By Elizabeth Grace Matthew
Originally published in The Deseret News (Apr 17, 2023). Used here by permission.
When my oldest son wanted to join the Cub Scouts — a K-5 coed program of the Boy Scouts of America — I resisted at first. I told him we could go to one meeting just to check it out, but that we might want to preserve more downtime in our family’s schedule rather than adding yet another activity.
But after that meeting, he came home reciting the Scout Oath, which reads in part: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty … to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
They had me at “do my duty.” We’re now a Cub Scouts family. Here’s why.
We live in an increasingly politicized country, where parenting and educational practices diverge ever more by ideology — to the detriment of us all.
On the right, the old-fashioned authority that children desperately need is too often coupled with racial and religious prejudice. Some lean into theocracy, teaching that only the principles of their faith should govern the country. Others, dubbing themselves “legacy Americans,” claim American values only for white, Protestant people whose ancestors have been here for far longer than mine.
Meanwhile, on the left, a worthy emphasis on inclusion and pluralism has become too often inextricable from the denigration of longstanding American values like personal responsibility, agency, and hard work. For example, some proponents of “anti-racism” ideology say that an emphasis on high standards, measurable outcomes, and writing well are characteristics of “white supremacy culture.”
No wonder we’re polarized.
Yet Cub Scouts manages to square this increasingly impossible circle in a way that feels reminiscent of my own 1990s childhood. There is an emphasis on diversity and inclusion, as well as an acknowledgment of past wrongs and a commitment to youth safety, alongside an appreciation of the old-school American values that rightly belong to us all.
The organization emphasizes the personal accountability of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” John Bunyan’s allegorical guide to Christian self-mastery that was many 19th-century Americans’ educational text of choice.
More importantly, Cub Scouts rejects the fragility of Tracy Hoexter’s “A Wrinkled Heart,” a picture book about mean words being permanently wounding that is commonly referenced in schools today. Scouts recite a list of characteristics that are supposed to dene a Cub Scout, including brave, trustworthy, reverent and helpful. The rhetoric inculcates an orientation toward solving others’ problems rather than wallowing in one’s own. Resilience is an expectation, as is moral leadership.
Earlier this year, it was reported at my son’s den meeting that there had been some troublemaking in second grade. My son and his fellow scouts told their den leader that none of them had been involved. Without missing a beat, the den leader responded that he would not expect any less, encouraging them to be behavioral leaders among their classmates.
These are exactly the kinds of lessons that my husband and I want our all-American boys to absorb.
Their paternal grandparents came to this country from Liberia in the 1970s and 1980s, then settled in inner-city Cleveland and raised four college graduates and successful professionals. Two of their maternal great-great-grandmothers arrived here from Romania and Italy, respectively, in the 1910s — the former a 15-year-old on the run from the Russian pogroms and the latter an 18-year-old picture bride.
Thirty years before the Jewish granddaughter of one of these women (my sons’ maternal grandmother) met the Catholic grandson of the other (their maternal grandfather), the two were working in the same inner-city Philadelphia sweatshop.
My sons — Black, multiethnic, Mass-attending Catholics who, as toddlers, attended the same synagogue nursery school that some of their Jewish cousins once did — are as American as apple pie.
So, contrary to much of the energy on today’s right, the freedoms and privileges of life in America are just as much my sons’ birthright as they are the descendants of white Americans of European descent. And, contrary to much of the energy on today’s left, my sons are just as capable of meeting the responsibilities and demands of life in America as anyone else.
For my kids and for everyone else’s — more than 73 million all-American girls and boys of every color, creed, and background— I want to live in a 21st-century America that acknowledges and lives out this reality of genuine equality.
Such an America would require our vast diversity of citizens and institutions to make intentional efforts to sound more like the Cub Scouts and less like either side of our increasingly polarized politics.
So, to help do our small part, we’ll continue with Cub Scouts. Our middle son is excited to start next year. For the kind of countercultural, formative programming the organization offers, it’s worth being busy.