Help Scouts weigh 'right' from 'wrong'

ANY BODYBUILDER WILL tell you that muscles don’t grow unless you put them to work. Lift more weight than you think is possible, and your muscles will grow in response. Lift too much, though, and you could hurt yourself.

Values work the same way. Kids strengthen morals when they face ethical decisions in learning environments. Scouting is a great atmosphere for testing and teaching values.

An informal conversation around the campfire can help youth reflect on and transform the values they live every day. With a little preparation, any Scouter can easily lead effective moral reflections.

It’s as easy as 1-2-3, says Dr. Thomas Lickona, psychologist and director of the Center for the 4th and 5th R’s (Respect and Responsibility) at the State University of New York College at Cortland (

1. Start with a controversial problem

Instead of a classic ethical dilemma, say, whether the United States should have used nuclear weapons during World War II, Dr. Lickona recommends using a more down-to-earth moral problem, such as: “You know that gossiping is wrong, but you’re not going to get on your soapbox and give other kids a lecture. So how do you handle the situation in a way that’s cool?”

You’ll find discussion starters in the newspaper every day. Or, ask Scouts to complete one of these statements from Dr. Lickona’s book, Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility:

I never know how to decide what to do when …

The toughest decision I ever had to make was …

I don’t want to lose my friends, but I disagree with them about …

2. Encourage fruitful friction

Moral reflections work best when there’s what Dr. Lickona calls “fruitful friction”. Otherwise, the group might quickly achieve a consensus without any mental heavy lifting.

Fortunately, a mix of moral development stages (or viewpoints) are all but assured in a group of varied-age Scouts from different backgrounds.

3. Ask plenty of questions

Good moral reflection starts with how well the facilitator asks questions. According to one study cited in a Center for the 4th and 5th R’s report, the facilitator’s use of Socratic questioning was “the only teacher behavior differentiating those classes that showed significant moral reasoning development from those that did not.”

Socratic questioning simply means asking questions that make people think and defend their beliefs. The next time a Scout states an opinion, you might ask, “Can you explain why you think that?” You could also turn to other group members and ask, “Who would like to support or challenge what he just said and why?”

Facilitators don’t have to remain neutral. Some things—stealing, cheating, lying—are clearly wrong. At the same time, you shouldn’t do too much direct teaching at the beginning of the discussion. “If you do it at the start, you’re likely to get kids wanting to please you by giving the Sunday-school answer,” Dr. Lickona says.

On the other hand, if you conduct moral reflection successfully, your Scouts might please you by beginning to live the values they recite at every Scout meeting.

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