PSYCHOTHERAPIST DON ELIUM has his share of college degrees, but he received his real education about raising boys from Lew Powers, a neighbor and an old-school Scoutmaster. When Elium and his wife, Jeanne, were offered a contract to write Raising a Son: Parents and the Making of a Healthy Man, their research started at the dinner table—with Powers as their guest.
The experienced Scouter shared the secret to his success. “Boys need to know three things: who’s the boss, what the rules are, and whether you’re going to enforce them,” he explains.
Elium, a counselor in Walnut Creek, Calif., elaborates on Powers’ logic: “If you don’t have rules that make sense and you’re not going to enforce them, you’re not the boss,” he says. “And if you’re not the boss, they’re not going to learn anything. Your time spent with them will be something like organized chaos.”
In fact, it was organized chaos that led Powers to become a Scoutmaster in the first place. After his son came home from a troop meeting and said, “Dad, they need you. They tied up the Scout leader tonight,” Powers volunteered to lead the troop. Ironically, the first skill he taught was knot-tying.
Who’s the Boss?
These days many parents and Scout leaders try to befriend boys before leading them. But that’s the wrong approach, according to Elium. “Boys are looking for leaders. If they don’t find one, they’ll create one,” he says.
How you establish yourself as a leader depends on the kids’ ages. With 6-year-olds, you can just stand up and announce that you’re the leader, but “that won’t work at 12, 13, 14, 15, 16,” Elium says. “And it won’t work well at 6 unless you have rules that you enforce.”
Moreover, leaders become legitimized when they’re challenged. “That is part of what makes the leader the leader,” Elium says. “If the leader is like a cardboard cutout and once you challenge him, he falls over, he’s not the leader.”
What Are the Rules?
Elium says kids challenge leaders by
challenging their rules. This means that leaders who don’t set rules aren’t leaders.
Powers told Elium that the rules need to make sense and have logical consequences, but you shouldn’t spend much time justifying them. “He said, ‘Don’t explain them too much. The understanding of the rule comes when they break it,’” Elium recalls.
The rules can change as kids get older, but they should never go away. “Boys are like cows. The bigger they get, the more pasture they need. But they still need fences,” Elium says. “If the space is too big, they’re going to feel unsafe. If it’s too tight, they’re going to feel confined.”
Are You Going to Enforce Them?
Unlike cows, boys never stop testing the fences, which means good leaders will have to enforce the rules.
That’s not to say that leaders have to have zero-tolerance policies. “You want to set up your rules where you have room to compromise,” Elium says. Yet compromise is not the same as appeasement.
Elium says compromise tactics begin to work once the kids’ adult brains start developing, around age 12 or 13. Even then, you have to choose your moments carefully.
In Powers’ troop, Scouts who broke the rules sometimes had to serve as the Scoutmaster’s personal assistant while other boys enjoyed free time. But then he discovered that some Scouts were breaking the rules just to spend time with him and talk about what was happening in their lives.
He started as their leader, but he became their mentor.
HOW DO YOU GAIN SCOUTS’ RESPECT? SHARE YOUR ADVICE FOR OTHERS TO TRY, BELOW.