Do the Right Thing

When leaders emphasize the character-building values of the Scout Oath and Law, boys can be guided to do the right thing.


SEVERAL YEARS AGO, when 50 of the nation’s best Scoutmasters gathered at Philmont Scout Ranch, they were asked: “What is your greatest challenge?”

Their answer wasn’t a lack of parent support or inadequate finances or competition from organized sports. It was simply: “How can we teach boys the values of good character?”

That was a wake-up call for Ross Harrop, Scout executive of the Pikes Peak Council in Colorado Springs. This summer marks the fourth year that he will team up with two experts in character education to teach “Using the Scout Oath and Law to Create an Exciting Unit Program” at the Philmont Training Center.

Joining Harrop from the U.S. Air Force Academy are Col. Mark Hyatt, director of the Academy’s Center for Character Development, and Lt. Col. Tony Aretz, deputy head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.


“We have a clear mission as Scout leaders,” said Harrop. “Our job is to prepare young people to make ethical choices throughout their life by instilling the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”

It disturbs Harrop when he hears that Scoutmasters feel ill-prepared and uncomfortable sharing the BSA’s core values with boys because culturally that might be deemed inappropriate.

“Not only is it appropriate,” he said, “that’s our responsibility.”

The goal of the weeklong Philmont course is to teach Scouters how to use the Scout Oath and Law to build boys’ character. To accomplish that task it

  • reviews the aims and methods of Scouting and defines the ideals of the Scout Oath and Law.
  • explores adolescent psychology to better understand how young people make choices.
  • examines how spirituality and service to others can affect a boy’s character and develop leadership qualities.
  • encourages the effective mentoring of boys through conversations about ethical values.

There are also plenty of shade-tree discussions among course participants about real-life dilemmas that confront both boys and adults.


“Most leaders feel comfortable in dealing with right vs. wrong situations,” Harrop said. “Those are the easy ones. Somebody steals something from a buddy or someone lies to an adult. It is much harder to solve a problem that requires a choice between two seemingly right answers.”

That, Harrop said, is what Rushworth Kidder calls a “right vs. right” dilemma. Kidder is founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Me., and author ofHow Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living.

“Kidder has developed a four-part model to evaluate these ‘right vs. right’ dilemmas,” Harrop said. “They are: truth vs. loyalty, justice vs. mercy, individual vs. the community, and long-term vs. short-term.”

Adults can use the model to strip away irrelevant details and get to the root of a problem, Harrop said. That makes resolving the conflict more manageable. It’s also a tool that Kidder says “helps us spot the differences between ethical dilemmas and moral temptations.”


When Scout-age boys face these dilemmas, sorting out a solution can be a real struggle.

Col. Mark Hyatt offers an example:

Troop 17 is on a weekend camp-out at a state park. Park rules forbid the cutting of live trees. Only deadfall can be gathered for fire-making. The park ranger, however, finds several young saplings chopped down near the troop’s campsite, and he wants the troop to discipline the Scout responsible.

The Scoutmaster calls the troop’s two patrol leaders, Steve and Michael, together. Michael knows a boy in Steve’s patrol cut down the young trees. What should he do?

“Michael’s dilemma,” Colonel Hyatt said, “is that he feels loyal to his fellow Scout and wants to protect him. After all, loyalty is part of the Scout Law. But he also knows a Scout is truthful. To him, these are both right answers.

“The challenge is: How do you resolve these conflicts in an 11-, 12-, or 13-year-old’s mind?”

Lt. Col. Tony Aretz says leaders need to understand how a boy’s cognitive development impacts his reasoning and decision-making skills. He reminds adults that loyalty and a desire to belong are the strongest motives a boy has at that age.

“Up until high school, most young people live in a black-and-white world. They don’t see gray in issues. It’s either ‘I remain loyal to my friend, or I squeal on him.’ Now, obviously an adult wouldn’t see it that way. An adult would have to tell the truth. But we sometimes forget how strong our friendships were at that age.”

In the tree-cutting incident, Colonel Hyatt says the Scoutmaster should help Michael balance his sense of loyalty against the Boy Scout ideal of honesty.

“As leaders,” he said, “we need to help boys struggle to get to the Boy Scout right answer, and in this case it would be to tell the truth.”

One way boys learn to do the right thing is by applying the “Mommy Test.”

“When young people make ethical choices,” said Lt. Col. Aretz, “they have to test it against some standard, and that is usually a parent. Could they tell their mother, to her face, what they are doing? If that would embarrass them, they probably shouldn’t be doing it.”


Much of character can be defined in the core values of honesty, responsibility, and respect for others. And Scouting is an ideal environment to teach these principles. For instance:

A dispute on the playing field links to sportsmanship and fair play. A veteran’s speech on Memorial Day highlights citizenship and duty to country. Work on a service project reinforces the Golden Rule.

But the lessons won’t hit home unless leaders are willing to discuss these values with Scouts.

“Boys are going to make mistakes along the way,” said Lt. Col. Aretz. “The important thing is for an adult to turn that mistake into a ‘teachable moment.’ When a boy violates a troop rule or a principle of the Scout Oath or Law, that’s a great opportunity to help form that boy’s character.”

Equally important is for leaders to “catch boys doing something good.” A simple “atta boy!” or “good job!” can go a long way.

“Psychology says you reinforce behaviors that you want to continue and punish those you don’t want to continue,” said Lt. Col. Aretz. “But the evidence shows that reinforcement is much more effective than punishment.”

Camping, hiking, rock climbing, canoeing—those are the high-profile images of Scouting and great opportunities for building character. So are the rote ceremonies that occur at Scout meetings every week.

Every time a boy pledges allegiance to the flag, repeats the Scout Oath and Law, or receives a badge of rank at a troop court of honor, he’s adding to his bedrock of character.

“Rituals make the invisible visible,” says Lt. Col. Tony Aretz. “The Oath and Law are the public values of Scouting. And if you don’t make those public values an integral part of your program, Scouting becomes just another outdoor activity organization.”

Leaders can’t afford to let that happen because Scouting’s mission means so much more.

Scott Daniels is executive editor of Scouting. He also wrote this issue’s cover story about Venturing’s Nature of Leadership course in Alaska.


“Using the Scout Oath and Law to Create an Exciting Unit Program” will be offered by the Philmont Training Center, July 21-27. The course examines how living by the Scout Oath and Law can prepare youth to make ethical decisions. It is recommended for council, district, and unit Scouters who want to increase the effectiveness of Scouting by developing strong values-based troop and team members.

Course attendance is by invitation only and space is limited. Contact your local Scout council service center for more information. Fees for the week are $295 for conference participants; $220 for spouses and children over 18; $175 for children ages 6 to 18; $110 for children 3 to 5; and $30 for children 2 and under.

Fees include all meals (beginning with supper on Sunday and ending with breakfast Saturday), lodging (in walled, canvas tents set on wooden platforms), training materials, and staff-supervised family programs for spouses and children. Optional programs such as bus tours, handicraft supplies, and museum visits in Cimarron, N.M., may be available at a nominal cost.


The following resources for moral and ethical character education can be helpful tools for leaders.

The Scoutmaster HandbookBSA No. 33009. Recommended for all Scout leaders, this key piece of literature explains the aims and methods of Scouting, gives suggestions for that part of the troop meeting known as the Scoutmaster’s Minute, and provides a sample interfaith worship service.

The Good Son, by Michael Gurian, Penguin Putnam. A complete parenting plan for the moral and emotional development of boys and young men.

How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living, by Rushworth M. Kidder, Fireside. Rich with anecdotes, this book offers guidelines to resolve ethical problems in “right vs. right” dilemmas. The Web site for the Institute for Global Ethics includes a “Dilemma Database” with an analysis of different right vs. right quandaries. Also available are sample student and teacher materials from the institute’s K-12 curriculum on ethical decision making.

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