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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: