this way Scouts realize they have practical meaning, not just words we memorize and repeat because we like to hear the sound of our own voices, .
Scouting Discipline is Constructive.
Scoutmasters don’t punish Scouts who can’t or won’t follow the Scout Oath and Law, it’s not our responsibility, it is the responsibility of the Scout’s parents.
When Scouts behave badly, we differentiate between proportionate consequences and corrective punishment. Proportionate consequences are the direct result of misbehavior: such as sitting out an activity, being restricted from using something—such as a knife—that was misused, resolving a conflict, or cleaning up a mess. Corrective punishment is any sanction beyond proportionate consequences.
Scouters and youth leaders should not apply corrective punishment. Systems of corrective punishments, such as demerits, forced physical activity, or the like, are completely out of place in Scouting.
If we can’t resolve things through counselling and talking with Scouts we get their parents involved, it’s that simple.
Scouting Discipline is Based on Individuals rather than Groups.
Good group behavior comes from good individual behavior, so we aim most of our efforts in developing discipline at individuals. Speaking with Scouts individually opens a dialogue that helps them understand and develop an internal standard based on the Scout Oath and Law.
Don’t discuss instances of individual misbehavior with a group in any way that identifies the individual Scout.
If we talk to groups of Scouts about individual situations that involve conflict or misbehavior it becomes a “thing”. They will endlessly discuss and dissect the situation and may arrive at all kinds of negative or misguided conclusions.
On the other hand even the smallest indication of positive behavior is a great thing to announce to a group of Scouts. Whenever we see something positive we tell the group and point out the individual.
What we say about individual behavior, good or bad, will unconsciously influence Scout’s behavior, it’s really amazing how this works. Speak about problems and problems multiply, speak about positive actions and positive actions multiply.
Scouting Discipline is Relentlessly Positive.
In the narrative the Scoutmaster has purposefully maintained a positive attitude. It may be difficult to find something positive in a difficult situation, but it is there if you look hard enough.
The Scoutmaster has chosen his words carefully, he’s condemned the bad behavior without condemning the Scout, and shown some empathy for the frustration and conflict the Scouts are feeling.
While their attitude and postures may signal they resent your involvement Scouts are usually relieved when you do step in. They often simply don’t know how to break the loop of difficult behavior; they sense it’s not right, but they don’t know what to do.
Scouting Discipline is a Cooperative Effort.
While Scouts can resolve many problems without us our youth leadership should be told to bring any behavior problem, large or small, to our attention. It may be they have resolved things already, but we should be aware of precisely how things were resolved.
Training Scouts to resolve things among themselves requires they understand and apply these principles; resolutions based on the oath and law, no punishment, working with individuals, and relentlessly positive.
We decide when we ought to be involved on a case-by case basis. Our involvement is based on our responsibility to ensure our Scouts are in a safe environment physically, mentally and socially.
Emotional Scouters are Poor Counselors.
In the narrative the Scoutmaster remarked that the situation was frustrating and upsetting. His colleague offered to take the lead if the Scoutmaster couldn’t keep a level head. We are never at our best when emotions are running high, and misbehavior can be upsetting. Check in with a fellow Scouter, gauge your level of emotion and only counsel Scouts when you are level-headed.
Brent Dickson says
This has been one of my favorite posts you have ever written!
Excellent advice and the format is terrific in walking us through the steps and logic of handling a regular experience on any campout.
Please continue to provide posts similar in format to this. I’m sure I am not alone in Scouters thirst for practical story/scenario teachings that we can use to be better leaders to our Scouts.
Thanks for all you do!
ASM – T192, Central Florida
Clarke Green says
Bill Daniel says
Clarke, your approach works wonderfully. It sometimes takes some effort to separate the boy from the ‘imposed rules world’ to the ‘freely adopted principle’ world of Scouting. When you hear a Scout say “I won’t do/bring/say x again”, he’s focused on the specific infraction and learning little, just wanting the discomfort to be over. Expanding the scope to the Scout Law, and for serious events his impact on others, gets him to think bigger about concepts that may help with other frustrations or temptations in the future. It’s the difference between a transaction and a relationship, and we’re in the ‘relationships that build character’ business.