By Cathleen Ann Steg
Getting "inactive" parents more involved in Scouting can add new resources to a troop's leadership while enriching the Scouting experience for new Scouts and their families.
Is your troop well trained? You probably think so if the Scoutmaster wears Wood Badge beads, which represent the highest level of volunteer training, and the assistant Scoutmasters all have the tan-and-red Trained Leader emblem on their uniforms, indicating basic leader training for their positions.
But it's easy to overlook the training needs of another group of adultsthose Scout parents whose involvement so far has been limited mostly to weekly carpooling to troop meetings.
New or uninvolved parents often have little or no previous knowledge about Scouting. If they begin to understand what their son is learning in the troop, the methods used to provide that learning, and the reasoning behind the process, they'll be better able to help him advance and to support the troop.
You want to bring these inactive parents "on board" by making them feel they are a part of the troop and active contributors to the quality of their son's Scouting experience.
However, the opportunities for such training may be limited to a few general parent information meetings during the year. What can be done to maximize and expand this process?
Invite them early and often
Experienced Scoutmasters recognize the value of welcoming parents to regular troop meetings.
"Make sure adults have as good a time in Scouting as youth do," advises Dale Pinney, Scoutmaster of Troop 176, Kenner, La., Southeast Louisiana Council. "Parents can learn much just by watching and being around the action, and if it's fun for them to come, they will."
Committee member Tom Williams of Troop 41, Sugar Grove, Ill., agrees. In addition to welcoming prospective families at all regular meetings, Troop 41 invites new Scouts and their parents to a special training night.
This session helps introduce basic skills, from tent setup to dishwashing, to the boys, while showing the parents how Scouting works, how skills are taught in the troop, and who does the teaching.
The result, Williams explains, is that parents learn that "the support their son will receive comes mainly from the other boys in the troop, especially the troop guide, the older Scout who serves as the leader of the new Scout patrol."
Boys run the troop
Perhaps the most important message for parents of new Scouts is that their boys are no longer in Cub Scouting, and the Boy Scouting program is different.
"Here, the boys run the troop," emphasizes former Scoutmaster Art O'Leary of Troop 11, Leominster, Mass. "The concept sounds simple, yet it's the major source of 'culture shock' for Webelos Scouts and their parents. Everywhere else, from school to soccer to Little League, an adult is always telling them what to do."
Dale Pinney of Troop 176 concurs. "Everyone learns by doing and also by failing. Boys would never learn to ride a bike if they were not allowed to fall off, but many times in Scouting parents prevent them from 'falling off.' As a result, we shortchange the leadership skills we are trying to teach."
Even second- and third-year parents need to hear this message often. Here's one way to demonstrate the key differences between the Cub Scouting and Boy Scouting programs:
At a parent meeting, start with an organizational chart of the two programs [see Appendix A in the New Leader Essentials manual (BSA No. 34870A) and chapters 2 to 4 of the Scoutmaster Handbook (No. 33009B)] and offer examples of how event planning differs for Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.
You might describe a day hike for a den and one for a patrol. Talk about who, in each case, would do the advance planning, arrange for food, make phone calls, and plan the route. Compare the direct involvement of adults for the den to the background support they provide the patrol.
Parent don'ts and dos
Even as you advise parents against too much direct involvement with their sons' advancement, use your parent meetings as opportunities to welcome their involvement in other ways.
Have parents fill out the Troop Resource Survey form (No. 34437 in Troop Program Resources, No. 33588A) to learn about hobbies, skills, and interests they have that could be used in some way to help the troop program.
Pass around a sign-up sheet for volunteering to help out at different troop events. Explain that, to help the troop, every parent needs to sign up for at least one short-term project during the year. List all projects, from popcorn or other product sales to the annual ski trip to the Scouting for Food drive, and remind parents that those who sign up first have the most events to choose from.
Parents can be successfully included in Scouts' activities as well, if given careful guidance. For example, in order to let parents "see what's going on," Dale Pinney invites moms and dads on Troop 176 camp-outs.
"Sometimes I have to keep parents from doing things for their son in camp, like cleaning up his tent or trying to take over cooking," he admits. "But after we emphasize to them that their sons learn best by doing things for themselves, they usually are cooperative and understanding, and less likely to interfere with the process."
Support at home
Trained parents can also add value to their son's Scouting experience at home. Because Tom Williams believes such support can make all the difference in a boy's success, he asks parents of new Scouts in Troop 41 to remind and encourage their boys to practice those Scout skills at home that they need for rank advancement.
This kind of reinforcement is important for new Scouts, who not only need to demonstrate a skill, like whipping the end of a rope, at the meeting where they learn it, but also have to show it a week later to the troop guide and the appropriate troop leader.
Scoutmaster Norman Kasser of Troop 146, Hoboken, N.J., finds even more ways to use parents as behind-the-scenes support. For example, when a Scout is assigned to be patrol cook for one or more weekend meals, his parents are encouraged to share in the joys of the cooking experience with him ahead of time.
"They're asked to take a look at the menu and shopping list, and maybe do a dry run at home of a meal or two that the boy will be cooking," says Kasser. For families who have never allowed their son to turn on the stove, light a match, or boil water, this advance practice in the comfort of their own kitchen can work wonders, he reports.
Put 'meat' into meetings
Finally, consider a fresh look at the agenda topics for your parent meetings. Instead of discussing the same administrative issues each time, offer some mini-training sessions on specific topics related to the troop program.
If you expect parents to give up their evening, be sure to offer plenty of hands-on activities, practical demonstrations, and specific information they can use.
A parent who has never camped, but who is about to help his son purchase a backpack and hiking boots, will appreciate a 20-minute equipment demonstration. Compare benefits, drawbacks, and costs of internal and external frame packs, give hints on where to shop, show how to fit the pack to a boy's back, and more.
Making every parent meeting count and inviting all parents to see the Scouts in action will help these adults become more engaged with the troop. And the more they learn about Scouting, the more comfortable they'll be around the boys and the troop leaders.
Who knows? Next year, some of these once-invisible parents might show up in uniform, ready to help lead the troop as a registered Scouter.
Contributing editor Cathleen Ann Steg lives in Fairfax, Va.
September 2003 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2003 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.