Forty years ago, I earned my Eagle Scout award. It remains one of my greatest personal achievements. I learned many valuable lessons from Boy Scouts. In addition to life skills from first aid to paddling a canoe, I learned how to overcome mediocrity and that you can leave unsupportive situations to reach your goals.
The most important thing I learned from Boy Scouts was how to be a man.
Masculinity is not an easy thing to talk about these days. It stirs up perceptions of misogyny, harassment, abuse, and discrimination. But I believe it’s more important than ever to talk about masculinity, especially as our understanding about gender identity and sexual orientation grows. What it does mean to be a man today, especially when we see so many horrible behaviors some consider “manly”?
The Boy Scouts have a simple formula that defines what a man should be. It is the Scout Law:
A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
These are more than noble sentiments. They touch on what a real man is all about. Let’s look at each one.
One of the greatest compliments you can give a man is “his word is his bond.” When he makes a promise, he keeps it. When he tells you something, you can trust that it’s the truth. When you are trustworthy, others can depend on you.
Anyone can claim to be loyal when it’s to their benefit. True loyalty means being there when times are hard. It means valuing someone enough to tell them the truth and guide them in the right direction. Being loyal means that you’ll always be there, no matter what.
Being helpful has always moved me ahead in my personal and professional lives. Finding a need and filling it. Giving assistance to someone who needs it. Being the first to come up with a solution to a problem. Being helpful makes you valuable.
Friendliness is more than a smile. It’s greeting new people with optimism and openness. No one is beneath you, threatens you, or intimidates you. You appreciate people for who they are, not what they can do for you. When you are friendly, the world opens up for you — because you open yourself up to others.
Courtesy is often dismissed as fussy, overly formal, and even patronizing. But courtesy enables society to function. When we follow the rules of proper conduct, people work together better. We avoid unnecessary conflict. Good manners should be a part of every child’s education.
Rather than a sign of weakness, kindness is a show of strength. Bullies who spew hateful words have no self-control, and brutes use violence to compensate for a lack of power. Strong men show restraint, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness because they have enough confidence and discipline to protect the vulnerable — and express the vulnerability in themselves.
Life is easier when you follow the rules. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble, and you avoid negative consequences. But the worst consequences come when you ignore your own conscience. Obedience ultimately means doing what’s right, not just following orders.
Life is filled with frustration, heartbreak, and disappointment. But cheerfulness is the decision to remain positive in spite of all that. We remain hopeful and optimistic, even when things are at their worst. Cheerfulness gives us the will to keep going.
Don’t confuse thriftiness with cheapness. Buy a cheap pair of shoes, and if you’re lucky, they’ll wear out before your feet do. Cut corners, and you’ll wind up with more expensive rework and repairs later on. Invest the extra time, money, and effort necessary to make the best use of your resources.
We honor bravery, but how many of us in the same situation would back away? It’s not enough to talk tough. You have to be willing to exercise your bravery when the situation demands it. Life gives us plenty of opportunities to show our courage. How will you act when the time comes?
KP was our least favorite chore in camp, but we knew cleaning our kitchen equipment properly was essential for our health and safety. Likewise, being mindful of how we look, speak, and act is important for protecting our reputation. We can contaminate ourselves through thoughtless misconduct.
When we are reverent, we live with an attitude of awe and appreciation. We understand that the universe is greater than our limited selves. There is a higher morality to be followed. We find connection with nature and each other. We are insignificant in the cosmos, but we have a place and something to contribute.
How the Scout Law makes better men
When you consider the Scout Law, the image of the foul-mouthed, bigoted, cat-calling misogynist doesn’t fit the image of masculinity at all. If anything, it describes an immature, stunted shell of a male who feels so insecure that he feels he has to put down others. A real man treats others with respect.
This includes respecting women. Intelligence, strength, courage, determination, and assertiveness — attributes usually considered as exclusively male — are qualities a man appreciates in a woman. He doesn’t judge women based on their sexual attractiveness. He values them as equals, partners, and friends — including in romantic relationships.
Most of all, a man respects himself. He conducts himself in a dignified way. He is mindful of how he presents himself, and he strives to show his best and true self. He is also confident enough to allow himself to be vulnerable, to show genuine emotion, and to be affectionate. He sets a good example for others.
When I think about my Eagle Scout, the Scout Law, and the lessons I learned in Boy Scouts, they remind me to be a better man.