How do we react to bad decisions?
If we understand the way our Scout’s brains are working we know that reactive punishment is going to have little effect on their future ability to make better decisions. Anger or the punishments we employ may make them even more recalcitrant and drive them towards even more risky behavior.
While a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude isn’t an option reacting with anger and punishment seems to be equally ineffective.
A rational approach; a more empathetic, compassionate and useful approach, is first learning about the way they are looking at the world, (why they decide poorly) applying that understanding to helping them manage risky situations and reacting rationally rather than emotionally when they make bad choices of action.
When Scouts make bad decisions we should first quiet our emotional response. Of course this is often very difficult! If we respond emotionally it’s likely Scouts will view the consequences of their poor decision as something imposed by us rather than a direct result of the decision they made. Scout-aged-boys are extraordinarily sensitive to shame and criticism. If we go overboard in our reactions to bad decisions we only make the situation worse.
A key step to quieting our own emotional response is understanding that bad decision making is part of a developmental process. We have all made plenty of bad decisions at one time or another.
It’s also important to understand that bad decision making is not intended to hurt us, nor is it indicative of the quality or value of our service as volunteers. We must be very careful not to take these things too personally.
We’ll certainly intervene to stop injury or damage to property if possible but we don’t want to protect Scouts from the consequences of a bad decision. The consequence must be directly related to the action. Scouts need to understand the relationship between the two.
My advice when confronted with Scouts who have made bad decisions is to ask them questions. Why did you do what you did? What were you thinking? What are the consequences of your decision? What action should I take now that this has happened?
Once we’ve asked questions we need to listen carefully to the answers.
Once we’ve listened carefully to the answers we can help the Scouts discover the moral and ethical principles that bear on the situation by asking more questions rather than issuing judgement. We’ll ask them to judge themselves.
As an example here’s a conversation with a Scout that, on a dare, collapsed a fellow Scout’s tent during summer camp;
Scoutmaster : Can you tell me what happened here?
Scout : I knocked John’s tent down.
Scoutmaster : Why did you do that?
Scout : I don’t Know.
Scoutmaster : Well, I have a hard time believing that you just suddenly decided to do that, what were you thinking?
Scout : Nothing.
Scoutmaster : So nobody suggested that it would be a good idea, you came up with it on your own?
Scout : Well, the other guys said I should.
Scoutmaster : Did it turn out to be a good idea?
Scout : No.
Scoutmaster : I can think of several points of the Scout law you must have forgotten for a moment, can you?
Scout : I don’t know.
Scoutmaster : Really? You don’t Know?
Scout : No.
Scoutmaster : Perhaps you need some time to think about this. If you aren’t ready to talk to me now you can sit here and wait for awhile, I can be back in fifteen or twenty minutes.
Scout : Okay what do you want me to say?
Scoutmaster : I want you to answer my question.
Scout : I know it was wrong, it’s no big deal, I won’t do it again.
Scoutmaster : Well it’s a big deal to me, and it’s a big deal to John. Can you see that?
Scout : Yes.
Scoutmaster : How do you make this right?
Scout : I could apologize to John.
Scoutmaster : Anything else?
Scout : I can set his tent back up.
Scoutmaster : Sounds good to me. Listen; I know the last thing you want to be doing is sitting here talking to me but I can’t ignore actions like this. Please make this right with John. Before you go, though, tell me what part of the Scout law you forgot.
Scout : To be trustworthy, and maybe friendly and kind.
Scoutmaster ; See, I knew you hadn’t forgotten that. We all forget ourselves from time to time and do things we regret; can I trust you to make this right and not do it again?
Scout : I suppose so.
Scoutmaster : Good. I knew I could count on you, the next time we talk let’s have something better to talk about.
Scouts who behave poorly are likely to be upset and angry about getting caught – they will be reacting emotionally. Compounding this by responding emotionally ourselves may be cathartic but it will often make things worse.
In the example above the Scoutmaster is careful not to be provoked to anger, not to issue judgments about the Scout’s character but to ask him to judge himself. The Scoutmaster is being empathetic ( we all make mistakes) and finding something complimentary to say about the Scout (this can be really challenging in any given situation.)