IMAGINE THIS SCENARIO: After yet another den-meeting game ends in bruises and tears, the frustrated den leader cancels all games until further notice. At least until the bruises and memories fade, the boys will do extra crafts each week instead of playing outside. That, the den leader believes, will teach the boys a lesson.
A good strategy? Not according to James Larson, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and an expert on school violence. He argues that the best way for boys to learn the limits of aggression is to explore those limits through rough-and-tumble play.
Many boys start exploring those limits by wrestling with their fathers or older brothers. “They learn,” Larson says.
That learning continues on the playground and in the backyard as boys play war games or king of the hill. Usually the aggression stays within bounds, but not always. “Most of the time, it stops,” he says. “But sometimes somebody loses control and steps over the line, and somebody gets hurt.”
Aggression With Rules
Scout leaders can help boys learn their limits, not by creating an anything-goes atmosphere but by encouraging what Larson calls “aggression with rules.” He cites capture the flag and soccer as good examples. “If you played soccer and didn’t obey the rules, you could be very aggressive and score a lot of points,” he says. “But you can’t, so you have to constrain your desire to be aggressive to obey the rules.”
In other words, the control has to come from the boy rather than from the adult.
Of course, someone will inevitably go too far. But even then, the control must come from within. When adults simply yell, “Stop it!” and do nothing more, they lose a teachable moment, Larson says. “Instead, come up and say, ‘Tell me about what’s going on here. Tell me why you decided to do that. What might have been a better choice in that circumstance?’”
Similarly, Larson says, boys learn nothing during a chaotic troop meeting if a leader yells, “Stop it back there!” A better response would be, “Gentlemen, what rule are you breaking back there?”
That question becomes even more valuable, especially with younger boys, if the boys themselves helped create the rules in the first place. “The younger they are, the more they like the idea of being a part of it,” he says.
Going Too Far Too Often
Some boys will have trouble with aggression no matter how hard you try. In such cases, you might need to have a difficult conversation with the boy’s parents. “Somebody whom the parents respect needs to say, ‘I’d like you to talk to his counselor at school about some anger-management training. We love to have him here in the troop or in the pack, but he has this difficulty controlling his temper. This is something he can learn to do, but he has to have somebody teach him how to do it,’” Larson says.
Don’t be surprised if the parents say the boy is never aggressive at home. “Home doesn’t have 25 other kids there,” he says.
Teaching by Example
There’s one more thing leaders can do, and that’s set a good example. “When they’re frustrated, what do you want them to do?” Larson says. “You do that, too.”
If you’re feeling frustrated because the camp stove won’t stay lit, don’t fling it across the campsite. Instead, think out loud. Say something like, “Boy, I’m feeling really frustrated here. I’m going to step back and get a few breaths. Then I’m going to go back to working on this task.”
“If you want your kids to learn more self-control, then model self-control,” Larson says.