Why the Patrol System Teaches Empathy

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We, as scouters, are all familiar with the emotional growth that scouts obtain from being involved in outdoor activities. How do you describe why it works? Often scouters struggle to explain what they have witnessed to be true. We need to be able to describe why this works if we are to be able to persuade new families to join. Let’s take a look at what types of activities promote personal emotional growth.

Ultimately, well-run scout units are boys-at-play not boys-at-school-outdoors. If that is so, may be this explains why scouting works:

Closely related to the increased pressure to achieve is the decline in play. [] Over the past several decades, we have witnessed a continuous and, overall, dramatic decline in children’s freedom and opportunities to play with other children, undirected by adults. In other essays I have linked this decline to the well-documented rise in depression and anxiety among children and adolescents (here) and to the recently documented decline in creativity (here). Free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their own lives, solve their own problems, and deal effectively with fear and anger—and thereby protect themselves from prolonged anxiety and depression. Free play is also the primary means by which children maintain and expand upon their creative potentials. Now, I suggest, free social play—that is, play with other kids, undirected by adults–is also the primary means by which children overcome narcissism and build up their capacity for empathy.

Play, by definition, is always voluntary, and that means that players are always free to quit. If you can’t quit, it’s not play. All normal children have a strong biological drive to play with other children. That’s part of human child nature—an extraordinarily important part of it. In such play, every child knows that the others can quit at any time and will quit if they are not happy. Therefore, to keep the fun going, each child is motivated to keep the other children happy. To do that, children must listen to one another, read into what they are saying, and, in general, get into one another’s mind so as to know what the other wants and doesn’t want. If a child fails at that and consistently bullies others or doesn’t take their views into account, the others will quit, leaving the offending child alone. This is powerful punishment that leads the offender to try harder next time to see from others’ points of view. Thus, in their social play, children continuously practice and build upon their abilities to empathize, negotiate, and cooperate.

Moreover, children, unlike adults, are rarely effusive in their praise of one another. They have little tolerance for anyone who thinks that he or she is “special,” or is in some way above the rules, or is a natural leader who should get his or her way all the time. Playmates are often highly skilled in deflating one another’s egos, through such means as humor and insults, or through outright rejection if those means fail.

Consistent with this view, correlational studies have revealed that children who engage in more social play with other children demonstrate more empathy, and more ability to understand the perspective of others, than do children who engage in less such play.[6] Moreover, several short-term experiments conducted in preschools have shown that when some children are provided with extra opportunities to engage in social play, those in the extra-play groups later exhibit higher performance on various measures of social perspective-taking and ability to get along with others than do those in the control groups.[7]

Boys setting up their own terms of play provide emotional development benefits because they have an incentive to adapt. The incentive is the desire to keep others involved. They don’t seek out or give effusive praise — often quite the opposite. Yet, these unstructured opportunities provide real opportunities to foster empathy and understanding.

What lessons do we learn as scouters? In the last post, I suggested that adult-guided activities, especially in sports, have a much higher incidence of injury, requiring medical attention, including orthopedic surgeries. Now we see that emotional growth is greater where youth-led activities are allowed, including juvenile insults. The more time for unstructured interaction is allowed, the greater opportunity for growth.

While many of the points in the excerpt above focus on “free-play” for young children, the lessons for emotional growth are the same as children become teen-agers. They need time to face challenges together and have arguments where they face the risk of the other kids giving them the ultimate juvenile punishment: non-participation. If a patrol leader is overly controlling and lack in empathy, his patrol will find anything else to do than follow the patrol leader’s instructions. The patrol leader may or may not learn quickly, but he has the opportunity to learn that dictatorial methods fail.

The patrol leader who leads by example will learn to be a better leader. When the duty roster is made, the good patrol leader will give himself the least desirable job first: latrine or KP duty or the patrol’s least favorite. The patrol learns that he has more credibility when he can say, “I understand it is not fun. I did it yesterday. Come. I’ll help you figure out how to do it faster.” His patrol will get tasks done.

So what is going to give your scouts the greatest opportunity for growth? A weekend campout that appears to be completely chaotic and unstructured? A high-adventure trip led by adults and planned down to the minute?

With these tools in mind, how would you explain that the patrol system is the reason that a prospective scouting parent should have their son join Scouts?