Scouting sounded great to Bobby. A boy scouts staff member, manuals pictures tucked under her arm, as telling Bobby's Sunday school class about hiking in the Alleghenies and toasting marshmallows after a day of canoeing on the Potomac.

He could learn to tie fancy knots and imitat bird calls, too. It all sounded fascinating, but not for long.

When Bobby heard that he'd have to bring a parent to the first troop meeting in order to join the scouts, his excitement ended. He had no one to take.

As in many homes today, Bobby's parents are not together. His mother works full time to supplement her sparse monthly alimony check. She told her five children months ago that she did not have time for school open houses, meetings and conferences.

Besides, the $12 he had saved from doing odd jobs wouldn't begin to cover the $40 uniform cost or dues.

Thousands of District youths are kept out of the scouting program by problems like these, say top officials in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) National Capital Area Council.

"You'd think inner city youth would be easier to attract to scouting because after-school sports and other extracurricular activities may not be available to them," Rudy Flythe, executive director of the area council, said.

"But they may not think scouting is affordable, perhaps the kids just aren't as interested as they once were."

Whatever the cause, there has been a 38 percent drop in the number of District Youths who have joined scouting since 1972.

Eight years ago, 8,500 District youngsters were registered scouts; today 6,100 are.

Girl Scouts officials say interest in their organization has waned, too, but not by a significantamount.

Part of the decline in Boy Scouts enrollment, according to R. Robert Linowes, president of the Capital Council, is due to a sense among inner city youth that scouting is irrelevant, rooted in archaic rules and standards. Requirements that participants wear uniforms and bring parents to scout activities are examples of the manly unreasonable rules imposed by the national staff, he said.

Inflation is equally responsible, Flythe added. "Inflation is really hurting what we're trying to do. It's harder for me to recruit a good staff. Its harder for parents to pay for the scouting venture for their kids," he said. "And inflation may even be breaking up homes, making it difficult for young scouts to get their parents involved."

The problem of expensive uniforms is being solved by a program through which families may purchase used uniforms for less than half-price.

Scout leaders are also reexamining some of the rules.

"In the District we have a lot of one-parent homes," William Hairiston, the council's membership chairman, said. "Those single parents just cannot be required, after working an eight-hour day or more to come home, cook meals and then take Johnny to scouting programs. As the society and culture change, we must adapt the requirements and rigidities of scouting, too."

"This organization is really keyed into tradition. I think the reliance on involvement of family members must be changed," Hairiston said.

"There's just a whole lot of competition for the energies, sweat and time of eligible boys' parents in the District."

But Flythe candidly admits that making changes often is difficult because so many of today's troop leaders were raised in the scouts years ago when it was easy to get fathers to come along. They are skeptical of innovation.

Some modifications already have been made, most of them in an attempt to accommodate new sexual and cultural mores. Nowhere is the change so evident as in the recently released ninth edition of the Official Boy Scout Handbook. The guide includes sections on alcohol and drugs -- "Kids who take them find them an easy way out" and sexual maturity -- "You may have strange feelings that you have never had before." Marijuana is even covered in a mini-section -- "Heavy use may produce boredom."

Realizing that today's young people are more interested than ever in career opportunities, the Boy Scouts also has expanded the Explorer program, which allows scouts of junior high school age to get head starts on careers with expert advice from medical schools, law firms, engineering firms and business schools.Merit badges, the blue ribbons of scouting, are awarded in a list of disciplines that sounds like a college curriculum.

And women now may serve in almost every leadership capacity in boy scouting.

But with all the changes, the purpose of scouting remains the same.

"kids are still patriotic; they are still interested in building character and believe in the scout code to 'be prepared.' They still want what scouting can provide," Flythe said. "Change is just a necessary part of growth."

President Linowes agrees. "The shift is in activity rather than principles. Scouting is alive as ever. We just have to stoke its glowing embers."