For a century, Scouting and good character have been linked in the American mind, symbolized by those hallowed Norman Rockwell images of Scouts being helpful, loyal, reverent and so on. The phrase “he’s no Boy Scout,” describing a person of questionable character, often pops up in movies and in casual conversation.
Now, thanks to new scientific research, the link between Scouting and character goes beyond parents’ testimonials and folklore. Dr. Richard M. Lerner, a psychologist and youth expert at Tufts University, led a team of researchers who measured the character attributes of nearly 1,800 Cub Scouts from the Cradle of Liberty Council and nearly 400 non-Scouts. Their goal was to answer a key question: Does Scouting really create good kids?
The answer? Yes, indeed.
“As a former Cub Scout myself, I’ve always shared the belief that Scouting had beneficial effects on kids’ character, but as researchers we must be rigorous and give it a fair test,” says Lerner, who has written hundreds of scholarly articles and books, including Liberty: Thriving and Civic Engagement Among America’s Youth and The Good Teen. “We did, and the results are strikingly positive. After three years, Scouts reported significant increases in cheerfulness, helpfulness, kindness, obedience, trustworthiness and hopeful future expectations.”
In the Tufts study, the first of its kind to track large numbers of Scouts over time, Lerner and his associates first made sure that the Scouts and non-Scouts selected were as much alike as possible in terms of race, socioeconomic status, living conditions and more. “They were identical in every way at the outset — except one group was in Scouting and the other was not,” Lerner says.
The first time the boys were surveyed, there was no “statistically significant” difference between the character attributes of the two groups, ruling out the possibility that Scouting merely attracts kids who already have strong character. “That’s very important, because if there is differential growth and development between the groups, it has to be because of Scouting,” Lerner says.
The participants in the study were assessed in five different “waves” or times of collection between 2012 and 2014 so researchers could evaluate their character development while it was taking place. Each time, the boys were asked to describe themselves using a five-point scale with responses ranging from “Not at all like me” (1) to “Exactly like me” (5). Some of the responses included:
Kindness: “I’m kind to other kids” and “When my friends are upset, I try to make them feel better.”
Trustworthiness: “I can be counted on to tell the truth” and “I take responsibility when I make a mistake.”
Hopeful future expectations: “I will have a happy family” and “People will think I am a good person.”
Helpfulness: “I help people in my family” and “I help my friends.”
By the end of the study, the Scout group reported significant increases in all the above-noted character attributes, while the non-Scouts showed no significant increases and even lost ground in areas such as religious reverence. In addition, when the Scouts in the study were asked what was most important to them, they were more likely than non-Scouts to choose “helping others” or “doing the right thing” as compared to “being smart” or “being the best.” In other words, they embraced pro-social values rather than valuing their own achievement over the good of others.
Lerner points out another important finding in the study: The more engaged the kids were in Scouting, the better the outcomes. Kids who reported that they liked camping, liked wearing their uniform, regularly attended Scout meetings and had a best friend in Scouting made the biggest strides in positive character development.
Lerner hopes that Scouting will continue to study the positive effects of its programs on Scouts of different ages in different parts of the country. He stresses the importance of measuring character growth while it is happening rather than relying on anecdotes and memories of people who fondly recall their good ol’ days in Scouting. “Those stories are great, but those testimonials are no longer enough to garner the attention and support of parents, young people and donors,” he says. “Evidence-based practice has become the mantra. We want to make sure that our aspirations for a program match up with the actual reality of what the program is doing.
“Now the organization can go beyond anecdotes and show how Scouting helps build character in kids,” Lerner says. “If I were a parent and wanted to put my young person in a program that leads to being hopeful, trustworthy and helpful, the answer is Scouting.”
“Each and every day we get to see the positive influence Scouting makes in young people’s lives,” says Michael Surbaugh, Chief Scout Executive. “And while we weren’t surprised by the study’s results, it is great to be able to quantify the impact of the program and show parents the value of participation.”