Boy Scouts: The Coed World

At the end of Candide the party of protagonists finds themselves tossed by the wind and uncertain of pretty much everything. While I am not a literary scholar my simple interpretation has given me something to guide my journey through the waves of uncertainty in my own life. Candide settles down in the countryside of Byzantium and decides all he can do in the face of a world of uncertainty is work in his garden. I don’t have answers to all the chaos in this world and even if I did why would anyone listen to me? But I do have 24 hours each day to work in my own corner of the world to build the society I believe in. After all, isn’t society just the composite of millions of private gardens blended together by the loudest gardeners? I want to show you one of the garden plots I’ve been working on, Coed Scout camp.

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Here’s the story. NYLT (National Youth Leadership Training) is a weeklong leadership camp sponsored by the Boy Scouts of America. Every area has their version of it. The Utah National Parks Council (covers all of Utah south of Salt Lake) has a tremendously successful rendition called Timberline involving some 40+ courses each year, each one hosting from 30 to 60 youth. Five years ago the national boy scouts decreed that every council had to make NYLT available for girls (there are girls in the 14-21 year-old Venturing crews). So, my aunt and uncle were involved in the effort to host a special council wide Timberline Course (our version of NYLT) that was to be Coed, while all of the others could remain just for boys.

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Coed camps obviously lead to special concerns. Usually the boys (who usually don’t know each other) are broken into small patrols of 4-8 and given their own camp where they develop a certain degree of autonomy. We can’t let 15 year-old girls camp with 15 year-old boys without supervision so the girls had to sleep on one side of the camp and the boys on the other with the adults squarely in the middle. There are also certain skills which girls, having never been cub scouts, are generally ignorant of; like knot tying, flag folding, reciting the scout oath and so forth.

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Three years ago I was tapped out to be the “young” scoutmaster. The other leaders tend to be married, empty nesters, and…older, making it somewhat harder for them to relate to the current trials of mission and college prep or to keep up in any of the physical activities. I had experienced NYLT as a youth but Timberline is very different from the Order of the Arrow version I had staffed before. In three years I’ve seen three coed Timberline courses (and one all male course) with each one possessing unique challenges and wonderment.

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Timberline is led by youth. The first two years we had two young women serve as senior patrol leaders. They were in charge of ensuring that the program is implemented and that staff does as they ought to. The adults serve mainly as backup to control for health and safety. All of the classes are taught by youth. The ceremonies, meals, assemblies, meetings, and games are all implemented by youth under direction of the SPL. In each patrol the leader is changed each day so everyone, male and female, gets to be patrol leader for a day. We all wear the same uniform. At camp, we are all on equal footing. (Except me, after three years I know where the cookies are kept. Significant status boost.)

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One aspect that was immediately obvious to anyone who has spent more than a week at a boy scout camp is the change in behavior. I don’t know how girls behave camping without males, I’ve never been on a girl’s only campout. But the boys are far more respectful, careful, cleaner, and less reckless with the girls around. There is a spectrum at that age where some of the boys want nothing to do with the girls and some of the boys see nothing but the girls. The girls seem split between those who are fascinated by this strange tom boy world they have entered and those who retire to their comfort zone to survive the week. Timberline is not a rugged camp. We spend most of our time in a relatively small area with sheltered tables where the youth had ample time to sit, play games, and work on crafts (we made floats for a parade each year in honor of the 4th of July which occurs during our camp). This allows those who are comfortable with more physical activity to play while still in sight of those sitting at the tables drawing.

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A major part of scout camp is the physical games. One, poison stump, involves everyone linking arms or hands in a circle and trying to force one person to touch a “poisoned box” in the middle of the circle. With such a large range of ages and sizes the smaller boys quickly get muscled into the box and thus out of the game. Yet the girls, many of them, joined in these games eagerly. We frequently get injuries in games of physical strength but the girls seem to make the boys more careful. Compared to the male-only camps we had far fewer accidents, fewer tears, and fewer hurt feelings.

The girls were also anxious to join in on the camp yells and songs. There is some rough ground when they figure out that the Girl’s Camp songs are slightly different than Boy Scout songs but they both easily embrace the culture of the other and soon everyone is learning songs from both traditions. They also moderate the tone of the songs slightly. For instance the boys avoid the more gruesome songs (the Sausage Machine, Pink Pajamas) and the girls only sing a few songs about boys (Sipping Cider, the Lip thing skit). Girls do seem more inclined to have the “perfect” skit or cheer. They try a lot harder to get everyone to learn it and sometime write out very precise scripts in triplicate. The boys are more likely to just shoot for it and fail miserably.

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In the leadership activities (marshmallows and spaghetti, electric fence, wiggle woggle) the girls seem quite willing to participate and take charge. I’ve seen natural leaders in girls and boys…and it’s always bad to get two of them of either gender in the same group. Boys seem more likely to try prototyping while girls seem more willing to take an authoritative position to guide the group regardless of whether they know what they are doing. Often times the boys had seen the activity or something like it and are thus quicker to guess the secret to each challenge. However the girls are much faster in the reflection at the end of the activity. They are better at relating the activities to other aspects of their lives.

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While I saw far more tears at the all-boy course they had more to do with egos than feelings. The girls are much more open with their feelings. What more, the girls made the boys more willing to express their feelings. I sat with our one all-male patrol and we quickly went through a small worship service where everyone expressed a few brief thoughts in the self-conscious manner of adolescents. This contrasted with the other patrols where teary-eyed girls revealed deeply personal aspects of their lives and pulled the same thing out of the boys with them.

Now, this is only three years of observation so it has limitations. The youth of Timberline are hardly representative. They have all been LDS thus far, and likely from some of the most conservative LDS areas in the world. The girls that come to this course are either very active in the venturing program or they have fathers run Timberline courses of their own and always wished to share it with their daughters. The high moral standards of these youth has been essential to the security and openness these camps have had.

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This is what I have learned. Girls need to be respected but not sheltered. They can learn to tie knots and light fires but sometimes they have to mess up first. They need to be given the opportunity to mess up so they can get it right eventually. That’s what we give the boys at camp (much to the detriment of scouting’s reputation). Girls need to let themselves mess up now and then. Boys need to work with girls. They need to be able to see that girls have skills and realize they have valuable talents (even if they almost always lose at poison stump). Boys need to learn how to be emotionally vulnerable (honest) and they can learn that from working closely with girls. People need to work with a variety of different people, regardless of gender. We have so many different styles of leadership and problem solving techniques. You will get frustrated with your boss, or coworker, or spouse unless you learn to work with other styles. Your style isn’t right. Theirs isn’t wrong. Use what works best for each problem in turn.

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I think these coed camping trips offer fantastic opportunities for boys and girls. I met far too many girls in college that had never been camping with anyone but their father. You have to be careful. It has to be done right. And it shouldn’t be all the time. Boys still need to go to camp without the girls there to temper their actions. They can learn a lot that way. I’m not sure what girls learn when they are alone but I’m sure they learn something. Do you want to fight gender inequality in our society and world? Do you want your girls to grow up confident and your boys to grow up compassionate? Do you want them to learn to talk to each other and respect each other’s ideas as equals? The trick is the same as it was 100 years ago when Lord Baden-Powell invited men and women to join the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides to instill character in the hearts of young people; for the strength of the country, society, the world, and for the sake of the youth.

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PS. I don’t come home from Timberline unchanged even as merely a witness. Each year I find myself more determined to live the oaths I’ve taken and deeply encouraged by the hope of good youth. I am better after the experience too.

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One thought on “Boy Scouts: The Coed World

  1. Anita

    That was really interesting, thanks. I’ve always wondered.

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