When a young man comes of age on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, he’s required to climb a crude wooden tower about 100 feet high and leap head-first toward Earth, tethered at the ankle by vines. The goal is to land close enough to the ground that the lad’s shoulders graze the soil. Anything short of that — and, one presumes, longer — is unacceptable.
On the other side of the world, young men of the Hamar tribe of Ethiopia prove their manhood, primarily to their betrothed, by running back and forth across the backs of angry cattle.
And in the Satere-Mawe tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, boys become men by putting their hands in gloves filled with bullet ants, considered to have the most painful sting in the ant world, and leaving them there for 10 minutes.
Strange enough. But I’ve discovered that in America, boys do all of this and more in a summer ritual known as Boy Scout camp. There, they not only leap from perilous heights and endure all manner of insect bites, they swim in polar-like waters, willingly consume vast quantities of a bizarre concoction known as “the s’more” and abide a week of pioneering-like deprivations without once changing their underwear.
Of course, we parents are left to presume most of this because our kids don’t actually tell us what they do at camp because their sieve-like pre-adolescent brains are incapable of sustaining a memory that doesn’t involve melted marshmallows or involuntary body noise.
So we’re left to presume the worst — a sub-Vanuatu experience.
“Are you going to miss us?” I asked our Tenderfoot before he, loaded down like a mule, staggered off to camp for the first time this summer.
“Umm, sure,” he said.
“That doesn’t sound convincing.”
He smiled in a way that said “You’ll be fine, Dad,” and continued looking for his compass.
(In the old days, children did as they were told and got homesick. Now kids leave it to parents to take all responsibility for separation anxiety. There’s no respect for tradition.)
Yet somehow despite the leaps, stings and other exploits, these Scouts return home having learned some pretty meritorious stuff, such as how to pitch a tent, build a fire, cook their own meals and tie their assistant scoutmaster’s shoelaces together in a square knot or a sheet bend. And they can’t wait to go back and do it all over again next year.
There’s something remarkable about seeing a child, who seemed incapable of dressing himself just a week earlier, suddenly dressing the wounds of siblings and scrambling their own eggs.
What’s more remarkable is that the Boy Scouts of America has been offering pretty much the same program, building skills and self-confidence in young men, for 100 years. The organization celebrated its 100th anniversary this year with relatively few accolades, at least in these parts.
Part of the reason for that is that controversy has been the loyal companion of Boy Scouts for almost its entire history. In 1912, labor unions were upset that the original Boy Scout handbook encouraged loyalty to employers, so those references were removed. Catholics at first wanted no part of the Boy Scouts because of its ties to the Protestant-associated YMCA. Later the church started its own troops. At various times, the Boy Scouts have also taken heat for wanting to include African-American boys, for being too militaristic, too bureaucratic and/or too exclusive. Most recently it has been the organization’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell”-like policy that has been the target of controversy, and in the worst cases, retribution.
But what gets lost in all of this debate among adults is the difference the organization continues to make in the lives of boys, at a time when it’s needed most.
It’s no secret that children today spend less time outdoors thanks to TV, video games and other tethers to digital worlds more interesting than this one. But studies show those distractions are not making kids more excited about life. On the contrary, boys are disproportionately diagnosed with obesity, learning disabilities, etc. Girls are soaring academically while boys are slipping. In college, men make up less than 43 percent of the students.
It’s true many kids gain self-confidence through team sports. An estimated 57 million kids between the ages of 6 and 14 play youth sports. But by the age of 15, that number drops to 7 million primarily because of burnout, frustration with competitive coaching and lost opportunities to compete. What do they do then?
As the Boy Scouts of America bridges to a new century, it faces its own challenges. Its membership has fallen 42 percent — down to 2.8 million — from its peak in 1973. But one thing it’s not challenged to do is change its program. For 100 years, it has been helping kids finding their compass. And it works.
You can see it in the faces of those who return from summer camp — once you hose them down to make sure you got the right child.
Paul Gullixson is the editorial director of The Press Democrat. E-mail him at email@example.com or call him at (707) 521-5282.