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Merit Badge Counselors and Your Boy Scout’s Experience


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IN THE SAME BOAT: a blog for Scouts BSA parents
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One of the aspects of Boy Scouts I love best are the merit badges. What other organization gives its members the opportunity to experience so many different subjects? With over 135 merit badges to choose from, truly there is something for everyone. Composite Materials, anyone?

There is no requirement to earn a merit badge until after a Scout has completed hisHow to Improve a Boy Scout's Merit Badge Experience First Class rank, but a Scout can, and should, begin working on them from Day 1. Here are the requirements for merit badges by rank:

  • Star Scout: earn 6 merit badges, including any 4 from the required list for Eagle
  • Life Scout: earn 5 more merit badges (11 in all), including any 3 additional badges from the required list for Eagle
  • Eagle Scout: earn a total of 21 merit badges, including the 13 Eagle-required merit badges.

According to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), advancement is a means to an end, and not an end itself. Everything a Scout does during his advancement is meant to educate him and expand his horizons. Personal growth is the primary goal. Merit badges are a great example of how a Scout can expand his horizons and grow.

What I want to write about today is making the merit badge experience worthwhile for Scouts. If you’ve been with Boy Scouts long enough, you probably know about merit badge forums. At these events, Scouts are usually able to work on and earn two badges in one day. That usually means about two to three hours per class, with lunch in between. Because of the time constraint, there are typically prerequisites to be completed beforehand. Depending upon the merit badge, those can be significant. During the class, the merit badge counselor will need to spend time going over those with the Scouts in order to approve them.

Merit badge forums are popular because a Scout can typically knock out two merit badges in one day, usually having completed some prerequisites in advance at home. But is the Scout getting the full benefit of earning the merit badge?

Here is an example. My son recently attended a merit badge forum. He chose one Eagle-required merit badge – Family Life, and one other – Golf. The Golf merit badge had no prerequisites (the requirements to practice various swings and play 18 holes were to be done elsewhere). The merit badge counselor spent the entire two-hour class reading from his PowerPoint presentation. Other than occasionally asking some questions, there was no other interaction or engagement with the Scouts. Although there was a bag of golf clubs in the room, the Scouts did not get to handle a club or practice a short putt.

The Family Life class had four requirements as prerequisites. During the first part of the two-hour class, a counselor read from the merit badge pamphlet and asked questions of the Scouts. At the end, two counselors spent time meeting individually with the Scouts to sign off on the prerequisites.

Neither of these classes really engaged the Scouts very fully. As I looked around, most of the boys looked bored. Yes, they earned their merit badges, but how much personal growth was involved?

After my son started Boy Scouts, one of the things I liked to do was get on Google to see if I could find any local merit badge classes. I created a listing page on his troop’s website, and periodically make it a point to update it. Once you start looking, you’d be amazed by who offers scheduled merit badge classes, or classes upon request. Oftentimes these can be so much more enriching for your Scout than a similar offering at a merit badge forum. The classes are usually longer, providing more time to really delve into the badge’s requirements (e.g., an all-day class). They are offered at a venue that ties into the badge’s theme (e.g., at an observatory for the Astronomy merit badge). The merit badge counselors have day-to-day experience in the subject matter (e.g., a counselor teaching the Horsemanship badge at an equestrian center).

Here is an example of how different a merit badge class experience can be for the same badge. Merit badge forums typically offer the Citizenship in the Citizenship In the Nation merit badge class, at President Truman's graveCommunity/Nation/World merit badges, which are Eagle-required. Recently there was a local merit badge forum, hosted at a college campus, that offered all three. A Scout who signed up for one of those badges had to complete a number of its requirements beforehand. The class itself was two hours long.

In comparison, on the same day the local BSA Council was offering an all-day Citizenship in the Nation merit badge class at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Scouts who took this class received a tour of the Museum led by trained docents; watched a Guggenheim documentary of President Truman; and walked the Museum grounds, which include the grave sites of President and Mrs. Truman.

Afterwards, the Scouts were divided into small groups of eight, and attended class in the handsome conference rooms with leather chairs that historically hosted diplomats and other government figures. The small groups made it easier for the counselors to interact individually with the Scouts. Overall, a great merit badge experience.

I am not advocating against merit badge forums. They offer many merit badges that your Scout probably cannot earn anywhere else (e.g., Nuclear Science), which allows your Scout to expand his horizons. But I also encourage parents to dig a little further and find alternative ways for your Scouts to earn merit badges. If you find a scheduled event, let your Scout’s troop know about it. If you find an organization or business that can offer a merit badge class upon request, be the parent who spearheads your troop getting a group of Scouts together to take it.

Here are some ideas of where to look in your community for merit badge classes:

  • your troop’s Council
  • non-profit organizations such as zoos, museums, science centers, botanical gardens, and nature centers
  • federal, state and municipal facilities such as presidential libraries, museums, courthouses, and city halls
  • retail stores, businesses and recreational facilities such as the Microsoft Store, Harley-Davidson, Bass Pro Shop, scuba diving shops, climbing gyms, aviation and equestrian centers, archery ranges, and observatories
  • local clubs (e.g., chess, robotics).

And finally, many parents don’t know that they can become merit badge counselors and offer classes to their troop’s Scouts related to their own areas of interest, expertise or vocation. Here are the three main steps to becoming a counselor:

  1. Complete Youth Protection Training
  2. Register with the BSA as an adult (your troop will have the application form)
  3. Complete a merit badge counselor application and orientation (offered by BSA Councils; Heart of America Council example).

Once you’re officially a counselor, talk to your troop’s Scoutmaster about conducting a merit badge class. You can limit the class size if you feel more comfortable working with a smaller group of Scouts. For your merit badge class, decide which requirements can best be worked on at home by the Scout, which requirements lend themselves to a classroom setting, and which offer the potential for a guest speaker, field trip, service project, collaboration among the Scouts, etc. In short, think about how you can make earning the merit badge an enriching experience.  

I became a merit badge counselor, and to get my feet wet held a Reading merit badge class for a small group of Scouts. The requirements weren’t too complicated, so it didn’t feel daunting. I chose to hold our first meeting at a library. I had told the librarian that we were coming, and she offered to meet with the Scouts and work on the first requirement with them. Later, for another requirement, I researched opportunities for community service related to reading. One of the Scouts ended up volunteering with the nonprofit Reach Out and Read, spending time at a local health clinic reading to children in the waiting room.

So if you’re an attorney, consider offering a Law merit badge class. Love to work on cars? There is an Automotive Maintenance merit badge. An avid chess player? Offer the Chess merit badge. You’re the family member who has charted the family tree? Share that expertise in a Geneology merit badge class. You get the idea. We all have something we can share with a group of Scouts to make their experience earning a merit badge very rewarding. Perhaps you will even influence a career path for a Scout.

Here is the list of merit badges, with links to their requirements. Take some time to look through them and see what you have to offer your troop’s Boy Scouts. I promise that you will find the merit badge counselor experience rewarding for yourself as well.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll share it with a friend!

P.S. Do you wish being a Scouts BSA parent was a breeze? It is with the Smooth Sailing eGuide, Planner and Organizer for new and continuing Scout parents! Updated January 2020.

Smooth Sailing Through Scouts: Guide, Planner & Organizer for Scouts BSA Parents

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