Mac’s Message #31: Why Boys Acquire Merit Badges

by | Apr 20, 2015

Mac McIntire

Mac McIntire

I hate to be redundant in this week’s blog message, but people learn better through repetition. One of the things you will notice about my blog messages is that I primarily focus on explaining the why of specific elements of LDS Scouting rather than delving into how to do it. There are countless resources available to teach you how to implement the Scouting program within your unit. And, of course, I also hope people will comment in the reply section at the end of each of my messages to share how they are implementing the Scouting methods in their program.

To me the most important thing is not what one should do in Scouting or how one should do it, but rather why it should be done in the first place. The purpose of my blog messages is to answer the most important motivating question behind every what—which is “Why should I do it?”

In last week’s message I reiterated that the purpose of Scouting in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to fulfill the eight Purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. On numerous occasions I have heard Bro. Larry Gibson, recently released first counselor in the Young Men general presidency, say to professional executives of the Boy Scouts of America, “If Scouting does not make a boy a better priesthood leader, we don’t need it.” He typically followed up his comment by testifying that Scouting is an inspired program. Since this is true, you ought to run your Scouting program the way it has been inspired by the Lord.

In this message I wish to explain the why behind the acquisition of merit badges. May I submit that the purpose of working on merit badges is not to merely fulfill requirements for advancement or to snag another patch for a boy’s merit badge sash. Yet, it seems boys, and even their leaders, often rush through the merit badge requirements just so the boys can get it done, acquire the badge, forget about it, and then move on to the next requirement to achieve their Eagle Scout rank. In this rush for numbers the boys miss out on the real lessons to be learned during the merit badge process.

Like many elements of the gospel, often the process in Scouting is more important than the accomplishment. The journey has greater value than the destination.

One of the eight Methods of Scouting is association with other adults. When conducted properly, a boy should individually meet with a merit badge counselor to work on the requirements for the badge. This connects the boy with other adults—both men and women—who can give him guidance, direction, insight, and spiritual strength that will help build his testimony. By associating directly with other adults who are not his Scouting or Aaronic Priesthood leaders, a young man comes in contact with other spiritually mature people who exemplify the values of the Scout Oath, Scout Law, and the eight purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. Direct association with other adults is a critical component of a young man’s spiritual and temporal development.

Working on merit badges should also provide a boy with the opportunity to work closely with his parents and family members. As I mentioned in Mac’s Message #9, the second priority of LDS Scouting is to strengthen the family. When a boy engages the help of a family member—particularly his father—to work on merit badge requirements it creates a special bond. It builds trust, respect, and confidence between the boy and the family member as the young man acquires new knowledge and skills from his “mentor.” Some of the greatest experiences of a boy’s life can come from working closely with his father or other members of his family to complete merit badge requirements. Scouting leaders minimize and circumvent this process when they hold “group” merit badge sessions that preclude a boy from working individually with his parents and family. Parents miss a wonderful nurturing opportunity when they mistakenly transfer the responsibility for their son’s rank and merit badge acquisition to Scouting or priesthood leaders.

Procuring merit badges should require work. It typically should not be done in a classroom, where a boy just sits and listens to someone lecture about the topic. Every merit badge requires action. It involves searching, learning, doing, making, building, fixing, and interaction with others. It many cases it requires a boy to get out of his comfort zone to do something he may feel totally insecure about doing. Like most things in Scouting, merit badge requirements are not meant to be easy. They are designed to push a boy to reach his full potential. When leaders diminish the merit badge experience by simplifying the process or choosing the least demanding way to fulfill the requirements, it limits the long-term value the boy could receive from diligently working to achieve the coveted award. There ought to be individual merit in acquiring a merit badge.

As I have said in previous blog messages, one of the great blessings of earning merit badges is the value it provides a boy for his future life. Clearly the Backpacking, Camping, Communication, Cooking, Cycling, First Aid, Hiking, Personal Fitness, Personal Management, Wilderness Survival, and other merit badges prepare a young man for his future mission. Such merit badges as American Business, Animal Science, Archeology, Chemistry, Computers, Digital Technology, Entrepreneurship, Law, Medicine, and others may introduce a boy to his future profession. And skills learned through the Automotive Maintenance, Electricity, Family Life, Gardening, Home Repairs, Painting, Plumbing, and Woodwork merit badges will turn a young man into a much appreciated and respected future husband and father.

Acquiring these merit badges will only have value to a boy if you help him see the connection between what he is learning and how it applies to his life. This is why reflection after every activity is so important (Mac’s Message #28). If, instead, the boy is singularly focused on the outcome—the merit badge—he may miss the lasting value of the process. Like cramming to study for a test in school, a young man may learn the merit badge information temporarily, but lose the knowledge or skills he may need to succeed in numerous situations throughout his life.

Sometimes good-intentioned Scouting leaders schedule every weeknight meeting to work on merit badges or rank advancement. Instead of the unit being boy-led, where the boys determine the activities for the night, the leaders have a pre-set action plan of how they will get the boys to earn their Eagle Scout rank by a certain date. This over-emphasis on acquiring merit badges and rank advancement can lead to early burnout for the boys as Scouting begins to feel more like work than fun. It also can cause boys to drop out of Scouting once they become an Eagle because they believe they are now “done” with Scouting. Again, the badge becomes the goal rather than seeing the process as a means of helping a boy to become a better man.

In my opinion there are better ways to acquire quantities of merit badges than taking up valuable unit meeting time to do so. Council summer camps are purposefully designed to be merit badge mills. So are merit badge expos (marathons, jamborees, pow-wows, etc.) where boys usually have a large selection of merit badges to work on. These events are provided so boys come together in large groups to work on merit badge requirements. But the merit badge process is primarily designed as an individual experience where a boy can choose which merit badges appeal to his interests. Adult Scouting leaders can do a disservice to their boys and lessen the experience by holding group merit badge sessions at unit meetings rather than having the boys meet directly and individually with merit badge counselors.

As we learn in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” The six years a boy spends in the Scouting and Young Men programs are a very short season for a boy to fulfill the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. I sincerely pray you will do all you can to help your boys see the connection between the merit badge process as designed by the Boy Scouts of America and the purposes the Lord has established for his precious young men. There is a reason why a boy should work on merit badges, and that reason is far more important than a round patch on a sash.

Take a Moment to Reflect

  • Do you help your boys see the connection between merit badge requirements and the knowledge and skills they will need in their future as a missionary, husband, father, and priesthood leader?
  • Do you encourage your boys to work directly with merit badge counselors rather than in classroom-type settings?
  • Do you encourage your boys to work with parents and family members to fulfill merit badge requirements?
  • Do you avoid making it too easy for your boys to earn merit badges so they can learn the lesson of hard work and studious effort?
  • Do you use summer camps and merit badge expos for group merit badge classes so you can keep your weeknight unit meetings free to do other Scouting activities?


Turn Your Reflection Into Action

  • What will you start doing, stop doing, or do better as a result of your reflection?
“Church leaders regularly plan priesthood activities and Scouting pow wows and encampments—but do those activities always accomplish their most important purpose? I have learned that what makes a priesthood or Scout activity most meaningful to a boy is not just getting a merit badge but having the opportunity to sit and talk with a leader who is interested in him and his life” (Robert D. Hales,Our Duty to God: The Mission of Parents and Leaders to the Rising Generation,” Ensign, May 2010).

-Mac McIntire is a dedicated Scouter who has blessed many lives through his service and acute understanding of the Scouting program. He currently lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. The views and opinions expressed in this message are solely those of the author.