Mac’s Message #31: Why Boys Acquire Merit Badges

Mac McIntire

Mac McIntire

I hate to be redundant in this week’s blog message, but people learn better through repetition. One of the things you will notice about my blog messages is that I primarily focus on explaining the why of specific elements of LDS Scouting rather than delving into how to do it. There are countless resources available to teach you how to implement the Scouting program within your unit. And, of course, I also hope people will comment in the reply section at the end of each of my messages to share how they are implementing the Scouting methods in their program.

To me the most important thing is not what one should do in Scouting or how one should do it, but rather why it should be done in the first place. The purpose of my blog messages is to answer the most important motivating question behind every what—which is “Why should I do it?”

In last week’s message I reiterated that the purpose of Scouting in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to fulfill the eight Purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. On numerous occasions I have heard Bro. Larry Gibson, recently released first counselor in the Young Men general presidency, say to professional executives of the Boy Scouts of America, “If Scouting does not make a boy a better priesthood leader, we don’t need it.” He typically followed up his comment by testifying that Scouting is an inspired program. Since this is true, you ought to run your Scouting program the way it has been inspired by the Lord.

In this message I wish to explain the why behind the acquisition of merit badges. May I submit that the purpose of working on merit badges is not to merely fulfill requirements for advancement or to snag another patch for a boy’s merit badge sash. Yet, it seems boys, and even their leaders, often rush through the merit badge requirements just so the boys can get it done, acquire the badge, forget about it, and then move on to the next requirement to achieve their Eagle Scout rank. In this rush for numbers the boys miss out on the real lessons to be learned during the merit badge process.

Like many elements of the gospel, often the process in Scouting is more important than the accomplishment. The journey has greater value than the destination.

One of the eight Methods of Scouting is association with other adults. When conducted properly, a boy should individually meet with a merit badge counselor to work on the requirements for the badge. This connects the boy with other adults—both men and women—who can give him guidance, direction, insight, and spiritual strength that will help build his testimony. By associating directly with other adults who are not his Scouting or Aaronic Priesthood leaders, a young man comes in contact with other spiritually mature people who exemplify the values of the Scout Oath, Scout Law, and the eight purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. Direct association with other adults is a critical component of a young man’s spiritual and temporal development.

Working on merit badges should also provide a boy with the opportunity to work closely with his parents and family members. As I mentioned in Mac’s Message #9, the second priority of LDS Scouting is to strengthen the family. When a boy engages the help of a family member—particularly his father—to work on merit badge requirements it creates a special bond. It builds trust, respect, and confidence between the boy and the family member as the young man acquires new knowledge and skills from his “mentor.” Some of the greatest experiences of a boy’s life can come from working closely with his father or other members of his family to complete merit badge requirements. Scouting leaders minimize and circumvent this process when they hold “group” merit badge sessions that preclude a boy from working individually with his parents and family. Parents miss a wonderful nurturing opportunity when they mistakenly transfer the responsibility for their son’s rank and merit badge acquisition to Scouting or priesthood leaders.

Procuring merit badges should require work. It typically should not be done in a classroom, where a boy just sits and listens to someone lecture about the topic. Every merit badge requires action. It involves searching, learning, doing, making, building, fixing, and interaction with others. It many cases it requires a boy to get out of his comfort zone to do something he may feel totally insecure about doing. Like most things in Scouting, merit badge requirements are not meant to be easy. They are designed to push a boy to reach his full potential. When leaders diminish the merit badge experience by simplifying the process or choosing the least demanding way to fulfill the requirements, it limits the long-term value the boy could receive from diligently working to achieve the coveted award. There ought to be individual merit in acquiring a merit badge.

As I have said in previous blog messages, one of the great blessings of earning merit badges is the value it provides a boy for his future life. Clearly the Backpacking, Camping, Communication, Cooking, Cycling, First Aid, Hiking, Personal Fitness, Personal Management, Wilderness Survival, and other merit badges prepare a young man for his future mission. Such merit badges as American Business, Animal Science, Archeology, Chemistry, Computers, Digital Technology, Entrepreneurship, Law, Medicine, and others may introduce a boy to his future profession. And skills learned through the Automotive Maintenance, Electricity, Family Life, Gardening, Home Repairs, Painting, Plumbing, and Woodwork merit badges will turn a young man into a much appreciated and respected future husband and father.

Acquiring these merit badges will only have value to a boy if you help him see the connection between what he is learning and how it applies to his life. This is why reflection after every activity is so important (Mac’s Message #28). If, instead, the boy is singularly focused on the outcome—the merit badge—he may miss the lasting value of the process. Like cramming to study for a test in school, a young man may learn the merit badge information temporarily, but lose the knowledge or skills he may need to succeed in numerous situations throughout his life.

Sometimes good-intentioned Scouting leaders schedule every weeknight meeting to work on merit badges or rank advancement. Instead of the unit being boy-led, where the boys determine the activities for the night, the leaders have a pre-set action plan of how they will get the boys to earn their Eagle Scout rank by a certain date. This over-emphasis on acquiring merit badges and rank advancement can lead to early burnout for the boys as Scouting begins to feel more like work than fun. It also can cause boys to drop out of Scouting once they become an Eagle because they believe they are now “done” with Scouting. Again, the badge becomes the goal rather than seeing the process as a means of helping a boy to become a better man.

In my opinion there are better ways to acquire quantities of merit badges than taking up valuable unit meeting time to do so. Council summer camps are purposefully designed to be merit badge mills. So are merit badge expos (marathons, jamborees, pow-wows, etc.) where boys usually have a large selection of merit badges to work on. These events are provided so boys come together in large groups to work on merit badge requirements. But the merit badge process is primarily designed as an individual experience where a boy can choose which merit badges appeal to his interests. Adult Scouting leaders can do a disservice to their boys and lessen the experience by holding group merit badge sessions at unit meetings rather than having the boys meet directly and individually with merit badge counselors.

As we learn in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” The six years a boy spends in the Scouting and Young Men programs are a very short season for a boy to fulfill the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. I sincerely pray you will do all you can to help your boys see the connection between the merit badge process as designed by the Boy Scouts of America and the purposes the Lord has established for his precious young men. There is a reason why a boy should work on merit badges, and that reason is far more important than a round patch on a sash.

Take a Moment to Reflect

  • Do you help your boys see the connection between merit badge requirements and the knowledge and skills they will need in their future as a missionary, husband, father, and priesthood leader?
  • Do you encourage your boys to work directly with merit badge counselors rather than in classroom-type settings?
  • Do you encourage your boys to work with parents and family members to fulfill merit badge requirements?
  • Do you avoid making it too easy for your boys to earn merit badges so they can learn the lesson of hard work and studious effort?
  • Do you use summer camps and merit badge expos for group merit badge classes so you can keep your weeknight unit meetings free to do other Scouting activities?


Turn Your Reflection Into Action

  • What will you start doing, stop doing, or do better as a result of your reflection?
“Church leaders regularly plan priesthood activities and Scouting pow wows and encampments—but do those activities always accomplish their most important purpose? I have learned that what makes a priesthood or Scout activity most meaningful to a boy is not just getting a merit badge but having the opportunity to sit and talk with a leader who is interested in him and his life” (Robert D. Hales,Our Duty to God: The Mission of Parents and Leaders to the Rising Generation,” Ensign, May 2010).

-Mac McIntire is a dedicated Scouter who has blessed many lives through his service and acute understanding of the Scouting program. He currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. The views and opinions expressed in this message are solely those of the author.

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  1. Mac says:

    Yikes! Sorry for the long message. I didn’t realize it was so long until seeing it posted here. I will try to be more brief again in future messages.

  2. Steve Faber says:


    I think some BSA camp directors, specifically in the UNPC, would take issue with the opinion that, “Council summer camps are purposefully designed to be merit badge mills.” As a scoutmaster, I would not knowingly put down sacred funds to have my boys attend a “merit badge mill.” I’m pleased with boys who both bring home completed merit badges (4-5 from the council camps we go to) or who bring home “partial” merit badges. Partials are evidence of effort and opportunities for more scouting in the patrol, troop and in the home, to complete the goal of an “earned” merit badge.

    Still, the risk persists that organized merit badge events miss the mark Elder Hales has defined, “to sit and talk with a leader who is interested in him and his life.”

    It’s my opinion that the BYU merit badge pow-wow’s miss the mark (besides being too expensive). Still I continue to find some value in bringing my own boys to the BYU pow-wows from time to time, mainly because I go to the sessions with them, and can have those personal discussions.

    My current stake use to run merit badge pow-wow’s in a similar “mill” way on the district level. But recently, the high council’s of the two stakes sponsoring the pow-wow have scaled it back so that I can serve as a merit badge counselor (this time for Citizenship in the World) for 4-6 boys, and the boys can get to know me and I can get to know them. For 1.5 hours on two Saturday’s, we’re able to complete ONE merit badge. With a small group, we can talk about the WHY of Citizenship, and the boys can SHARE (LEARN/ACT/SHARE) what they know and have learned. Similar to how the Savior learned, He “increased in … favour with God and man.” This is what it means to be a good citizen.

    1. Mac says:

      When I use the term “merit badge mill” I do not mean it to be a pejorative term. A mill is a place where something is manufactured or produced in, hopefully, an efficient and effective manner. Typically a mill produces the same product over and over, so they have their processes down to a science. Their productive output is higher because they know how to produce the desired product in the best way possible. That is what I mean by a merit badge mill. Council camps, hopefully, have the merit badge process worked out so well at their camps they can guide boys more effectively on the merit badges offered. Because so many boys go to summer camp specifically to acquire merit badges, summer camps provide an ideal setting for merit badge acquisition. I would think a council camp would want a reputation of being a merit badge mill (as I have described it here) because more boys who are seeking Eagle Scout rank might want to go to that camp.

      I believe what you are most concerned about is boys just going to a class at summer camp or a merit badge pow-wow and then getting signed off on the badge. This process works fine for “easy” merit badges (Leatherwork, Basketry, etc), but it shouldn’t be the case on other merit badges. The process you describe of working with a few boys to ensure personal interaction is a great method. That method works even at summer camp. When I talk about the merit badge process, whether within your unit or at summer camp, I’m talking about doing it the right way. Some council camps do it the right way; others do not.

      1. Steve Faber says:

        Apologies Mac, I’ve only heard the term “mill” or “factory” in relation to merit badges used in a pejorative manner. It’s the lingo most scouters I’ve associated with use to describe a merit badge process they dislike, because of the rushed process and because of the undesirable outcomes. I’ve not been to all of the UNPC camps, but the ones I have been to do a pretty good job of teaching and helping boys earn the merit badge, even though the young men/young women “teaching” the merit badges are not old enough (18) to be merit badge counselors themselves.

        I strive for the ideal situation of having qualified merit badge instructors in our sub-districts and district, so boys can interact directly with a qualified merit badge counselor (and so they don’t always do merit badges via a pow-wow), but it takes a ton of work, a huge time commitment and a lot of resources to create an ideal merit badge counselor community in the district, so much so that I’m not sure I’ll ever see the day (but I hope to).

        I’m actually most concerned about us as adults, properly implementing scouting, instead of implementing it the way we remember it being done when we were scouts or how it’s been done in the past.

        1. Mac says:

          Me too. That’s why I write these blog messages. I look forward to the day when Scouting in all stakes, wards, and branches is done the Lord’s way. Does anyone think that day will ever come?

        2. Mac says:

          I guess I should also have explained that I am an organizational development consultant, so my perspective of a “mill” is from an business viewpoint. I’m sure you are right, Steve, that most people would interpret the word “mill” the same way you did. So thanks for giving me an opportunity to clarify.

    2. Steve Faber says:

      I wonder how the BYU Continuing Education System (who sponsors the merit badge pow-wow’s at BYU) will respond to this updated guidance from the BSA found in the 2015 Guide to Advancement where it says “Merit badge instruction should be small in scale” (Section:


  3. One of my cherished memories is earning the Home Repairs merit badge as one of the last that I needed for the Eagle rank. I discovered that my English teacher was a counselor for several badges. So my friend and I stayed after school one day to get started on Home repairs. Our teacher taught us a bit and then sent us home to work on the badge.

    Over the next month I worked with my naturally handy dad to complete the requirements. Sometimes my lack of skill frustrated Dad, but he still helped me learn and do what was needed. I still remember the day I visited my English teacher’s home. He conducted a careful review to ensure that each requirement had been met. He then told me that the most important thing I would get from the badge was the time I had spent with my father completing the requirements.

    Over the years I have seen merit badges done right and merit badges done wrong; merit badge classes done right and merit badge classes done wrong. I have seen all of these phenomena at home, at merit badge clinics, and at council camps. No boy is going to get a perfect merit badge experience, but we can work to make it as good as possible.

    I too believe that the key to high quality merit badge experiences lies with the adults. Not just the registered Scouters, but the parents too. Too many parents judge the quality of a program by the number of badges their sons earn. I have had parents become very upset about having sent their sons to summer camp when the boys have returned with only one or two new badges. The value of a week spent doing hands-on character development seemed unimportant to these parents. We need Scouters and parents to learn that it’s the soul, not the sash that’s important in Scouting.

  4. Bill Chapman says:

    Mac, this is another great post. The length of it may deter some who are looking for a “soundbite,” but it demonstrates to the rest of us how serious, enthusiastic and visionary you are about scouting in the Church. Personally, I spend a lot of time reading and studying what others have said, inside and outside of the Church, to really get a better understanding of what scouting is all about. It is tremendously important but also, as mentioned by one of the comments above, extremely time-consuming. It takes a lot of dedication and commitment to try to get this right. But that is probably true with any part of the work to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”

    For me, this is a very timely post because our troop is wrestling with this problem right now and has been as long as I have been scoutmaster, over the last year. I assume based on very good intentions, many LDS adults read or hear about the 2001 letter from the First Presidency and conclude that we should create the most efficient process possible to help as many young men achieve the rank of Eagle Scout that we can. When I was called a scoutmaster, I was told that I would be under a lot of pressure if I did not see that most of our scouts were advancing towards the rank of The Eagle.

    As we have put a lot of effort into having a Scout led Troop, we have seen incredible results. I see young men who are learning to take responsibility to plan and prepare for their own troop meetings, campouts and other activities. We follow the suggested agenda for troop meetings which is a balanced program including not just skill instruction but patrol meetings and inter-patrol activities (games).

    The adults have said almost nothing about wearing the uniform but I would say about 75% of our scouts come in pretty close to full uniform. Each patrol plans their own menu and assigns a grub master for each campout who is responsible to purchase the right amount of food and bring it to the campout. They cook their own food by patrol, camp by patrol, etc.

    We are far from perfect, but have had a number of “shining moments” watching our scouts learn to be responsible and do things for themselves. Our senior patrol Leader has started asking them, having been trained by us, when something goes wrong, “What part of the Scout oath or law did we not keep when we (insert conduct that was not courteous, respectful, etc.)?”

    I know it is very frustrating for a lot of adults to see a troop run this way were there is a lot of chaos, noise and commotion and we are not always that productive in getting “things done efficiently.” That includes earning merit badges and advancement.

    However, in my humble opinion, I would rather use the patrol method and have a Scout led Troop than an adult run troop because I believe we are helping these young men to prepare to become future missionaries, husbands, fathers, Melchizedek priesthood bearers, etc.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and for those who are posting comments. I wish we could publicize this blog more and get more people involved in the discussion. That is the only way that I see Mac’s dream coming true!

  5. Mac says:

    After posting this blog message I started thinking about when I was a Scoutmaster. In dawned on me that, in reality, I was always working on merit badges and advancement with my boys during every Scouting activity — including weeknights. I just didn’t let the boys know that was what we were doing. I call it the “sneak up on you” method of advancement. Here’s how it works:

    Instead of telling the boys we were “working” on merit badges or advancement requirements, I asked the boys what they wanted to do. If they said, “Go on a hike,” we planned the hike, prepared for the hike, checked our gear for the hike, went on the hike, did some activities on the hike, and then at the end of the hike I brought out the hiking merit badge and advancement books and we checked off the requirements the boys had accomplished.

    If the boys said, “Go camping,” we planned the camp, planned the meals, talked about safety precautions, packed the gear, went on the camp, put up the tents, cooked the meals, built the fires, and did all the other things we could toward rank advancement and the camping and cooking merit badges. At the end of the event I brought out the requirement books and signed off everything we could based on what the boys had done.

    If the boys said, “Go to the lake,” we planned the trip, talked about water safety and the correct PFD to use, rowed the boats, paddle the canoes, drove the motorboat, went waterskiing, and did everything else we could to pass off requirements for several merit badges. Of course, before the event we had to pass everyone off on their swimming and safety afloat requirements “just to be safe.” As always, at the end of the event I brought out the books and we passed people off on the requirements they had accomplished while they thought they were just having fun.

    If the boys said, “Let’s go shooting,” we told them they would have to do all sorts of safety training first. And we just happened to fulfill other requirements while we were out shooting up the countryside.

    Interestingly, if the boys had said “Play video games,” there are merit badges for that now too.

    My whole point is, if we make merit badges and advancement appear as “work,” the boys will hate it. But, if instead, we spend our weeknight meetings planning “fun” things to do and preparing for it, the boys will love it. When you work on merit badges ALL THE TIME using the “sneak up on you” method, the boys complete many merit badges each year. Believe me, they have no problem getting the number of required merit badges for rank advancement.

  6. Steve Faber says:


    Although I agree with the premise of your thoughts, I don’t think today’s youth need anything other than the truth. Work can be fun, satisfying and honorable, after all, it’s what we teach our youth:

  7. Mac says:

    From the 2015 Guide to Advancement:

    Advancement Defined
    Advancement is the process by which youth members of
    the Boy Scouts of America progress from rank to rank. It Is a Method—Not an End in Itself
    Advancement is simply a means to an end, not an end
    in itself. It is one of several methods designed to help
    unit leadership carry out the aims and mission of the
    Boy Scouts of America. Advancement Is Based on Experiential Learning
    Everything done to advance—to earn ranks and other
    awards and recognition—is designed to educate or to
    otherwise expand horizons. Members learn and develop
    according to a standard. This is the case from the time
    a member joins, and then moves through, the programs
    of Cub Scouting, Boy Scouting, Varsity Scouting, and
    Venturing or Sea Scouts.

    Experiential learning is the key: Exciting and meaningful
    activities are offered, and education happens. Learning
    comes from doing. For example, youth may read about
    first aid, hear it discussed, and watch others administer it,
    but they will not learn it until they practice it. Rushing a
    Scout through requirements to obtain a badge is not the
    goal. Advancement should be a natural outcome of a
    well-rounded unit program, rich in opportunities to work
    toward the ranks.

    It is important to note, as with any educational opportunity, a rank or award is not the end of the learning process. In Scouting, after a requirement has been passed, the Scout is placed in practical situations that build retention through repeated use of skills. For example, he plays games that feature the skills, teaches other Scouts, and perhaps practices them in “real-life” outdoor experiences.

    A well-rounded and strong unit program takes advantage
    of these kinds of opportunities, using them to improve
    retention through practical application. Personal Growth Is the Primary Goal
    Scouting skills—what a young person learns to do—are
    important, but not as important as the primary goal of
    personal growth achieved through participating in a
    unit program. The concern is for total, well-rounded
    development. Age-appropriate surmountable hurdles are
    placed before members, and as they face these challenges
    they learn about themselves and gain confidence.

    Learning Scout skills and concepts through active
    participation is a vehicle for personal growth, but it is not
    the primary goal. For example, learning how to tie a
    knot, plan a menu, swim, or administer first aid may turn
    out to be critical in one’s life, but they are secondary to
    the goal of personal growth that comes with learning.

    As a Scout learns a skill and then is tested on it, and
    reviewed and recognized, he develops confidence.
    He comes to realize he can learn and do other similar
    things. The retention of Scouting skills and knowledge is
    important, of course; but for retention to take place, it will
    be because Scouting skills and knowledge are used in
    our programs.

    Success is achieved when we fulfill the BSA Mission
    Statement and when we accomplish the aims of Scouting:
    character development, citizenship training, and mental
    and physical fitness. We know we are on the right
    track when we see youth accepting responsibility,
    demonstrating self-reliance, and caring for themselves
    and others; when they learn to weave Scouting ideals
    into their lives; and when we can see they will be
    positive contributors to our American society.

  8. James Walter Taylor says:

    I would add one elaboration, that I often bring up in Board of Reviews: merit badges offer lessons that fit a pattern the Scouts will see their entire life –
    – Have an interest or a need.
    – Speak to a knowledgeable expert.
    – Understand the risks.
    – Understand how to mitigate the risks.
    – Understand recovery or first aid for the risks.
    – Learn the skills.

    Understanding that to *do* doesn’t necessarily need to wait to complete a class, or a certification, or academics is important to get across. For all that a merit badge gives a taste of an interest, learning how to learn is more important.

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