The Scout-led Troop Blog #9: We’re Raising Boys, Not Cows

Bill Chapman

Years ago, I looked across the street from my home and saw my neighbor training his dog, a German shorthair pointer. He would give commands such as “heel,” “sit,” “roll-over,” or something like that. The dog obeyed perfectly. It was a beautiful sight. I thought, “Why can’t I train my children to be perfectly obedient like that?” It was very tempting.

Elder Loren C. Dunn told a story about raising cows when he and his brother were teenagers. Their father gave them a lot of freedom as to how they went about raising these cows and they made some mistakes. A neighbor complained to their father about what they were doing. Elder Dunn’s father responded to the neighbor, “Jim, you don’t understand. You see, I’m raising boys, not cows” (“Our Precious Families,Ensign, Nov. 1974). Elder Dallin H. Oaks retold this story in a later general conference and declared, “What a marvelous insight! What an example for parents who are inclined to view and evaluate their children’s performance solely in temporal terms” (“Spirituality,” Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, Nov. 1985).

When you see a troop that has its tents perfectly lined up and the Scouts faithfully attending to every chore, it is likely that one or more of the adults has created a system that is based on rewards (and possibly punishments) to ensure that the temporal performance of the Scouts measures up to their standards. Sometimes parents will tell their son he cannot get his driver’s license until he achieves the rank of Eagle Scout. A different approach is to replace the temporal rewards with the freedom to decide what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. When a young man is given that kind of freedom, it is amazing what he can accomplish.

Just like Elder Dunn and his brother raising cows, when we give a young man the freedom to determine how he is going to accomplish a task, the temporal outcome will often be far from perfect and at times things will look messy and, at worst, even chaotic. However, a good Scoutmaster can see his senior patrol leader, and hopefully his assistants, trying to work through and solve all of these problems. But if it looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, there is probably too much adult intervention.

If our goal is temporal, we can set up a system of rewards much like my neighbor training his dog. If we are diligent, the results will be impressive. There will likely be more merit badges, more rank advancements and even more Eagle Scouts. On the outside, our troop will look very good. But what is happening on the inside?

Our Scouts will be, like my neighbor’s dog, trained to respond to temporal rewards in exchange for the desired behavior. However, a few years later, when our Scouts are far from home and see no immediate temporal reward for what we hope they will do, they will be more likely to falter and even fail the test. In contrast, if our Scouts have eight years of choosing, planning, preparing and executing their own activities and are left to solve the inevitable problems that will come up along the way, they will be up for the challenge. After all, we’re raising boys, not cows!

I would love to create a separate Facebook page where we could gather stories and pictures, like the ones above, illustrating what a Scout-led troop looks like. If you are interested and willing to contribute to a separate Facebook page (not just in the comments below), please let me know.


-Bill Chapman lives in San Clemente, California, loves to surf, trail run, backpack, camp, do anything in the outdoors, and watch young men achieve the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood through the Scouting program. The views and opinions expressed in this message are solely those of the author.

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  1. Daniel C says:

    Love your blog and posts. I agree that there is a need to show scouting in the wild. The stories I hear are often extreme (or at least don’t sound like the troops I have worked with). I hear stories like “letting them fail” or “making them shape up” or stories of troops that operate like nothing I have ever seen. I think being able to picture it, tell the story and explain what successful boy-led troops look like would be really helpful (in all their messiness). It might also be good to know about how leaders either let go of expectations or adopt some useful ones.

    The other challenge I think is seeing a troop becoming boy-led. I hear stories of troops that seem to have made the transition whereas the troops I have always been in are in transition. What does it look like as we (adult advisors) provide great support to the boys while also giving them agency (especially in the beginning and middle)?

    I would even like some video so we can see it in action. Let me know if you want to collaborate. chaffin(dot)daniel(at)gmail(dot)com

  2. Bill Chapman says:

    Daniel, thank you for reading the post and sharing your thoughts. I will send you an email to explore some options.

    I would love to create a place where people could hear stories of their own and read stories and see pictures of what the Scout-led troop looks like. As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

    As I mentioned above, I will follow-up with you through email but in the interim, you may want to look at the most recent LDS-BSA Relationships Newsletter, which includes some stories from a prior troop I worked with and even a picture of what the Scout-led troop looked like in that ward. Here’s a link to the newsletter:

  3. David Whipple says:

    Amen to your comments. It has taken me years of working with YM, as well as 3 of my own sons to realize how important it is to give the young men the freedom to plan and organize their activities. Doing so is way harder and puts so much more responsibility on me as their Scoutmaster and adviser to help them learn how to do this so they don’t fail. I would love to send you a picture from our most recent event. We attended the Scouting 500 in Kansas City Kansas with 13,000 other scouts a couple of weekends ago. I let the boys choose where and how they set up their tents. They way they set them up was in stark contrast to some of the neighboring troops who had their matching tents all smartly lined up in rows. Our Bishop came to me and wanted me to talk to the Senior Patrol leader about why our tents weren’t all lined up like everyone else. I respectfully let him know that is up to the boys, not us. There are times that it takes every ounce of will power not to step in and just do it myself for them. But, anytime a boy asks for help, I am there with suggestions and ideas. I find evaluating afterwards is a really important part of the learning process. This is a constant evolving learning process, particularly as you have boys moving up through the program. I am always looking for ideas and suggestions on how to make this work effectively. Thanks.

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