By Randell Keys
Nov 20, 2017

Understanding the Why of Scouting

Sometimes we get a bit lost — can’t see the forest from the trees, as it were. We get more concerned with HOW we do something or WHAT we do instead of WHY we do it. I would like to give you a new way of looking at Scouting from a different view. A positive view that not only validates the love and commitment that you have for the program but also challenges you to question some of the beliefs that you have about it and the populations that you serve. A view that drives you to think beyond the specifics…the content, the achievement, beyond the membership numbers, to a whole child who is growing as part of a family, a community, a society, a culture, and a place in time. A view that clarifies the route to our intended outcomes starting at the WHY of Scouting.

The Origin of WHY

We must start the conversation about Scouting from the origin of WHY. Taking this model, I would like to reframe for you a message for Scouting.

We are here because ALL youth deserve the chance to grow in safe and healthy wa


HOW – we achieve this through the Ideals and Methods of Scouting.

WHAT – we create leadership opportunities through fun and challenging outdoor experiences.

Scouting builds character…and here’s the proof. Called many different things…Character and Merit Project, Tufts Study, Boy Scout Study…Funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Myth # 1

“It is a common belief that Scouting is skimming the cream off the top.” Said another way…BSA recruits kids of high character and then, not surprisingly, they have high character when they get out of Scouts.  NOT true in our findings. “They come that way.” In fact, at the beginning of the study, there were no significant differences in character attributes between Scouts and non-Scouts.

After three years of research, Cub Scouts reported significant increases in cheerfulness, helpfulness, kindness, obedience, trustworthiness and hopeful future expectations. Where there were no significant increases reported among non-Scouts. Over the course of the study, the change in positive character attributes for Scouts vs. non-Scouts became evident.

Scouts also showed other significant differences. Asked to prioritize goals in their life, Scouts were more prosocial with their responses than those who were not involved in Scouting. Prosocial behavior, doing the right thing, helping others, being smart, being the best, playing sports. Scouts are significantly more likely than non-Scouts to embrace other-oriented values.

Myth #2

An Eagle Scout shakes hands with an adult leader at National Scout Jamboree.

“All programs are created equal.” Many people believe that all programs are equal and that the decision is as simple as choosing whether a kid wants to go to a Scout meeting or a baseball game. So, what makes one program “better” than another? There are three elements that have been shown to be predictors of positive life-changing programs. We call these the Big 3. Because Scouting is a great example of the Big 3, it has much greater potential to affect PYD “Positive Youth Development”.

Out-of-school-time youth development programs that promote a PYD perspective are designed to be safe spaces that have, what we refer to as, the Big 3. What features of youth development programs promote PYD? Youth development programs which are marked by “the Big 3”.

Positive and sustained adult-youth relationships provide youth with extensive opportunities for sustained, caring and supportive relationships with adults; (at least a year).


  1. Life-skill building curricula, promote the development of life-skills through program activities; and…
  2. Opportunities for youth leadership which provide opportunities to contribute to, and assume a leadership role in, valued family, school, or community activities (Lerner, 2004).

Scouting accomplishes this by recruiting and training thoughtful and caring adults for leadership positions that extend over a year in a variety of settings. Scouting is full of skills that can be directly applied to the life of a growing boy from cooking to crafting skills. Also, life-skills like grit and communication are part of all aspects of Scouting. As a Scout progresses in the program, they are able to take on more and more responsibility for leadership in the unit. Until then, Scouts will learn through modeling from those boys who are learning to lead as well as the trained adult leaders.

So, what about other programs?

Let’s take Sports. In sports, there are both positive results and negative results. Positive results include

improving grades in school, feeling better about themselves and showing leadership. Negative results include increased aggressive behavior, reduced ability to see right from wrong and increased chance for risky behavior.


Cub Scouts are significantly more likely than non-Scouts to embrace other-oriented values, including “helping others” and Doing the right thing”. Activity/Other-oriented values as most important: BSA 72 percent, BSA and Sports 64 percent and Sports 53 percent. 

The results of the Tufts study support previous findings in the field that combining a strong Youth Development program with sports creates a cumulative positive.  The implication is that these organizations should work together to create the best opportunities for PYD.

Myth #3

“It takes five years.” At every level of the BSA, I have heard the same mantra, “It takes five years” for our program to be effective. This point, as I have come to find out, comes from the studies of Harris Interactive. Based on the findings of the Tufts Study, this is not the case. It does not seem to be the duration of the participation, but the intensity of the engagement. We are noticing significant changes in individuals over a shorter time than five years, but it depends on their level of engagement or the intensity of their participation. The take away is “Get Scouts to participate in all of the unit activities in a way that is engaging, and you will see the results sooner.”

Within the time that a Scout is in the program, there seem to be some key indicators of success in relation to positive character development. These are attendance, tenure, and engagement.

Attendance Matters

Scouts who attend meetings regularly report higher trustworthiness, helpfulness, kindness, thriftiness and hopeful future expectation and self-regulation, better grades, and a better connection with nature vs. Scouts who “sometimes” or “rarely” attend.

Tenure Matters

As Scouts’ tenure in the program increases, they report higher levels of trustworthiness, self-regulation, hopefulness, and better grades. The Harris Interactive research said five-years, but we are seeing changes in less than three!

Engagement Matters

Scouts who are more engaged in the program are more cheerful, helpful, and kind and have higher future expectation and self-regulation.

Engagement was the key to understanding character change in Scouts. Engagement was described by the items like: Do you like to wear the uniform? Will you become an Eagle? Do you attend meetings, events, camp? I have a best friend in Scouts.

Quality Program Matters

Scouts participating in a service project.

Highly engaged youth registered in Packs with highly engaging programs reported higher character attributes. Although this finding is not a particularly surprising one, there was a secondary finding that was counter to beliefs that many Scouters have. Highly engaged Scouts in low engaged units showed the next best changes in character. This means that what is of utmost importance is the engagement of each individual and, therefore, we cannot rely on the positive momentum of the group to serve as a catalyst for engagement at the individual level.

The question then becomes, “How do we get this message out to those who do not understand the value proposition of Scouting? This is our white whale and the key aspect that we need to address. I believe that starting with and showing the WHY will accomplish this with the greatest effectiveness.  How then will councils get the word out about Scouting in a way that supports families and enhances the possibility of Scouting becoming embedded in communities?

WHY? I believe that by taking an approach to understanding and explaining the “WHY” of Scouting, Councils will achieve the goals that have been set in the strategic plan and continue on the path to reaching its full potential for all leaders and youth.

Randall Keys

Author: Randell Keys | Former Professional Scouter

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