The Failure of “No Failure”

I grew up in the Scouting movement. In my hometown of Chatham, ON, scouting was a big deal. A small city (only about 45,000 in the good times), Chatham had contributed a larger than averageĀ proportionĀ of it’s young men to the Second World War and as a result had experienced a large baby boom, the issue of which had joined Scouting in large numbers. The immediate result was a very well run program, guided by some interesting and stern veterans.

This was great for a few reasons. First, the Scoutcraft of the average Chatham Scout was arguably better than that of boys in other districts, something often proven at the larger camps and jamborees. Second, our dens/packs/troops/etc were taught to be pretty fiercely competitive. Everything was a competition. Every game or task had a winner and a loser. And winning was a good deal. You got better food, better jobs and/or better recreational activities. Sure, it made for some heated exchanges in the woods and on the sports fields, but it also taught us a very important lesson…

…it taught us how to lose. Some learned the lesson better than others, but anyone going to camp knew that they were likely to end up eating last or cleaning the kybos because they lost. It sucked, but you didn’t have much choice but to deal with it. The aforementioned stern veterans weren’t much for complaining.

My class of Scouts were at the very start of the generational crossover, when the veterans began to retire and their sons had children of their own and took over as leaders. As with any transition, the newer generation lacked the perspective of their forebearers and the effect on Scouting was gradual, but pronounced. The sense of competition started to be gradually replaced with the desire to win.

As I grew older and moved through the sections of Scouting, from Scout to Venturer to Rover, and eventually to Leader Training, the program began to change radically around me. Healthy competitiveness through activity, which had at one point been the cornerstone of the movement, going all the way back to BP, was being phased out in favour of a program of broader reward. A program that would attract more members by making it easier for them to achieve.

I blame this on two factors. One, the inability of the new leaders to properly relate competition to respect and two, the gradual reduction in membership and sporting programs (soccer especially) proliferated in the warmer months.

When I was a Cub, I won every merit badge that could be won. Upon completion of the Cub program and “graduation” to Scouts, I was even given a special plaque in recognition of my efforts. I think my Dad was happier about all this than I was. He’d been a pretty successful Scout and for him, it was probably a no brainer that someday I’d complete the hurdle and become a Chief Scout or even better, a winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Maybe I’d meet the Duke himself and have him personally present me with the award.

But for some reason, Scouts were different for me. I did a lot of work in the early going and got myself well on the way and then…I just didn’t care as much anymore. Maybe it was adolescence, maybe I stopped putting so much stock in merit badges. Whatever the reason and despite the fact that even half-heartedly, I got pretty damn close to Chief Scout, I didn’t get it. I didn’t do the work, so I didn’t get the reward. A few years ago, I looked at what I’d done vs. the current requirements and in 2011, I’d have easily been a Chief Scout. I could have done even less work and still been awarded Scouting’s highest achievement. It was a bit sad, knowing that the efforts of the others who’d worked so hard had been devalued over the years.

I left Scouting when I moved away from home at 18 to start college. I’d intended to go back into the movement that had taught me so much, but I just couldn’t get my head around the idea that Scouting was suddenly easier. That it was more…accessible. In Chatham, ON, you could take some pride in being a Beaver, Cub or Scout. And you didn’t really worry about being teased, because so many kids were in the program. Now, what’s there to be proud of?

There’s another aspect that isn’t often discussed. This simplification of a program to make it more “accessible” hasn’t been isolated within the Scouting movement. I hear teachers and coaches talking about how a fear of competitiveness and (very importantly) an inability to manage competitiveness fairly, putting it above the desire to win, has weakened their respective programs and robbed them of the important values they might have passed on to this generation of children.

I think we’re seeing the products of our “no-fail” society. A generation of children who can handle neither winning, nor losing. Who value “beating” people, over the idea of achieving just to achieve. More and more, I wonder if the upswing in bullying is related to the idea that these last couple cohorts were reared by parents who were afraid to tell them they were wrong, about anything.

That’s a bit of old fogey logic, but there might be something to it. We tried so hard to find a way to instill values without fear that we might have skipped the values part entirely.

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