[NOTE: this is part two of a mini-series on the “methods of scouting” — the introduction can be found by clicking HERE.]
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 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 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 scouts wear uniforms.
- Shared identity. Part of defining what it is to be a scout includes wearing the uniform, fully and correctly. In some respects, it’s the wrapper – a costume – but one with a purpose. You can travel throughout the United States of America (USA) and find a common uniform in use throughout our country. Because of the widespread use, our uniform is “iconic” or immediately recognizable by most citizens. Others have said “The uniform makes the Scout 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 our uniform – we know that they generally adhere to the same principles (scouting ideals) 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, scouts have uniforms to identify which unit they belong to. When I’ve most felt out of place (say while ordering food in uniform at a fast-food chain) I’ve also gotten the most vocal support from total strangers affirming that they’re scouts or know scouts in their immediate social circle.
- Practicality. Sports uniforms are not merely decorative, but purposeful to the activities anticipated. In the same way, scout uniforms are designed to be comfortable, breathable, quick drying, wicking and durable for 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.)
- A foundation for adornment. The uniform provides a “bookshelf” to display our credentials – our rank, our training certifications and other awards which demonstrate our capabilities to other scouts. 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.
- History. For as long as there’s been a Boy Scout organization, uniforms have been a part of the program. 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.”
- Example. It is the responsibility of the adult leaders (and the Patrol Leadership Council) 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 scoutmaster who fails to follow the scouting ideals can’t inspire the boys to do so. A scoutmaster 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.
What’s included in the Boy Scout Uniform?
The Boy Scout and Varsity Scout uniform has four required parts:
- Shirt and Neckwear. Official long- or shortsleeve tan shirt with green (Boy Scout) or blaze orange (Varsity) shoulder loops on epaulets. The troop/team may vote to wear a neckerchief, bolo tie, or no neckwear. In any case, the collar should be unbuttoned. The troop/team has the choice of wearing the neckerchief over the turned-under collar or under the open collar.
- Belt. Olive web with Boy Scouts of American (BSA) insignia on brass buckle; or official leather with international-style buckle or buckle of your choice, worn only if voted by the troop/team. Members wear one of the belts chosen by vote of the troop/team.
- Pants/Shorts. Official, olive, pressed; no cuffs. (Units have no option to change.)
- Socks. Official olive-colored socks.
- Optional – Headgear. All troop members must wear the headgear chosen by vote of the troop/team.
How Do We Encourage Better Use of Uniforms?
- 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 (http://www.scoutinsignia.com/patchtop.htm). 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.
- 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!
- 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 within the local BSA council (where available) or through friends-of-scouting. On one occasion when one of my families was struggling due to un-expected medical bills, a local scouter 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 scout 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!)
- 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.
- 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 SPL/ASPL/PL team use uniform inspections thoughtfully and as a means to celebrate improvement rather than embarrass or frustrate those who are struggling but trying.
- 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!
- 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.
- Network with other scouters. Talk to your Unit Commissioner, District Commissioner, and District Executive – these folks will know what resources are available for your unit and how to get access to them. Discuss uniforming at district roundtable with fellow scouters, find an expert at a council “scouting university” or go online and discuss the issue at any number of scouting forums.