“Co-ed BSA”? How ’bout cutting the Scouts some slack, eh?

“Co-ed BSA”? How ’bout cutting the Scouts some slack, eh? October 18, 2017

By David Fine (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Boy Scouts, it’s been reported, are going co-ed.

Well, not really.  Don’t believe what you read in the papers.

They’re allowing family-oriented Cub Scout packs in which girls and boys will have separate dens but come together for large group events, in the same way as these events are already often enough family activities, because they believe that this will make Scouting more appealing for Hispanic and Asian immigrant families who are looking for more family-oriented activities, since now brothers and sisters can participate together (especially in a format where the whole pack meets at once and dens meet as breakout groups); they’re also creating a freestanding and separate Boy Scout-equivalent opportunity for girls so that they have a Scouting option once they age out of Cub Scouts, because they feel it would be wrong to cut off their programming for girls after awarding them the Arrow of Light.  Plus, they’re bowing to the reality that that Cub Scout families created “facts on the ground” with sibling-girls as “unofficial” members anyway.

Or maybe the Girl Scouts’ accusations that they’re poaching because their finances are too pinched, have some truth to them.  Who can tell, really?

Growing competition

In the meantime, the number of splinter Scouting groups in the U.S. grows.

The American Heritage Girls formed in 1995.  They have a membership of 43,000 (per Wikipedia), with 1,000 separate troops.  According to their own materials, their troops are structured as a single unit for all ages, with girls splitting off into smaller groups during meeting times.

Trail Life USA is a recent (2013) splinter off Boy Scouts, formed in direct reaction to their change of policies about gay boy members.  Their membership totals 27,000 (again, Wikipedia).

Other, smaller groups include the Catholic Federation of North American Explorers, which started in Canada, and has added troops in the U.S.  It counts 1,100 members (as of the last Wikipedia update) and is affiliated with the Federation of European Scouting, a France-based group.  (The kids wear adorable berets and have, so far as I can tell, the best uniforms.)

The Baden-Powell Service Association, formed to be an explicitly nonreligious, inclusive alternative to the Boy Scouts, also numbers about 1,000 members.   They identify themselves as “traditional scouting” following Lord Baden-Powell’s original vision.

The Navigators is another breakaway group, with 167 chapters.  According to their website, the primary focus appears to be on anti-prejudice training rather than outdoor skills.

And the Mormons have announced that they’ll move its high school-aged boys into some sort of church-run equivalent program rather than treating Boy Scouts as a sort of semi-mandatory youth group (it will still remain so for the younger boys, but they already send their girls to a Mormon Girl Scout-like program).

Now I’m sure that the leaders in these groups work hard to provide a rewarding Scouting experience to the children who participate.  In fact, I have a friend whose daughter is in American Heritage Girls and who son is in Scouts, and she views their experiences as equivalent.

And in some respects, too, the emergence of these splinter organizations gets the U.S. closer to what Scouting looks like in many other countries.  In France, or in Germany, or in Italy, there are multiple organizations, many of them differentiated by religion.

So maybe this is all well and good, and each boy and girl will have their pick of outdoor and leadership-oriented organizations, and can choose the one that works best for their family.  Evangelicals can gather together and learn Bible memory verses, Catholics can gather separately and say the rosary, and the Nones can find their own Scouting home.

And “we’ll start our own troop” seems easy enough.  Hold some meetings, buy some tents and go on an outing.  Group rates are readily available without the Boy Scout seal of approval.

But that won’t be without a loss.  The Boy Scouts of America offers considerably more than just periodic troop meetings.  There are camps maintained by its councils, which offer a full summer camp program, with shooting sports, archery, water sports, woodworking and metalworking, and so on, as well as special programs during the year.  The national organization provides High Adventure opportunities at the Florida Sea Base, the Philmont Scout Ranch and other locations, which provide exceptional opportunities for older scouts (my son will talk your ear off about Philmont).  Local councils provide training for leaders, including, yes, Youth Protection training, based on national policies.  And the design of the Cub Scout program, and the Boy Scout rank advancement and merit badges, are the product of substantial work, not something that a couple staffers put together over a weekend.

A cautionary tale

Here’s something else to consider.

It’s no surprise that both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are losing members in the U.S.  Regarding the Boy Scouts, we hear alternatingly that this is because they refuse to be progressive and inclusive, or because they are too progressive and inclusive; regarding Girl Scouts, blame is laid on the (claimed) association of GSUSA with Planned Parenthood.  Mostly likely, the largest culprit is the competition from sports which have exploded in popularity and in the demands on middle-class children’s time, as well as the growth of immigration and the lack of a home-country Scouting tradition among immigrant families.

Here are some statistics:

From 1999 to 2015, the Boy Scouts has had a membership drop of 34%.

During the same time period, the Girl Scouts lost 32% of its members.

But for our neighbor to the north, for ScoutsCanada, it’s a different story.  From 1999 to 2015, their membership dropped by 59%, and that’s on top of a prior decline in the 1990s, when Boy and Girl Scouts in the US were reasonably stable.  Since 1990, ScoutsCanada has lost 69% of its members — from nearly 200,000 in 1990 to 61,000 in 2015.  (The equivalent figures for the BSA and the GSUSA are only 29% and 24%, respectively.)

And what is ScoutsCanada?  That is, or was, the Boy Scout program in Canada.  But in 1992, individual troops were given the option to admit girls; in 1998, this was made mandatory, and, in addition, Scouting was opened to atheists and agnostics, as well as the whole gamut of LGBTs, even to the extent of chartering an all-LGBT Scout troop.

As of 2008, 22% of the children were girls — which means that (assuming the percentage of girl participants remained constant since then), ScoutsCanada’s boy membership (for an apples-to-apples comparison) has dropped 76% from 1990 to 2015.  And these numbers are not compensated for by growth in competitor organizations; the splinter groups which do exist are tiny.  Ironically, the Girl Guides of Canada, despite limiting membership eligibility to half the population, have greater member numbers today, at 74,000 vs. 61,000.

One might say that the massive decline in membership had nothing to do with the change to co-ed troops and the full embrace of LGBT-ism; after all, the decline was already underway when this change was instituted.  But at a minimum, the change in membership policies didn’t stave off further decline.

What next?

What will happen next?  I’ll be the first to say, as a Cub Scout committee chair, mother of two Boy Scouts and one Cub Scout, and wife to a Scoutmaster, that I dearly wish that the national organization had conducted some pilot programs rather than rushing into a decision.  But it’s a done deal now, and, as parents and supporters of Scouting, our best bet is to do our best, just as we tell the boys to — to “do our best” to ensure that Boy Scouts remains healthy:  to ensure that, at the Cub Scout level next year, the commitment to single-sex activities remains strong even if leaders are tempted to combine boys & girls into single rather than separate dens for convenience’s sake, and to ensure that, at the Boy Scout/Boy Scout-analogue level in the following year, the new girl-troops, even if chartered by the same organization, remain separate in fact rather than just on paper.  To succeed in incorporating girls while maintaining separation will require a true understanding of the benefits of single-sex activities.  Even the process of starting up “girl dens” and, later, a “girl troop” will often enough require walking a fine line of being inviting without “poaching” (or being perceived of as poaching) from the Girl Scouts.

Also, again, no pack is required to invite girls in, and no troop is required to start a girls’ analogue, and if a group of parents want to start a Cub Scout pack or Boy Scout-analogue troop for their daughters, the boys’ leaders would be modeling good Scouting values if they offered to mentor and provide assistance in starting up a new group.  And I suspect that there will be a lot of variation locally in how families implement the new changes — small packs might consider the co-ed pack model a great way to make their group healthier; small troops might choose to share camping equipment between a boys’ and a girls’ troop.  Larger packs, on the other hand, might feel that they’re doing just fine, and adding girls to the mix would make the group unmanageably large.  And the concept of the large pack meeting with den break-out groups that much of the idea of “family orientation” seems to be centered around, might work great for some groups, but might be completely undesirable for others, where they prefer each den being able to set their own schedule.  The key is that what’s being offered to Scouting families is flexibility, not a mandate.

Is there a risk that, as with ScoutsCanada, six years from now, the national headquarters is going to mandate a full co-ed program?  Sure, there’s always a risk.  But ScoutsCanada’s membership decline is a cautionary tale, not an inevitable outcome, and a fear of a slippery slope, or of implementation problems in the future, isn’t enough of a reason to abandon the Boy Scouts in pursuit of a fractured, and weaker, Scouting future.


Image:  By David Fine (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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