So in addition to trying to define a good turn in practical terms, we might ask why this concept is important to the scouting program and how scouts fulfill this idiom’s obligation.
Let’s start by defining what a good turn isn’t.
Doing someone a favor is different than doing your own duty, obligations or chores. Duties and chores are those activities that we are already familiar with and expect to do on a routine and typically repetitive basis. The tasks may have been assigned by our parents or by another adult with the authority to make job assignments. Duties owed are based on a pledge of obedience to specific instructions and clearly communicated expectations. For example, “take out the trash” or “make your bed” or “pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper where they properly belong” etc.
Duties, chores and obligations might also extend to routine assignments at school, scouts, sports teams, or church.
So, duties, chores and routine obligations are not good deeds or favors.
Doing a “favor” often occurs we’re responding to a request for help. This might be a neighbor who needs help unloading their car, or a request from a known acquaintance for directions, etc. This is one form of doing a “good turn”. One of the most famous (among scouts) good turns was a request for directions when William D. Boyce was lost in London. A scout helped him to find his way and then refused a tip for his help. This chance encounter ultimately led to the establishment of scouting in the USA.
However, the best application of the slogan comes when scouts train themselves to be on the lookout for situations where they can appropriately intervene — even without a stated request for help. Scouts often suggest that holding the door open for other people is a good turn. It is definitely courteous and better than letting the door slam shut on the stranger. However, I think scouts can do better than simply holding doors open for people at the local store or at church.
A good turn could be viewed as a micro-service project, or as a willingness to serve when it might have been easy to simply slide on past the opportunity or stand in the shadows instead of stepping up to commit to a project. An example is occasionally taking in your neighbors’ trash cans, or raking their leaves, but expecting no tip or monetary reward in return — the scout is giving of themselves to help others unexpectedly.
The willingness to set your own selfish agenda aside, sacrifice your own time, and follow through to help others is the point of a good turn – whether a simple courtesy or a more strenuous commitment.
Way back in 1928, James E. West, one of our Chief Scout Executives said;
“While Scouts should not be expected to ‘parade’ their services, it would be helpful if Scout Leaders, parents, and others would encourage boys in the doing of Good Turns, and recognize the difference between normal household and other chores, and actual Good Turns. Selfishness is almost a universal evil. Certainly it is overcome by the Scout Program, which is based upon the development of service for others, and the Daily Good Turn is an important factor in the development of a habit of service and attitude of mind which offset a tendency to selfishness.”
If our scouting program becomes merely a monthly camping club, or a social event to host pinewood derby races, then we’re missing one of the key points originally envisioned for our young scouts. As adults, leaders, parents and helpers, we should be encouraging the boys to train their own hearts and minds to love service — even the doing of small, but meaningful good deeds on a daily basis.
The 1911 BSA Handbook offers this advice on getting young men to remember their good deed obligation;
“So the boy scout of to-day must be chivalrous, manly, and gentlemanly. When he gets up in the morning he may tie a knot in his necktie, and leave the necktie outside his vest until he has done a good turn. Another way to remind himself is to wear his scout badge reversed until he has done his good turn. The good turn may not be a very big thing–help an old lady across the street; remove a banana skin from the pavement so that people may not fall; remove from streets or roads broken glass, dangerous to automobile or bicycle tires; give water to a thirsty horse; or deeds similar to these.
(By the way, there’s even an APP for smart phones that serves as a daily reminder and register of scouter’s daily good turns — LINK TO ARTICLE)
How important is it to push or promote the “good turn” concept as a practical exercise completed by individuals (i.e. service projects done by troops are not good turns)? Are we making something out of nothing? Aren’t most young men really “good at heart?”
Let’s look at two arguments for why the good turn is critical to the aims of scouting:
- Understanding human behavior
- Biblical references (Note: you don’t need to be Christian to be a scout — scouting is open to many faith practices and philosophies, but at our troop, our families share a common faith practice so we often look at the Bible to see what it says about ideas and concepts we encounter in scouting. If you follow a different faith practice, you may find interesting and helpful ideas about good turns within your faith’s specific teachings.)
Let’s very quickly look at human behavior. Are we born “selfish” or “selfless”? This may seem a silly question, but consider that when we’re born, we are utterly dependent on our parents for food, hygiene security, warmth — everything.
Babies cry when they need something, they hurt or want attention. A baby cannot function by themselves; therefore they must be selfish in getting their needs met.
However, parents work at weaning babies off of this routine as they grow and mature. They introduce solid foods, and eventually teach toddlers how to feed themselves, dress themselves, share their toys, cover common courtesies and so on. This steady introduction of self-responsibility helps foster both independence and the potential for selflessness at later times in life.
During a boy’s teen years, we could choose one of two paths:
- let him design his own responsibilities (in a vacuum of no or little guidance), or
- we can challenge him to be productive at:
- supporting the family through routine chores, and
- helping others through service (suggesting and guiding choices in accepting responsibility).
The highly mature teen may shape his responsibilities appropriately, but I’d not be surprised if the majority of boys (when let to their own ends) would rather play games and be entertained than fill their time with hard work. In reality, there’s probably a bit of both paths being intermingled — some self-determination and some guidance by parents and adult mentors.
Therefore, if we encourage the doing of good turns daily, we have the mechanism to keep reminding a teen to focus on the needs of others even as he maintains his own sense of independence (and we have confidence that he’ll not need reminding of his own needs — I’ve never met a teen boy who needed to be called to dinner more than once). He’ll also learn that the courage to do the hard work has its own reward in the satisfaction of a job well done and the relief it can bring to the beneficiary.
Finally, from a human nature perspective, either path (extended adolescent play or the guided development of increasing responsibility for both chores and selfless acts) produces a fully grown man biologically, but often a very different kind of man emotionally. One may shirk responsibilities and the other could summon courage to accept and fulfill his responsibilities without needing constant supervision or ‘nagging’ (or as expressed in the book “Maximized Manhood” — “When a man acts like a child, it forces his wife, to act like his mother.”) So when doing a good turn daily becomes more of a learned, natural behavior than another tedious chore, it may benefit the scout when he’s grown up and responsible for his own wife and family.
In the Bible, there’s a story of the good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25-37. In the most simple terms, travelers along a road ignore the obvious needs of a wounded man until a Samaritan comes along and takes care of the hurt man. Which of these travelers was selfless? Obviously the one willing to take care of a hurt stranger with no expectation of reward and no excuses about why he couldn’t be bothered to intervene. The Samaritan did his “Good Turn” without hesitation. If you were the injured traveler, who would you want to encounter? Selfish “well to do’s” or a lowly person who had trained his heart and mind to do what was needed.
Aside from the practical considerations that good turns help people with their daily lives, there is clear guidance in the Bible admonishing us to drive selfishness (and selfish ambitions) out of our lives. Consider the following select verses:
- Philippians 2:3-8 – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (ESV)
- James 3:13 – “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (NIV)
Also consider the text found in James 2:14-17 -
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (NKJV)
Can we stand by as scouts and pledge “…to help other people at all times…” and then fail to do our good turn daily? The pledge becomes meaningless if we remain idle.
Similarly, if we proclaim to be Christians, we may cling (appropriately) to the truth that it is solely God’s grace through Christ’s death and resurrection that saves us (Sola fide), but James points out the practical observation that as “saved by grace” individuals we should be thoughtful enough to express our faith through appropriate actions within our community, too.
Becoming selfless is a process that we have to work on throughout our lives. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement stated; “The good turn will educate the boy out of the groove of selfishness.” The daily good turn is a learned, disciplined event, born from counsel received from many mentors, and the bitterness of recognizing/regretting missed opportunities where a good turn would have made a material difference in someone’s life.
As scouts, scouters, parents, siblings we should be encouraging each other to take the slogan to heart, put it in practice and train ourselves to vigilantly search for those opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.