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If You Keep Playing With That It Will Break

posted Jun 29, 2016, 7:56 AM by Brian Pratt

Many parents of Cub Scouts have gotten comfortable with using the family camping gear on scout outings because they’ve been the ones setting it up and taking it down.  When their scout crosses over and Mom or Dad are no longer there to personally supervise, tents start to come home without stakes, spiffy integrated titanium mess kits come home disintegrated titanium messes, and tent poles, if they show up at all, arrive with the shock cord broken and several sections missing because the scout jammed it 8 feet down into the snow before discovering that you can’t actually pull on a collapsible tent pole (it just comes apart and the end stays stuck 8 feet down).

Naturally, the parents get upset.  This is what I tell them: “Excellent!  He learned something about the physical world this weekend!  It’s a win!  But yeah, you might want to send the B-list gear next time.”  And then I express sympathy, because I had to go through a couple of expensive snow saws myself before I caught on.

Here’s my reasoning: these are kids of a generation with very little experience of the physical world, and we should cut them some slack for that, and be joyful that Scouting gives them chance to learn through failure.  I’m not saying we should totally let them off the hook when they lose or damage gear (and yes, there’s an important distinction between exploration and vandalism), but consider this: they have the computer lab where we had shop class and Minecraft where we had erector sets.  Opportunities for the learning that comes with simply messing around with actual physical matter are all too rare, and we should encourage and celebrate their explorations.  As an engineer and parent I am convinced that any result is a good result when it comes to scouts and gear, even if it’s mayhem and breakage, as long as there is learning.  The key is to talk about it afterward - but ask, don’t lecture.(“So, what did you learn about the interaction between hot pans and plastic picnic tables today?  How could that have been done differently?  And how can you get melted plastic off a pan?”)

Sure, we should teach the difference between a tool and a toy, but playing with a tool is actually a pretty good way to understand it.  That sinking feeling when trying to pull the tent pole out of the snow teaches something about machines that can’t be truly internalized any other way.  Messing around with that tent pole until it snaps due to metal fatigue is a visceral experience that is hugely important and can’t be had online.  Learning that Bisquick makes a nice fireball when tossed by the handful into a campfire is an excellent entree into a discussion of why grain elevators explode, and other sciencey things.  (Pro tip: try it with nondairy coffee creamer!  WHOMP!).  Studies have shown that working with your hands is important for overall brain development, and that makes for better engineers, doctors, lawyers and artists. Going out into the woods, running around with a stick, tripping over some tent lines and setting stuff on fire is a HUGE WIN for these kids, and for science education and the future of American manufacturing and society in general.  We should worry less about the gear and more about what its sacrifice can do for the scout, with our guidance.

A Scout is Clean and Thrifty, and an important outcome of this experiential learning is that they eventually do learn to track and take care of gear, so there must be cheerful reflection each time they come home with melted boots or a torn rainfly.  Scouting offers real-world learning about the properties of materials that many kids won’t ever get, so be willing to pay a price and don’t squander the opportunity for reflection in your disappointment at another bent tent pole.  They’re hard on gear, but don’t be too hard on them. Rejoice in the learning, and reflect with them on lessons learned.  They’re taking away knowledge that you take for granted, and someday they will call you from their corner office and thank you for it.

Updated Advancement Requirements for 2016

posted Apr 18, 2016, 9:47 PM by Brian Pratt   [ updated Sep 19, 2017, 3:43 PM ]

As you may have heard, BSA has tweaked the advancements program for 2016.

Scouts should print this addendum (print it double-sided, so it makes a little booklet) and keep it in their current scout book: PDF link

Here's a useful FAQ covering the changes and how they affect you: http://www.scouting.org/filestore/pdf/2016BoyScoutrequirementsFAQs.pdf

Highlights include more emphasis on fitness, service, and camping, and Scout is now considered a formal rank (though we'd already treated it this way, pretty much).

The change that has perhaps drawn the most attention is that now for every rank, the Scout is required to tell how he has performed his Duty To God, which is of course part of the Scout Oath.    

It’s important to note that this new requirement focuses on the individual Scout:  How does the Scout believe he has done his duty to his God (however defined)?  Nothing more is required of the Scout.  Importantly, it's not for the Scoutmaster to instruct, challenge, proselytize, or offer his own views.  Indeed, the requirement does not even contemplate that a discussion or two-way conversation should occur.  The Scoutmaster’s job is to simply listen.

Here in T186 we will continue to honor all faiths and traditions and questionings.  In Scoutmaster conferences when discussing the 12th point of the Scout Law, "A Scout Is Reverent", I've always tried to make it clear that the idea of "Reverence" is just that a Scout should be aware that there is something in this life that is much, much bigger than himself, and that we are each a small but important part of the collective experience of life.  This idea is worthy of solemn contemplation, and no matter what name you give this idea it's important to cultivate a sense of wonder and gratitude for one's existence on this beautiful planet in this amazing time of human achievement.  Where one chooses to direct that gratitude is not for me to say - it's a matter of personal choice and family tradition - but cultivating that gratitude makes for a healthier, happier, and more empathetic person, and fosters a sense of duty to somehow return that favor while you live.  It's that duty that I want the Scout to think about.

This new requirement has the Scout reflecting on these ideas, or perhaps describing how he engages with his family in the more concrete practices of an organized religion if they have one, while the Scoutmaster simply listens to what the Scout has to say. I don't have a problem with that - and I hope you don't either.  It's what we're doing already.

Yours In Scouting,


Type II Fun

posted Apr 18, 2016, 9:46 PM by Brian Pratt   [ updated Apr 18, 2016, 9:51 PM ]

(originally posted Monday, February 1, 2016)

We just got back from our snow cave overnight up on Mount Rainier.  The snow covered road wasn't open until noon on Saturday so by the time we got to the site around 1:30, we didn't have a lot of daylight left.  Everybody had to work fast, and dig hard.  We all got tired and the shelters were of varying size and completeness, but most were serviceable.

Most of the Scouts had a comfortable night, but one or two were a little under prepared, or inexperienced, and had a rough evening.  Finally I got them sorted out and into a spare tent, and dry clothing, so nobody died, but there were some dark moments and audible moans of "why did I decide to come on this outing?"

And yet, when we got back to the Safeway parking lot Sunday afternoon, all smiles.

This is what mountaineers call "Type II Fun".  "Type I Fun" describes stuff that's fun while you're doing it, like a nice powder day in a lift-serviced ski area, or nachos and a Seahawks game.  "Type II Fun" is stuff that, while you're doing it, actually kind of sucks, but when you look back you're happy you did it and you know you want to do it again.

Type II fun is the best kind of fun.  It's the kind that gives you stories to tell.  It's the kind you hear about in every Eagle Scout speech.  Type I fun is boring to talk about and worse to listen to, but Type II fun is epic.

When I think of the remarkable adults I personally know, the ones finding new worlds within the human genome, or who helped start Amazon and are now working to eradicate illiteracy with e-books on cell phones in developing nations, or the doctors and lawyers that you're happy to sit down and have a drink with, every last one of them has tales of Type II fun to share.  There is correlation and, I believe, causation in this.  Awesome people have awesome Type II fun.  Other people only ever have normal Type I fun.

So Scouts, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Don't skip an outing just because you think you might get wet or cold.  Parents, nudge and support your Scouts in pushing their boundaries, which will probably push yours.  This is the good stuff, the (Type II) fun stuff that makes boys into men (and, yes, girls into powerful women).  This is WHY WE ARE SCOUTS.

Finally, let me leave you with the most extreme example of Type II fun I know:

We choose to go to the Moon! ... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win ... - John F. Kennedy

This is Why We Study First Aid

posted Apr 18, 2016, 9:44 PM by Brian Pratt   [ updated Apr 18, 2016, 9:50 PM ]

(originally posted Wednesday, October 7, 2015)

From Scouts South Africa: Learn It Young. Remember It Forever - YouTube

The Blessings of a Large Troop

posted Apr 18, 2016, 9:43 PM by Brian Pratt   [ updated Apr 18, 2016, 9:49 PM ]

(originally posted Sunday, October 4, 2015)

At last week's Green Bar Council (GBC) meeting we had our Senior Patrol Leader, his 3 Assistant Senior Patrol Leaders,  our 9 Patrol Leaders, and our 4 Troop Guides.  I had more scout leaders in my living room than most troops have scouts.   You think I'm joking, but BSA says that the average troop size is 15 scouts.  If you've ever been to Camp Parsons and looked around at the other troops lined up  in front of the dining hall you know I'm not exaggerating.

That's pretty amazing.  It's also a problem - but it is a high quality problem.

As the scouts spitballed meeting ideas at the GBC, our SPL had to constantly remind his guys (and these were his actual words) that we had to think about how all these cool meeting ideas would scale.  Even if we only get half our guys there on any given Monday, you still have to think about how you play broom hockey or do t-shirt printing or first aid drills with 40+ guys. It makes even the simplest ideas kind of complicated.

It can also be a problem for outings - many public lands restrict group sizes to 10 or 12 per party.  On last summer's West Coast Trail 50 miler we had to send out 5 groups of 10.  (All of whom were totally awesome and came through with flying colors - I could not be more proud.  That's known as one of the world's most challenging hikes, and we ran a bunch of 12 year old scouts through it).

On the upside, it's pretty awesome that our guys, as teenagers, are learning how to manage an organization with 90 members (call it 200+ if you throw in the parents).  How great does that look on a resume when you're a 16 year old applying for a summer job?  This is experience that most college graduates lack - what an incredible opportunity.

And it's pretty awesome that we have something like 80 sets of parents we can draw from as merit badge counselors, outings tripmasters, and adult leadership.  In a small troop it's usually the same two or three parents that do absolutely everything that's needed to enable the scout led troop.  That leads to burnout, or a troop that's not actually scout led.

It's a constant balancing act to avoid becoming victims of our own success, but the combined teams of scoutmasters, troop committee members, and scout leadership are extremely thoughtful and keenly aware of the challenges, advantages and opportunities that come to us in our current size.  The energy and diversity our size brings us is incredible, and I wouldn't trade T186 for anything.  This is the best troop on the planet!

- Brian Pratt, Scoutmaster T186

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