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The scouts are preparing for a 50-mile hike. We went on a practice hike this week with them. The scoutmaster has gotten caught up in the economic downturn and can’t spend as much time as he otherwise would. So the adults that can take the week off to go on this 50-mile hike went with the kids on this practice hike. They seem to lean more to natural consequences rather than coaching and correcting. Don’t get me wrong, they will inspect the kids gear a few days before the trip, they will bring backup first aid gear, etc. They just see this as an opportunity for these young men to learn.

Although this may scare some in our litigious society, consider that native American tribes often sent boys this age into the woods for their rites of passage or test of manhood. Ages 12-17 are good ages for high adventure.

The troop I was in as a scout had 40 boys and 5 assistant scout masters. That troop gave out packing lists, then had a back pack inspection to be sure each person had all they needed. Then we went. That troop erred on the side of too much coaching and correcting, perhaps, but we still had one boy forget the food he was supposed to bring and another forget the cooking utensils he was supposed to bring. I don’t remember being too worried about any of the logistics until we all discovered the utensils missing. Then we carved some sticks and used those instead. It was more about the adventure of it all, as I recall. One kid fell into a stream and got his clothing soaked. A fire dried his stuff out with only a few hours delay.

This troop has about 12 scouts going on the trip with two adult leaders on the hike and 2 more meeting them at two places on the route. They tend more towards natural consequences than my boyhood troop did.

So as the boys, as typical boys, seem to not pay attention to the packing list during the practice hike the consequences were minor because it was in town. One boy had a pack that was half his body weight. Another had hardly anything in it. No worries, because they were home in a few hours that night. However, when they leave on the 50-miler, they will drive multiple hours away and be gone for a week.

So is it better to let them learn by natural consequences should they forget things? Well, there seems to be some degree of learning by natural consequences no matter how much you try to help prepare them. The scout motto, Be Prepared, is sometimes thought through more than other times. Also part of scouting is to learn some of these things by your own experience. My own experiences in Scouting taught me much by mistakes, both in stuff to take and in leadership gaffes. We can then apply those lessons for the remainder of our lives.

So I think the boundary to allowing natural consequence is the boy’s safety. They seem safe so far. They are buying the food today and will split it up Wed night at the scout meeting. It is mostly dry and dehydrated foods for such a long hike. They have been told repeatedly to not bring just cotton socks, but some of them may learn by the blisters they get about that choice. The leaders will have a first aid kit with moleskin inside to aid those painful blisters. Some blisters are inevitable on a hike this long anyway. It is a great personal learning opportunity for each young man. They get to develop their own experiences and live with the consequences of their own choices.

They will be at 6,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation, so cold could be a problem, but it is July. It only drops down to 34 degrees F (1 deg C) at night where they are going. This morning, in early July it was 44 degrees F (6 deg C) and we live about 40 minutes drive from the mountains.

Some of what we learn best in life is by the mistakes we make. For me it was easier to take the consequence to an action than to hear a well-intentioned adult tell me “I told you so.” I think learning by mistakes is the purpose of the U.S. Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California too. They want the mistakes to be made in a “safe” environment so lessons are learned without injury of loss of life and less mistakes are made in real operations. So for these boys, there are safety backups with the adults, but the prevailing philosophy in Scouting’s guided learning is to let the boys lead and coach as needed. Natural consequences are excellent teachers and not soon forgotten.

So when tempted to over-correct and to “ensure a perfect trip” consider how that approach could lead to less engagement and less opportunity for people to learn for themselves. If there is significant danger, then a firmer approach may be warranted. Give the benefit of the doubt to letting the natural consequences do the teaching where possible. Quietly have backup, first aid, or other reserve resources as necessary or prudent. This generation needs to learn some of these lessons too. We adults developed our own heuristics or rules of thumb for succeeding at various endeavors. Our job as leaders is not to ensure they get the activity 100% correct, but rather to set up opportunities for learning and discussion of those lessons (reflection). When they learn for themselves, they build a portfolio of experiences that allows them to get to the next level of success at their next, more challenging endeavor. Allowing natural consequences gives them space to make significant choices and live with the impact.

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KW Lanham


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