Two years ago, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the Annual Meeting of the Girl Scouts of Rhode Island. This year the Girl Scouts of America is celebrating its centennial birthday.
I'm a huge fan of any organization that recruits and trains people to be what researcher Robert Balfanz calls "second-shift adults" – community members who provide young people with guidance, attention, sage advice and intriguing things to do.
For those who carp about the non-politically-correct values of child-serving organizations, like Scouts, I demand that you have something as good or better to put in their place before trying to get rid of them. For lots of modern reasons, kids have ever fewer caring adults in their lives and correspondingly fewer opportunities to receive useful, time-tested wisdom about how to lead a virtuous and disciplined life.
When the time came to give my keynote address at the Scout event, I stepped to the podium looking my professional best. Assuring my audience that I would explain my actions in a moment, first I would sing them a song. Eyebrows went way up. I was unusually nervous, for me.
To the tune of "Flow Gently Sweet Afton," and with only passable musicality, I sang:
Give service, and
Be trustworthy ever, in all that you do.
Hold fast onto health,
And your work glorify,
Then I had to vamp to complete the tuneâ¦
Be happy, and I'm sorry, but I can't remember how it ends.
As it happens, I had not been a Girl Scout, but a Camp Fire Girl. (Camp Fire is still around and went co-ed in 1975.) Like Scouts, it emphasizes outdoor activities, community service and useful skills like first aid and sewing on buttons. As a kid, I didn't know what being successful would mean for me, but I did know I wanted it. I was encouraged by their explicit efforts to build my character and leadership qualities.
We started meetings singing the "Law of the Camp Fire Girls." I've learned a lot of songs in my day, so I'm often struck by how deeply that one rooted itself in my memory – well, all but that last bit which, according to internet research, was supposed to be the deservedly unmemorable "And you will be happy, in the law of Camp Fire."
Girl Scouts have their law too, but I found no evidence that they sing it. Too bad.
Still, any such "laws" provide young people with materials for generating a moral compass. Traditional, hand-me-down wisdom lets children and youth in on the specific expectations of their community. Sharing aspirations connects kids and adults.
For example, I was thrilled that "seek beauty" was a mandate. How handy to have grown-ups telling me to do what I wanted to anyway, since all art forms attracted me. "Give service" strongly echoed my mother's insistence that reasonably-comfortable people owed part of their lives to "giving back," as she put it.
Actually all the admonitions seemed like good counsel, with the strange exception of "glorify work." Wasn't resisting work the chief job of self-respecting children? For decades I pondered that phrase. I appreciate being able to work hard, but wouldn't putting it on a pedestal crowd out, say, seeking beauty? It bugged me, so I pondered it.
In any case, the education-focused psychologist John Jensen defines learning as "that which persists in the mind." The Camp Fire advice definitely persisted.
These days such traditional advice has been reduced to what is now known as "character education." And even that sterile subject has fallen out of fashion, partly because adults and parents in public schools can only agree on character values so stripped of culture as to render them abstract and meaningless. I hate those big "Respect" signs you see in schools. What does the word mean, exactly? To whom is it speaking – kids, adults, both? How does it rally the community?
In fact, absent traditional received wisdom, what are the hipper, more modern character mandates kids are getting today? Without scientific proof, I'd wager the media forms most of it, so the Law of the Modern Kid might include: Get rich. Be sexy. Gain celebrity. Do whatever you please as long as you don't get caught or you have enablers who will protect you from accountability.
This is what happens when traditional messages are rejected as quaint, irrelevant and not politically correct. We can trust kids to grow up and think for themselves. But when they are young and forming, they need tried-and-true messages as a foundation.
My Camp Fire adult leaders emphasized that being virtuous would be more fun, in the long run, than a life of parties and dresses. I believed them. And I did master some of their little disciplines, which was gratifying, just as they said they would be.
Although I drew the line at glorifying work.
I wish a wealthy Girl Scout benefactress would endow stipends for "pack" leaders to bring scouting's moral compass, useful skills and extra adult attention into the distressed neighborhoods. Most kids badly need "second shift" adults. Rearing children was not meant to be done by a little nuclear family, but by whole communities of all sorts of different adults. Scouting is a great model.
So congratulations to them on their important birthday. May they find a way to thrive and bring more adult guidance to the many kids who need it.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.