ScoutingOctober 2002

Cutting the Cord

By Michael Sena

The lessons Scouts learn when allowed to fail or succeed on their own can be important milestones on a path of self-discovery.

"Whadda ya mean we're disqualified?"

"That's not fair!"

"Mr. Wolverton said we could build it at our campsite!"

The five boys had spent the morning assembling their ballista at our camporee campsite. They had then carried it to the field where similar catapult-like devices built by other troops stood waiting to be judged for accuracy, distance, and construction.

"Sorry, boys," said the head judge. "The rules are that the ballista must be built 'on site.' Otherwise, how do I know an adult didn't help you? Either you disassemble the entire thing and rebuild it here in the judging area, or you're disqualified."

I shared in their disappointment. But a sense of guilt had already begun to set in. The fact was, I had helped the boys build their ballista—a violation of the rules.

I didn't think they could build it without me. I firmly believed that their success depended on my direct involvement, never thinking for a minute that they could succeed on their own.

This was the first camp-out for our newly reorganized troop. Except for one Scout, all the boys in the troop had just crossed over from Webelos Scouts the month before. Most had not yet become Tenderfoot Scouts.

At the camporee our young troop had to compete against a field of older and more experienced Scouts. In my mind, our boys were doomed for failure. So I set out to do what many parents would do in a similar situation: I was going to help them achieve their goal, not considering the fact that I was on a collision course with the basic principles and values of the Scouting program.

How often do we as parents assume that our children's success depends on our not letting them fall down and fail on their own? We cringe at the thought of our children missing the mark. Too often we help a little too much on that science project or English paper. I was in for a rude awakening this weekend—as well as getting a lesson in Leadership 101.

After 10 minutes of flaring tempers, foot-stomping, and complaining, the boys realized that the rules were not going to be changed for them. They took apart the ballista and prepared to reconstruct it in the judging area.

I knew I shouldn't participate in the construction, but I thought I could still help the Scouts by coaching them. The head judge immediately reminded me that points would be taken off if I even told the boys anything.

I finally got the message.

So, I walked away from the judging area, crossed the yellow caution tape into the special section for spectators, and sat down in the grass.

The cord had been cut. The boys were on their own. I resigned myself to sit back and watch the impending disaster, fully expecting to see tears flowing as soon as the boys became overwhelmed by the task at hand.

But to my surprise, they began to work as a team as they performed the steps of lashing poles, aligning the cross arm, and adjusting the length of the firing arm for better distance. Under the watchful eyes of the judge, their ballista began to take shape.

Forty-five minutes later they were ready for some practice shots, to test how far and how accurately their ballista could launch a tennis ball. The boys argued awhile about which Scout would fire the ballista and how the procedure should be done. They finally agreed that one Scout was best suited to be the trigger man, and the others would each hold down a section of the ballista to keep it firmly in place while shooting.

The first practice shots sent tennis balls straight up in the air and backward a bit. But the boys made some adjustments, and each shot went a little farther and a little straighter.

In the official competition, each troop had four shots for distance and four shots for accuracy. When our troop's turn came, Scoutmaster Dave Crow stood in the open field as a target to help the Scouts get the range, and the tennis balls began to fly.

Their second shot scored a direct hit, but it was the only one to earn points for accuracy. Likewise, the ballista's four shots for distance resulted in a mediocre score.

But the Scouts were not disappointed. They had accomplished the task they had set out to do—construct a ballista from scratch, on their own, and get it to shoot.

The only category left to judge was ballista construction.

"Good job, boys," said the judge as the five boys eagerly stared at him. "This is the only ballista that didn't fall apart at any time. By far it's the best constructed one today."

A prouder moment in my life I can't remember as our patrol leader stepped forward at the campfire that night in front of 600 Boy Scouts to receive the blue ribbon for first place in ballista construction. Shouts and howls of joy pierced the cold April night as my son and his friends high-fived each other and raised their fists, punching the air, celebrating their victory.

I stood behind them with Dave Wolverton, our committee chairman, thinking over the events of the day. We kept shaking our heads in disbelief over the victory the boys had achieved.

They didn't give up or give in to defeat. They could and did win without my help. The lesson they learned from this experience was far more valuable than anything I could ever hope to teach them.

But the lesson they learned pales in comparison to the ones I learned that weekend. Besides the pangs of remorse for breaking the rules, I realized this: Cutting the cord is not only an important milestone in the lives of our children, it also allows them to fly on their own. It sets them on the path of self-discovery that will help them achieve great things in life.

Failure will come knocking much sooner and much more frequently before success finally shows its face. But when success does arrive, the failures will be mostly forgotten.

"Let your children reach for the stars," someone once told me. "Because it's when you reach for the stars that you just may become one."

Michael Sena, a former assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 125, Fair Haven, N.J., is now a committee member with Troop 32, Middletown, N.J.

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