“Can you sign me up for Boy Scouts?” he asked.
When I didn’t answer, he asked again. And again. Every time I avoided an answer. Until now, I had always supported his activities — carting him to and from chess camp, tennis, karate, basketball and many, many others — but with Boy Scouts, I could not get on board.
Sure, there are skills children can learn in Boy Scouts, but a few issues give me pause: the organization’s long history of discrimination, against gay and transgender people and against girls, along with recent abuse allegations and the Scouts’s oath, a religious mantra, the “duty to God.”
A blog post on Scouting Magazine’s website said leaders’ role should “help Scouts and their families come to realize that a belief in God is integral to Scouting and is a key element in character building.” Although the enforcement of this principle differs from group to group, a belief in God is still a core requirement for these kids.
This was a conundrum for both my husband and me. We have both consciously decided not to bring our children up this way, but I’ve always wanted to encourage Oliver’s interests. I didn’t want to give him an immediate “no.”
As parents, are we supposed to let our children choose their activities, even if they choose something with which we don’t agree?
I sought the guidance of a few experts, looking for a way to approach this situation and to make sure Oliver felt heard. It was a relief to learn from them that families endure this kind of conflict often.
“There may be a safety issue or mismatch of values, and ultimately this has to come down to the parent’s decision,” said Pat Drumm, a retired teacher who spent 31 years in the classroom.
Giving children more independence over time can help them learn to make good decisions, she said. Around third grade is when children are getting a taste of independence. I let my son walk to the school bus in the morning or go to the park down the street by himself. He enjoys doing these things and is excited to do more, but it’s evident his maturity is still nascent. And all the experts I spoke with stressed that the emotional maturity of the child should be weighed in what kind of response I had.
On the one hand, he is a bit of an old soul, mature beyond his years, gentle with his younger sister and a friend to anyone. But when I asked him why he wants to join Boy Scouts, he couldn’t give me an answer.
“Is it outdoor activities?” I asked Oliver. “Are any of your friends in Boy Scouts? What do you know about it?”
His only response was asking what it is the Scouts do. Life skills, I told him: tying knots, camping, learning to build a fire. He seemed uninterested in learning more, or at least in talking about Boy Scouts. To be fair, it was closing in on bedtime, and his patience was fading after the school day.
I suspected this might be another fleeting interest. At his age, Oliver believes every sport or activity is the one — at first, anyway, until the novelty has worn off and he tires of the hard effort and time it takes to truly grasp a new skill.
But I knew I needed to address this issue head-on because that’s what he was ready for. My attempts to brush the issue under the proverbial rug missed the mark.
As for how to approach my predicament specifically, I had two options, according to Lara Jakobsons, a clinical psychologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago, whose focus is on children. I could offer him another activity and make it apparent Boy Scouts was not an option. Or, I could talk to him about my values, relaying why I’m hesitant about him joining.
“Treat this as an opportunity to model how to make good decisions,” she told me. “You want him to understand your rationale without feeling suffocated by it.”
I asked Jakobsons what might happen if I keep avoiding the subject. It is the laziest form of parenting, admittedly, but one that wasn’t sounding terrible on the Friday evening we were speaking on the phone.
“You could ignore it and wait to see if this deflects it,” she said, “but avoiding the issue might also leave the child feeling invalidated and resentful later on.”
I can still feel a twinge of resentment when I think back on my own childhood questions and curiosities being ignored. It’s something I would never want to inflict on my children.
After my initial, less-than-productive, conversation with Oliver, I broached the topic once more.
“Hey, I wanted to talk to you about Boy Scouts,” I said.
“Did you sign me up?” he asked.
“No. There are some things about the Boy Scouts I don’t like,” I told him. He stared at me as if he was getting reprimanded.
“The Boy Scouts haven’t always accepted everybody for who they are, and this isn’t how I am raising you,” was my shoddy attempt to explain. I mentioned a friend of ours, someone who doesn’t always comply with gender norms. I pointed out some of his friends whose parents are gay.
“They, for instance, wouldn’t have been allowed to join Boy Scouts at one time just because of who they are,” I told him. I added that I had not yet made a final decision.
Through his tears, he told me didn’t want to discuss it anymore. I anxiously worried that Oliver thought he had created a conflict. Or, that he simply felt smothered.
“He doesn’t understand these complex ideas,” my husband said to me later that evening.
So, two days later, I approached him with a simpler choice.
Of all the activities I’ve paid for over the years, the one with undeniable sticking power has been our neighborhood after-school program, called Countryside Children’s Center, nicknamed “CCC” by the families who send kids there. It’s a mix of sports, arts, drumming lessons and an end-of-year theatrical talent show. He loves after-school so much, in fact, that he pleaded for a whole year to attend four days a week instead of three. I finally relented, despite an additional cost of $150 a month.
“I’ll sign you up for Boy Scouts, but you’ll need to give up your extra day at CCC,” I told him. “It’s your choice.” I knew if Oliver chose Boy Scouts over CCC, this was a serious interest and not a whim. I’d need to let him have the chance to join.
“CCC,” he said.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Do you want more time to think about it?”
It wasn’t even close; it was never a question. Boy Scouts had been effectively tabled, at least for now.
It may come up in the future — if not this, then another rift. Children grow up and come into their own, and conflict is inevitable. Next time I’ll, hopefully, be more prepared in handling it.
Tracee Herbaugh is a freelance writer who lives in the Boston area with her husband and two children. Follow her on Twitter.