How Scouts’ friendships strengthen patrols

BEST FRIENDS FOREVER? Not if we can help it, say some school officials.

According to a 2010 New York Times article, many schools separate best friends in an effort to break up cliques and encourage kids to build a wide circle of acquaintances.

Many Boy Scout troops take a similar approach. For several years in Troop 746 in Fullerton, Md., Scouts were placed randomly in patrols so that no boy would feel left out. The result? “Meetings turned into a hodgepodge, as it was impossible to keep the Scouts in patrols with people they didn’t really want to hang out with,” says Assistant Scoutmaster Kathy Holmes.

Results like that don’t surprise Dr. Brett Laursen, a psychology professor and one of the defenders of friends in the Times article. The first problem, he says, is that adults mistakenly assume it’s automatic that kids will form good relationships when they’re assigned to a new group. “You break up a friendship, and you’ve got a kid there who’s shy and anxious and that nobody else wants to be friends with,” he says. “How does that make the group better?”

Dr. Laursen says friendships are a critical component of youth development. “I’m not going to say that every single child needs a friendship,” he says, “but most kids need them and most kids benefit from them.”

Friendships offer several key benefits, Dr. Laursen says. They ward off loneliness, buffer the effects of bullying, offer support when parental relationships are strained. What’s more, friendships teach kids how to maintain and nurture long-term relationships with peers who—unlike parents—can walk away at any time.

Scouters who break up friends may cause Scouts to rebel or leave Scouting altogether. “I have had boys hide out in the back of troop trailers to get with their friends and avoid work,” says David Smith, a counselor and Scouter from Jacksonville, Fla. “If they were with their friends working together on a project they wanted to do, they would have less reason to bail on the rest of their patrol.”

That’s why Smith recommends letting boys form their own patrols. “You set up a structure—six to eight Scouts—and let them figure it out,” he says. “Boys are going to want to stick together. If you can use their friendships to put together a team,

I believe you’ll have a stronger team.”

That’s what Holmes’ troop does. It now bases patrols on age and existing friendships. “For the first time we truly have patrols with members that actually care about the patrol,” she says. “Heck, for the first time we have patrols of members who actually know who is in their patrol.”

What do you think: does your troop allow Scouts to choose their own patrols?

Want to build better patrols in your troop? Check out these stories, below, for additional patrol-building practices:


  1. For over six years we have been “forming” New Scout Patrols; i.e., grouping the WEBELOS that came from one Den into one patrol.

    We have now realize that this process worked well for a couple of years, but now we have patrols where all the scouts are about the same age and about the same rank. Leadership skills were never developed because the scouts helped each other. Planning and EDGE became foreign words. The responsibilities that come with Patrol Leader and Senior Patrol Leader were learned at great expense rather than being “mentor” by a senior scout. About the time the scout was learning his job it was time for new elections.

    I can understand the benefit of two or three “friends” in a Patrol, but you need to have the “mixture” of senior scouts with young scouts for the basic skills of leadership to be developed. Isn’t that what the basic requiresments for Star, Life and Eagle are all about?

    • This is really misguided and you only have to go as far as the Scoutmaster Handbook to know that. It defines a patrol as “a small group of boys who are more or less similar in age, development, and interests.” This definition and effective use of new scout patrols are on page 20.
      Patrols are meant to be age-based. Troop Guide is a position specifically created to address your concerns about leadership; he’s an older boy who fosters newer scouts while they learn to lead themselves.
      By sticking a bunch of young scots with a few old scouts, you naturally pigeonhole the younger ones into following and the older one into leading, so you ge no better results in developing leaders. Additionally, it’s against YPG for much older scouts to tent with much younger scouts, so mixing a wide range of ages in one patrol creates hindrances to the patrol method while camping. A scout doesn’t have to teach skills to another scout in his own patrol to meet any of the EDGE requirements, only any other scout.

      These methods are the ones that work, that’s why they’re the ones in the book.

      • Actually, Scouter, the norm in the BSA for 80 years was mixed-age patrols, and when first implemented the New Scout Patrol was meant to be temporary. One can think of this like Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels, where a “house” like Gryffindor is the same thing as a patrol. Friends may come in together, friendships persist from year to year, friendships aren’t limited by age – you can have older friends like Fred & George, or younger friends. Older youth lead and watch out for younger youth. Even a first-year scout can contribute in patrol Quiddich competitions.
        That was the British public school model that Baden-Powell used, and that worked for the BSA for 8 decades, that still works in a large number of troops, and that is supported by the BSA literature. It has some real advantages, in that real mixed-age patrols don’t feel like “baby-sitting” the way New Scout Patrols do, and with a mix of older and younger boys each patrol can be more independent and safer, relying on the experience of the older boys.

    • We have always kept the our Webelos together and placed into a Patrol it helped the boys feel more at home when they were with boys they already knew. They had older Scout Guides available to them to help with the crossover but this always has worked for our Troop. When we mixed the boys they never had anything in common and didn’t want to work on the same Merit Badges and do like events. Keeping them in their groups from their old Packs and like ages is the best thats what we’ve found.

  2. New scouts from webelos and new recruits can be in the New Scout Patrol under the leadership of a Troop Guide as indicated in the SM Handbook. This Patrol will work on similar advancements for Scout, Tenderfoot, Totin’ chip etc.
    This is good for one year, until the next year’s new recruits come in. There after, they are put into the permanent Patrols, where you can have ranks from Second class to Life. For camping, the younger scouts share a patrol tent that sleeps 4; (First Class earned the right like Star and above sleeps in individual tent). Patrol Leaders are normally Star and above; practicing leadership.
    The Better Together? comes into effect when you break up the New Scout Patrol and move them into the permanent Patrols. We had a tendency to split sibblings. The trend in this article is to keep the buddies or good friends in the same patrol. Remember, the New Scout Patrol is a transitional Patrol. SM & PLC may put them into permanent patrols when ever they are ready. Good scouting.

  3. Our troop switches up the patrols every year when the New Scouts move in/out of that patrol. I think this is a big mistake. For many boys, a true friendship takes years to build. Just as they’re getting started, they are switched up again. Since most of the bonding is within patrols rather than the troop as a whole, switching them in effect makes them start from scratch every year. Letting boys bond over several years makes life-long friendships. Different patrols begin to take on their own flavor, and boys who best fit them will gravitate toward them.

    Bottom line, HUGE mistake to shake up patrols.

    • thank you! I’ve been trying to tell my troop to stop this for years, but the committee looks at me like I don’t know what I’m Doing. I have taken every leadership training available to me including, NYLT, ISLT, and many other held by the community, NO RESPONSE FROM Committee.

  4. Our Troop seems to be a blend of several units approach with a twist. We start our boys in an age grouped patrol: “New Bees” or “Just released” Both have real cool patrol patches and have a TG and an ASM assigned to assist and oversee them. Once they reach tenderfoot they are added to an established patrol or form with other scouts to form a new patrol. They stay in the patrol for thier duration except ….. once a year a scout may trade out with another scout if they both desire. That way scouts who want a change have that chance. * We have only had 2 sets of scouts trade out in the past 8 years, but it’s nice to have that option. This method allows for greater leadership opportunities and new friendships. As for splitting friends / siblings: some of the boys are split up during patrol times and some outing times but all have a lot of opportunity to regroup during Troop time and free time. We also have 2 no patrol campouts each year so the boys can mix things up; it keeps things fresh. I have yet to have a complaint from a scout on this in my 26 years as a SM.

  5. While starting out in the same patrol may be initially a good idea, if you have 2 or more boys that show outstanding leadership, it would be a disservice to keep them in the same patrol. They can’t both be patrol leaders, so moving one out to “spread his wings” and lead the next new patrol would make the best use of his ability. When this scout is informed as to why they are being used this way, they almost always feel good about being promoted out of the patrol.

    • no guarantee that the scouts in that patrol will actually pick one of the two boys that you think are leaders… experience has been that the initial pick by a group of boys is made on any basis except who the ‘best natural leader’ may be. 🙂

  6. B-P was right when the patrol method was created. We normally have a new scouts patrol that is guided by TG, older instructors and ASMs. Their first year program includes a lot of basic camping skills, fire building, lashings, first aid scenarios, and wilderness survival to help them complete first class. Older scouts help in EDGE style training. Most of them have NYLT training and part of their practice is to teach younger scouts. As they progress, after a couple of years, Scouts re-align patrols as new friendships and interest develop. There is not a magic formula as patrols can change interests and friends very fast. :-). Sometimes they create a Leadership patrol where old scouts and troop leaders meet and plan their activities with the rest of patrols. When a new scout join we let the SPL help him to be placed in a patrols with similar age and interests and the PL has the responsibility to guide him to new skills. As needed if he is older, he is invited to camp and participate in basic skills training with the new scouts patrol. The best advice, let scouts assemble their patrols. They will learn to choose wise and make some mistakes. Adults intervention should be minimum and this is the most difficult part of EDGE (Enabling).

    My 2 cents.

  7. Having dealt with it both ways – random [but mixed ages and ranks] and single age, I’ve decided that neither works best. Single age you do get cliques that can be harmful. Random mixing has the problems listed

    We do have established patrols now, so I am pushing to allow the patrol to ‘recruit’ out of the new scout patrol. The new scouts decide, and the only intervention may be to keep patrol sizes within nominal bounds.

    Hopefully that works better, getting benefits of both.

  8. We tried a few different methods when we formed our troop in 2008 and were unsatisfied with results that were not boy lead friendly. What seems to work for us is for all the new scouts in a ‘class’ to start as the square knot patrol (or patrols) when they cross over, with an older Troop Guide assigned. They immediately choose a name (the Flying Pumas this year, last year was the narwhals), elect a patrol leader, make a patrol yell and such. Kids remain with that patrol until they reach 1st class…..then they are distributed into one of the permanent patrols after a talk with the SPL and SM with the choice being based on a balancing done by the SPL with input from the Scout, patrol leaders and the SM etc.. Usually this is about 12 – 24 months in and always after the first summer camp. We don’t purposely break up friends or enemies, but try to keep the permanent patrols somewhat balanced so that we avoid ad hoc patrols at campouts and maximize the opportunities of boy lead growth. This works very well for us as a troop of 30 or so as we currently have 8 or so boys in the “first year patrol” 4-6 boys in the leadership patrol (the SPL, ASPL and a few of the older Eagles that are not 100% active, but still attending – the active Eagles are still in their patrols), and the rest are in one of the two patrols that are each about 8 scouts strong. We have been able to build patrol cohesion in all the patrols, even though the new scouts are usually looking forward to transferring to one of the regular patrols. Even in the school heavy months we still can almost always field two patrols of at least 4 boys at any activity. And, contrary to my fear, the elected patrol leaders are not usually the Eagle Scouts, as they had their turns as star or life and do a pretty good job of handing a job to a boy that is just about ready for it.

    nothing is perfect, but the system we have is run very well by our boy leadership with only some fine tuning from the adults. . YMMV —> Jeff

  9. I think every troop looks at problems and thinks reshuffling the patrols is the easy fix. Doing that once a year kills the very idea of patrol cohesion and loyality.

    Different structures work for different troops, then the other option may work better or at least look more attractive. I am a big believer in following the guidelines that Green Bar Bill Hillcourt preached and he certainly helped build the patrol method in America. When there were lots of scouts he said the patrol should be by age and neighborhood. “The Gang”.

    Age based patrols gives leaders the ability to focus on the younger patrols and then back off as they become more capable and most of the scouts hit first class.

    There are lots of other opportunities for older boys to give leadership. Having them eat and sleep together too, takes a lot away from the older boy experience and leaves them less sticky to the program. If an older scout thinks he is babysitting, you will lose him fast.

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