WHEN SHE WAS A DEN LEADER, Kim Barker of League City, Texas, took her boys on a hike that she soon realized was “a little too warm and a little too long.” It was also a hike that offered the boys a patch for finishing.
At the end of the hike, Barker, who now serves on the National Program Content Support Committee, asked the exhausted boys what they thought of the experience. She recalls, “One of the boys popped up and said, ‘The only thing I’ve got to say is I finally got a patch that my brother didn’t earn.’ The patch was important for him. That was his goal.”
More important, of course, were the life lessons he’d learned, but at that moment the patch was all that mattered. He needed tangible proof of what he’d done.
Cub Scouting is full of tangible proof like that: rank patches, beads, arrow points, academics and sports belt loops, and more. Some boys (and parents) are all about the swag, but savvy leaders realize they need to keep advancement in context.
“We want the kids to enjoy themselves,” says Carl Baumeister, assistant Cubmaster of Pack 198 in West St. Paul, Minn. “Certainly we hope that they’re learning along the way, but there’s so much that goes into this. It’s not just about advancement.”
Barker agrees. “The most important thing for a Scout who comes to a Cub Scout meeting is to learn—but to learn while having fun,” he says. “That’s one of the things that makes Cub Scouts different from school. It shouldn’t be like school. They should want to come every week.”
So how can you balance fun and learning? Barker and Baumeister offer some suggestions:
Leave them wanting more. Barker encourages new leaders to start with the Den & Pack Meeting Resource Guide (No. 32354)—but not to stop there. “Some meetings are a little more sedentary than others,” she says. “I think it’s important that the information gets covered but that you do something fun.”
One way to do that is to include a game in every den meeting. “I always like the last thing they do before they leave to be something they really enjoy, because that’s what they’ll remember,” Barker says.
Educate your parents. “A big thing we try to do in our pack is communicate to parents that this is supposed to be fun,” Baumeister says. He likes to use a pinewood derby analogy. “If a parent does all the work on a pinewood derby car, it might be a fast car, and your son might even win the race,” he says. “But is he really going to get the full range of growth that he would get if he had had a more hands-on experience? Maybe the car doesn’t look as good. Maybe it doesn’t run as fast. But he’s got that ownership.”
Don’t skip the sizzle. Barker is a big fan of monthly themes. She served on the task force that created the themed pack-meeting plans that are available at bit.ly/packmeetingplans. She compares themed meetings to birthday parties. You could have a birthday party for your son where people just handed over presents, but it would be a lot cooler with a piñata or a magician or a bounce house. “They want to play with their friends and interact,” she says. “I think that’s really important for kids.”
Use the Cub Scout Academics and Sports Program. If boys (or their parents) are badge-hungry, earning belt loops can take the edge off their appetite. “A new Scout—whether he’s starting as a Tiger Cub or as a fifth-grade Webelos—can come into the program and get some bling at that first pack meeting if he just tries a couple of things,” Baumeister says.
Because many boys are as excited about belt loops as they are about rank patches, giving out belt loops takes some pressure off of the den leader. He or she can then give rank achievements the time they require.
Take your time. Don’t feel that your boys all have to earn their ranks by some arbitrary deadline—like February’s blue and gold banquet. After all, they have the whole year to advance. Barker says that’s especially important when boys join late after playing fall sports. “You can give them a list of what you’ve already completed to help them get caught up, but the goal may not be to have it done at blue and gold,” she says. “I think that’s important to stress. They don’t have to have done in two months what we’ve been doing for the last four or five.”
Encourage fresh starts. Finally, if a boy is learning and enjoying himself, don’t worry too much if he doesn’t achieve this year’s rank—especially if he joins late in the year. “Once school is over, he’s going to be right at the same level as the rest of his peers,” Baumeister says. “They’re all going to start on that next rank not knowing anything. They’re all basically on a level playing field at that point.”
In the end, Cub Scout leadership is a balancing act. “You can focus so much on advancement that you forget the fun,” Barker says. “But you can’t just be having fun and not doing any advancement because that’s doing a disservice to the Cub Scout.”
The Cub Scout motto—Do Your Best—applies to Cub Scout leaders, too.