Uniforms – Why Bother?

Outdoor adventuring…camping club…youth group…

Each evokes an image of youth and adults getting together to meet, hike, play sports, study and discuss various topics, but “scouting” has a distinctive definition that sets it apart from these other worthy youth development pursuits.

Specific methods are employed in “scouting” around the world and regardless of the “brand name” attached to the local curriculum.  Take away these methods of program execution and you’re no longer discussing “scouting” at all.

These methods include:

  • Patrols:The patrol method provides youth members with an experience in group living and participating citizenship. It places responsibility on young shoulders and teaches boys how to accept it. The patrol method allows boys to interact in small groups where members can easily relate to each other. These small groups determine troop activities through elected representatives. In simple terms this is what we often refer to as “boy led” programming.
  • Ideals:Scouting programs develop specific ideals which serve to provide boys with boundaries and aspirational goals for behavior – especially focused on learning to serve other people. Youth members measures themselves against these ideals and continually try to improve the incorporation of these aspirational goals into their daily lives.
  • Outdoor Focus: Scouting is designed to take place outdoors. It is in the outdoor setting that youth members share responsibilities and learn to live with one another. In the outdoors the skills and activities practiced at troop meetings come alive with purpose. Being close to nature helps youth members gain an appreciation for the beauty of the world around us. The outdoors is the laboratory in which we learn about ecology and practice healthy stewardship of nature’s resources.
  • Advancement: Scouting programs provide a series of surmountable obstacles and steps in overcoming them through the advancement method. Each youth member plans his advancement and progresses at his own pace as he meets each challenge. The youth member is rewarded for each achievement, which helps him gain self-confidence. The steps in the advancement system help members grow in self-reliance and in the ability to help others.
  • Association with Adults:Boys learn a great deal by watching how adults conduct themselves. Adult leaders can be positive role models for the members of the troop. In many cases a Troopmaster who is willing to listen to boys, encourage them, and take a sincere interest in them can make a profound difference in their lives. Other appropriate adult contacts such as working with mentors on specific projects (badges, service work, etc.) can help boys learn how to deal with people who are, initially, unfamiliar to them, but are experts in their field of study or professional pursuit.
  • Personal Growth:As youth members plan their activities and progress toward their goals, they experience personal growth. Community based service projects and spiritual development through the religious emblems program or other discipleship programs (Delta Life Program, etc.) also play a large part of the personal growth method. Frequent personal conferences with his Troopmaster help each boy to recognize and measure his own growth over time.
  • Leadership Development:Scouting programs encourage boys to learn and practice leadership skills (as an outgrowth of the patrol method and the life experiences program).
  • Uniform:The uniform accomplishes a number of goals that are more fully described below, but is one of the most contested methods of the scouting program regardless of brand curriculum (BSA, WOSM, TLUSA, etc.).

Of the eight methods of scouting, none generate as much negative discussion as “uniforms”.  The boys say they’re “uncool” and the parents complain about the cost, the layers of options, the sewing of patches and the fact that (in the past and with some programs) the garments are not “made in America”.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just wear jeans and a t-shirt?  And didn’t the first edition of the BSA handbook (for context) state “It should be clearly understood by all interested in the Scout Movement that it is not necessary for a boy to have a uniform or any other special equipment to carry out the scout program. There are a great many troops in the country which have made successful progress without any equipment whatever.?  Indeed, it did say that, but while it might be easier or less expensive to run a unit without uniforms, there is a method to the (apparent) madness.

First, let’s look at the context of why trailmen wear uniforms.

  1. Shared identity.  Wearing the uniform, fully and correctly helps create a shared identity – recognizable around the country and from generation to generation.  As long as all members and units embrace this method enthusiastically, the growing widespread use will help make our uniform “iconic” or immediately recognizable by most citizens.  Others have said “The uniform makes the troop visible as a force for good and creates a positive youth image in the community.”  We also have a sense of “brotherhood” with strangers when we see them in ouruniform – we know that they generally adhere to the same principles as we do and we can approach them with confidence if we need their help or simply want to be social.  Just as a sports team wears a uniform to identify their affiliation, we have uniforms to identify which unit we belong to.  Wearing the uniform properly shows a healthy respect and pride in the program, and it serves to promote the program to other families.
  2. Practicality.  Sports uniforms are not merely decorative, but purposeful to the activities anticipated.  In the same way, our uniforms are designed to be comfortable, breathable, quick drying, wicking and durable for special ceremonies, outdoor adventures and service work while providing a neat appearance.  Our uniforms are loaded with pockets for the gadgets and tools we need for survival and eventualities (i.e. personal first aid kit, rope, flashlight, compass, maps, etc.)
  3. A foundation for adornment. The uniform, including our standard, provides a “bookshelf” to display our credentials – our rank, our training certifications and other awards which demonstrate our capabilities to other Trailmen.  The patches are not supposed to be there to satisfy our own vanity or pride – they are a form of practical “resume” showing what we’re capable of doing in an emergency, and we had better be ready.
  4. History. For as long as there’s been scouting organizations, uniforms have been a part.  Baden-Powell (B-P) had a lot to say on the benefits of uniforms – and not to promote militarism, but to serve as an equalizer between youth from families of varied means and social standing.  It’s a tool in minimizing class distinctions and it fosters a spirit of belonging to a team where each member is responsible for the others.  When all commit to wearing uniforms properly and completely it can be a source of healthy self-esteem.  Baden-Powell (B-P) said; “The uniform makes for brotherhood, since when universally adopted it covers up all differences of class and country.”  Consistent use of uniforms by all units helps build a shared history over time and creates a sense of legacy from one generation to the next in a way that blue-jeans and a t-shirt could not accomplish.
  5. Example.  It is the responsibility of the adult and youth leaders to set the example starting with Uniforms and including all of the methods of scouting.  B-P said “Show me a poorly uniformed troop and I’ll show you a poorly uniformed leader.”  I think his comment has to do with more than clothing – a Troopmaster who fails to promote all of the scouting methods can’t inspire the boys to follow and value them either.  A Troopmaster who hates spending time in the outdoors or doesn’t challenge himself to get training on his own roles and responsibilities will similarly fail to inspire the youth to take on their own challenges.  B-P also said “Success in training the boy depends largely on the Scoutmaster’s own personal example.” AND “The Scoutmaster teaches boys to play the game by doing so himself.

Secondly, B-P had some very strong feelings about the uniform as a gauge into the heart and mind of the boys (and adult leaders) – if the other methods of scouting are working, and the aims are being achieved, then the natural outcome would be a love for wearing the uniform consistently and proudly.  If there are problems with the program, then uniforms would be an immediate “early warning alert”.  Take a look at this quote from “Scouting for Boys” (1908):

WEARING THE UNIFORM — The Scout kit, through its uniformity, now constitutes a bond of brotherhood among boys across the world.  The correct wearing of the Uniform and smartness of turnout of the individual Scout makes him a credit to our Movement.  It shows his pride in himself and in his Troop.  One slovenly Scout, on the other hand, inaccurately dressed may let down the whole Movement in the eyes of the public. Show me such a fellow and I can show you one who has not grasped the true Scouting spirit and who takes no pride in his membership of our great Brotherhood.

How Do We Encourage Better Use of Uniforms?

  1. Start at the Top. Most troops start with a commitment from the Charter Organization Rep and Committee Chair down through the direct-contact, adult leadership that they will consistently wear the uniform correctly and consistently.  This includes getting trained on proper insignia placement and being willing to take constructive criticism if any part of the uniform is incorrect.  As a leadership team, you have to set the example, take pride in your uniform and show that you’re willing to “be seen in public” with the uniform.  For some adults, this will be a big step, but trust me, it’s not that bad.  In my years of scouting, I’ve had almost entirely good comments and supportive experiences while in uniform – especially when I’m leading my troop.
  2. Educate your families on the benefits and purposes.  When dads and moms get on board, you’ve won more than half the battle.  If they’ve had experience with sports coaches, you might cautiously ask them to characterize the expected response from that coach if the parents were to tell the coach that their son “simply won’t be wearing the uniform during the season” (ha, ha).    More seriously, when they understand the value, and the practical purposes, they’ll find a way to provide the budget or obtain the articles second-hand from thrift stores, etc.  Encourage positive suggestions and comments from parents – get them onboard with finding solutions and they’ll own the project even more!
  3. Consider a phase in plan with specific target dates. Going from a non-uniformed unit to a fully uniformed unit (or bringing in a new member) can be made easy if there’s a logical, reasonable timetable.  Starting with the uniform shirt and adding components makes full uniforming approachable for most families, including those with fixed or limited incomes.   While every family situation is unique, it is not difficult to obtain uniforms from friends, family (birthday gifts), through scholarships (where available) etc.  On one occasion when one of my families was struggling due to un-expected medical bills, a local volunteer offered to pay for a complete uniform for their son!  All we had to do was make the situation known quietly and resources became immediately available.  Remember, a trailman is thrifty and this should be a last resort (I’ve also had a non-scouting experience where a mom couldn’t pay the annual registration fee for a club, but it was because (when confronted tactfully) she was saving up for a vacation home and was simply being cheap!)
  4. Make plans to operate a Uniform Exchange Program.Ken Wegenhart, a fellow scouter, offered this comment: We have a uniform exchange that we run out of a big plastic tub. If a boy needs a uniform part, he may go to the tub to see if there is one there that will fit him. This helps save on cost especially for a new scout. We all know that the boys grow so fast that the often outgrow before they can wear out. This way we have a constant supply of educated uniform parts to choose from.
  5. Provide appropriate praise and rewards along the way.  Reinforcement helps families remember the education about the value of uniforms and this can help them renew their commitment.  Have your youth leadership team use uniform inspections thoughtfully and as a means to celebrate improvement rather than embarrass or frustrate those who are struggling but trying.
  6. Encourage the historian to capture the evolution of your troop in film. As your unit makes progress on this method, using pictures from past trips to celebrate the improvements in uniforming can make a difference.  Consider getting a dignitary (i.e. local sports figure, the Mayor, Police Chief, etc.) to come address your unit, but make sure that all scouts come as fully uniformed as possible out of respect to your guest.  Then make sure a group picture is shared showing how great your patrols are looking!
  7. While you can’t make up requirements, you can strongly urge proper uniforming for duties of honor such as flag ceremonies, wreath laying, etc.  Again, enlist your parents to help communicate the use of uniforms as a sign of respect during these ceremonies.

Uniforms are not the point of scouting programs, and are not a “requirement”, but when scouting is done well, uniforms are a natural, valuable and synergistic component of that successful program.

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