Carrying backpacks for the first time, Scouts leave the familiar comforts of home and strike out on the trail. Following flashlight beams through unknown territory, they arrive at the campsite with their friends. Tents are set up, a fire is lit and they gather around trying to shake off the cold.
They talk excitedly about tomorrow’s climb over a mountain peak to the destination on the other side. They strain their imaginations in anticipation, careful to mask the uncertainty and vulnerability they feel in the volume and bravado of the conversation. Excited anticipation and the fear of the unknown make it hard to sleep that night.
In the morning, the Scouts are up and on the trail. The day unfolds in a series of struggles and challenges that strain their backs and minds. By late afternoon, they reach the campsite on the other side of the mountain. Tired, relieved to drop their packs, they are aglow with a sense of accomplishment. They made it through! They overcame their doubts and fears, they encouraged and helped one another along the way; and now they have arrived.
Our backpacking Scouts have been through a ‘rite of passage’. The term may be familiar but it bears explaining. A rite of passage has three stages :
- Separation – Leaving the familiar comforts of home for a new challenge.
- Transition – Enduring a period of uncertainty and vulnerability.
- Accomplishment – Reaching the goal.
Understanding these stages helps us guide young people on a journey through the series of experiences and challenges that lead to adulthood. We may be familiar with a given experience but it’s new to our Scouts. They are encountering new physical, mental and spiritual challenges. They have voluntarily separated themselves from the familiar and entered into a transitional state subject to their own fears and uncertainties.
Every young person wants to belong to something larger than themselves, to gain acceptance, to be identified as a full member of the group. This desire is so strong, so instinctual, that it blurs the lines between good and bad. Young people are desperate to fill this void whether the group coerces them to negative, destructive behavior like a street gang, or positive, constructive activities like Scouting.
We are familiar with the movie stereotype of a demanding, harsh, insulting, military officer who berates and rides his recruits. We may even have been subject to this sort of thing . As Scouters, we never stoop to hazing, harshness and discouragement. How you experienced of rites of passage will inform your reaction; perhaps you received support and affirmation; perhaps you met with discouragement and harshness. Our instinctive reactions may be positive or negative. As Scouters we check our negative instincts and champion positive, affirming, encouraging rites of passage.
Some rites of passage end in clear outward symbolism like the ceremonial presentation of a badge. Some are more subtle transitions that we mark with words of affirmation in recognition of a Scout’s progress. We are never harsh or disapproving, but unfailingly supportive and understanding. Even when the going is tough, or our Scouts efforts look less than encouraging, we maintain a positive outlook. Scouters trade discouragement for honest praise. We trade demeaning, abusive hazing or ‘initiations’ for ceremonies that honor accomplishment.
How we express honest encouragement is vitally important; it is not simple platitudes or disingenuous praise. To be honestly encouraging we strive to understand the scale of the challenge from each individual Scout’s perspective. Bold, outgoing, and enthusiastic, or shy, meek and fearful, we never belittle or demean a Scout’s effort, even in jest. What we intend as good-natured chiding may be received as a devastating blow. We put the best face on every step forward and support each Scout’s effort towards the goal.