A Boy Scout he is not: The unlikely den parent

February marks the annual Boy Scouts anniversary, and one journalist reflects on how his reporting skills, and willingness to ask for help, led him to unexpected scouting adventures with his son.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/FILE
In this Nov. 11, 2014 file photo, a group of Boy Scouts carry a large American Flag down Capitol Mall during a Veterans Day Parade in Sacramento, Calif.

This month, as in many Februarys past, Cub Scouts, leaders, and parents will hold Blue and Gold banquets in parish halls, school cafeterias, and civic centers across the country. They’re meant to celebrate Scouting’s official birthday – Feb. 8, 1910, when the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated.

Many den leaders have served the Cub Scouts, the program’s youngest recruits, since the Boy Scouts began more than a century ago. But I think I can say, with some measure of confidence, that I rank as the unlikeliest den leader of all.

I wasn’t a Scout when I was a kid.

A liberal arts major and lifelong bookworm, I’m hapless with building campfires, even worse with pitching tents, and generally clueless with tools. 

Except for occasional bird-watching and one night of camping, I had, prior to my stint as a den leader, no real experience of the great outdoors.

Which is why, when my son Will, then a second-grader, expressed an interest in Scouting that brought me to an orientation meeting for parents, my hand didn’t immediately shoot up when the den master asked for new volunteers.

But quickly realizing that the program needed more grown-ups to help the boys out, I agreed to manage a den of a dozen boys, including my own.

The only real experience I brought to our monthly meetings involved my career as a reporter – a dubious skill for adults charged with imparting such useful know-how as building a birdhouse, bandaging a cut, or whittling wood.

But having little else to work with, I fell upon what I knew. If you want to learn about a subject, as I had discovered in journalism, then find someone who knows about it and get them to explain it to you.

With that in mind, I asked one neighborhood expert after another to visit our meetings and teach my Cubs what I could not. For a program on recycling, the local waste disposal company rolled a garbage truck in front of our den lodge for the boys to explore. 

Utility workers arrived one month and threw hot dogs on a live wire to illustrate the dangers of electricity. A Red Cross worker taught basic first aid – a meeting that left half the boys gauzed up like mummies by the time their parents arrived. My mechanic taught the Cubs how to change a tire. Roland, the campus handyman for the church parish that hosted us, offered a seminar on leaky faucets. My brother Tim, much better than I am with carpentry, helped the boys build houses for bluebirds. 

In three years, drawing on many other guest experts, I gave my Scouts a world of wisdom. Will, now 14, counts those Cub Scout meetings among his fondest memories.

The experience reminded me of a basic principle we parents tend to forget. We don’t need to be omniscient for kids; we can ask others to help us out. In doing so, we teach children not to be too proud to ask for help, too.

A new book, “Sustainable Happiness,” includes a chapter about Naomi Alessio and Jackie Barton, two mothers who were worried about keeping their sons engaged in healthy activities. After Naomi’s son, Theron, clicked with a neighbor who was an expert metal worker, the mothers wondered how many other experts lived in the neighborhood, waiting to help. They found, in short order, people accomplished in juggling, music, barbecuing, bookkeeping, bowling, fishing, weightlifting, dog training, and crime-solving.

That community of brainpower, once connected, became a force for good in the lives of not only Naomi and Jackie’s sons, but other kids in the neighborhood.

That’s what can happen when we actively expand the circle of knowledge available to our children. And when we do so, as my den master years taught me, we grown-ups stand to learn at least as much as our kids.

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