10 Things Parents Should Know About Cub Scouts in 2015

Cub Scouts enjoying an overnight program aboard the battleship USS Iowa. Photo by Rob Huddleston
Cub Scouts preparing to enjoy an overnight program aboard the battleship USS Iowa. Photo by Rob Huddleston

I often tell people that Scouting was the best thing I did growing up. I did the whole thing, joining as soon as I was able at age 8. I progressed all the way through Cub Scouts before moving to Boy Scouts when I was 11. Over the next four years, I moved through the ranks and learned first aid and basic survival skills and knots. I also spent a week on an island in the Florida Keys only accessible by boat, where I learned to line fish, how to open a coconut, and race hermit crabs. I held what I still consider to be the best leadership position a boy can have–Den Chief–and was inducted into the Order of the Arrow, considered to be Boy Scout’s Honor Society. And then on April 1, 1987, I became an Eagle Scout. Three years later, my Congressman, a fellow Eagle, saw my Eagle tie tack and asked me to apply for a job in his district office as an intern, something that launched me on my first career.

When my son was born, I was pretty sure that I wanted my son to follow in my footsteps with Scouts. My wife and I had our concerns, given how Scouts had become politicized and, in our eyes, bigoted in the years since I had left Scouting. But in the end, we decided that the good I had gotten out of the program as a boy outweighed the bad, and we signed our son up at the beginning of his first grade year. He is now a Webelos II, with only seven months to go before he becomes a Boy Scout, and I am now his Cubmaster.

One of the things that really struck me when I became involved in Scouts again after 25 years was how little the program had changed. Certain aspects of Scouting have and should remain unchanged, such as the focus on the outdoors, good citizenship, and service. But other parts were laughably out-of-date. For example, the Bear badge (the rank boys work on in third grade) contained an elective that included the requirement to “find a business that uses computers”. And Cubs could earn a photography award that required that boys learn about film, with no mention at all of digital. More importantly, the Cub Scout program, which I found out had in fact remained almost unchanged since the late 1960s, simply didn’t speak to my son’s generation.

Given this, I was pretty interested when I first heard that the national Boy Scout office had, after more than 40 years, decided to update the Cub Scout program. Officially, it was an attempt to bring the program into the modern world, with among other things a greatly expanded focus on STEM in the main program, while still maintaining traditional Scout values. However, no one would deny that the update was also largely aimed at attempting to slow, if not reverse, the decades-long decline in Scout membership. The new program officially took effect on June 1 of this year. Below, I highlight 10 key points parents should know about Cub Scouts today.

1. One oath, one law

Prior to this year, each of Scouting’s programs had a different oath and law. For Cubs, this was particularly confusing, as they were expected to learn and memorize one oath and law while in Cub Scouts, and then as Webelos learn the Boy Scout Oath and Law for their transition to that program. In my experience, few if any Cubs really ever memorized the Oath and Law of the Pack, and this was especially problematic for boys who joined in the fourth or fifth grade, as they needed to learn the Cub Scout versions to get their Bobcat (the initial rank earned by every Cub Scout, regardless of when he starts) and then immediately forget that and learn the Boy Scout version.

Now, Scouting has unified itself with one oath and one law–the Boy Scout Oath and Law:

“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, and to keep myself physically strong, morally straight and mentally awake.”

“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”

The requirements recognize that first graders in the Tiger program aren’t going to memorize or even really understand either of them (which was true in the old program as well), and so does not have an expectation that they be memorized at that point. Instead, we can continue to introduce the ideas to the young boys, before really beginning to teach them and expect memorization by the time they graduate out of the Pack at the end of fifth grade.

Cub Scouts allow boys to have unique experiences, like spending the night in the tube in an aquarium. Photo by Rob Huddleston.
Cub Scouts allow boys to have unique experiences, like spending the night in the tube in an aquarium. Photo by Rob Huddleston.

2. Rank structure unchanged

Boys can join Cub Scouts in first grade as Tigers. They advance to subsequent ranks as they move through school, so second graders are Wolves and third graders are Bears. In fourth grade, they move to Webelos, which is a two year program to finish out Cub Scouts before they move to Boy Scouts at the end of fifth grade.

(I should point out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints uses Scouting as its official youth program, and they run Cub Scouts slightly differently, with no Tiger program and age-based, rather than grade-based, advancement.)

The Bobcat, the first rank earned by all boys when the join Cub Scouts, remains in place, with only minor changes in its requirements.

3. No more Academics and Sports program

The Academics and Sport Program, more commonly referred to as belt loops, the recognition device awarded for earning them, is now gone. These were a set of awards Scouts could earn that, with only a few exceptions, had nothing at all to do with their rank advancement. Instead, they represented outside interests, and for the most part were things boys earned just by doing the things they did in their lives. For example, most of the boys in my son’s Pack earned the Soccer belt loop, because most of them played soccer in the fall.

4. Simplified advancement

The covers of the new Cub Scout program books.
The covers of the new Cub Scout program books.

Under the old program, each of these ranks had very different advancement paths. Lower ranks completed a set of “achievements”, but the numbers needed and the number of possible electives varied from one rank to the next. Webelos completed a set of “activity badges”. This meant that each year, both parents and leaders had to figure out a completely different set of requirements to get the boys where they needed to go.

Now, the program has been dramatically simplified. All of the weirdness of achievements and activity badges and the rest are gone, replaced by a set of “adventures”. Each rank needs to complete exactly seven of these adventures, creating a more cohesive advancement program that is easier for everyone involved to understand and stick with.

5. Immediate recognition through new belt loops

Kids love to be rewarded for their work (well, really, we all do). In the old Cub Scout program, rewards for completing achievements–what the BSA refers to as “immediate recognition”–also varied from one rank to the next. Tigers got theirs via a “totem”, a hard plastic emblem worn on the right shirt pocket. As they completed achievements, boys were awarded with plastic beads that hung off the totem. Once they advanced to Wolf, the Tiger totem was replaced by another totem. It was also hard plastic, and also designed for hanging beads, but this one lasted the boys through both their Wolf and Bear years. The totems were exceptionally difficult to remove when the uniform needed washing, and no Cub Scout meeting was complete without sweeping the floor to the meeting place and then picking up all of the beads that had fallen off various uniforms that evening.

Worst of all, in my opinion, were the arrow points. Available only to Wolves and Bears, these were earned by boys who went beyond the minimum requirements for their rank; basically, they were extra credit. The rules for them were extremely confusing, and oh my sewing those tiny little things in neat rows and columns was all kinds of not fun.

The new program still recognizes the importance of immediate recognition, but those horrible totems have been replaced with belt loops. Upon the completion of each adventure, a boy now earns a belt loop–a small metal device that they can wear on their belts. Each rank has its own loops with age-appropriate activities.

The Webelos program has also switched to the new recognition model, but instead of belt loops they still get their immediate recognition in the form of small pins, just like they had in the old program.

6. STEM integrated into the program as a whole

Scouts learn the scientific method. Photo by Rob Huddleston.
Scouts learn the scientific method. Photo by Rob Huddleston.

One of the best things about the new Cub Scout program is its renewed focus on STEM–science, technology, engineering and math. Previously, STEM was mostly relegated to a little-known extra award that few boys earned. Now, it’s a key part of the program. Not only does it mean that Scouts will be preparing the boys to be productive adults in the 21st century, it also means that the program is focusing on things that 21st century boys like and care about.

Science runs throughout all levels of the program now. Tigers explore their “backyard wilderness” and learn about the plants and animals that live there, while also finding plants, animals or signs of animals on a hike. They learn about codes and sign language, color theory, and genealogy. They are asked to go out and observe the night sky and learn how telescopes work.

Wolves are encouraged to conduct experiments to learn about weather, and to “make a game … that requires math to keep score.” They learn about how shapes are used to construct bridges, graph how often they find particular colors, and learn to measure heights and distances. They learn about paleontology (because what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?) and cartography and water pollution.

At the Bear level, they observe wildlife from a distance and use a magnifying glass to look at plants up close. They learn forensics, and how to make pulleys and levers. There’s even an entire adventure devoted to robotics.

Webelos are asked to expand their scientific knowledge with more complex experiments and discussions with scientists. They are challenged to create a game–either a board game or a video game–and make a movie.

7. Citizenship with a focus on service

The old program focused heavily on citizenship, but only on one aspect of it. Scouts were perhaps more likely than their peers to be able to name the President and Vice President and their local mayor (and much more likely to have met the mayor), and could certainly explain the meaning of the flag and show how to properly fold it. But that sort of “schoolwork” citizenship, while important, was generally the only focus of the old program. The new one keeps all of that, but adds the second, vital piece of being good citizens: service to the community. As soon as the Wolf program (second grade), and then in each rank beyond that, boys are expected to be working on service projects that benefit their communities.

8. Nutrition focuses on doing as well as learning

Nutrition has likewise been an important factor in Scouting for many years–I remember learning about the food pyramid in Scouts, not school–but again, there was a realization that the old program focused too much on rote learning about nutrition and not nearly enough on applying it. So while Tigers are asked to “identify three good food choices and three foods that would not be good choices”, they are also asked to eat a fruit and a vegetable, share a nutritious snack with their den, and most importantly get outside and play.

Even with the changes, a lot of things Scouts have always done are still in the program. Photo by Rob Huddleston.
Even with the changes, a lot of things Scouts have always done are still in the program. Photo by Rob Huddleston.

9. Increased camping requirements

When people who have had little or no experience with Scouting think of the program, the first thing to come to mind is almost certainly camping and hiking. And that’s fair; to many boys, particularly those coming from large urban areas, Scouts may be the only opportunity they get to camp. The new Cub Scout program hasn’t done away with this; rather, the BSA is doubling-down on it. In the old program, Scouts weren’t required to camp until the Webelos level. Now, camping begins as early as Wolves. It actually forced my Pack to change how we handled camping, since we did very little of it. Moving forward, we’re adding at least one additional campout every year, and may increase it further if the need is there.

10. Tying knots, building fires, hiking all remain

Other traditional outdoor skills often associated with Scouting, such as starting fires, outdoor cooking, knife safety, hiking, and of course knowing how to tie knots are all still present in the new program, and again in many ways there’s more of it now than there was before.

I think that the new Cub Scout program is great. I’m actually slightly bummed that my son only gets one year of it–I almost wish he was a few years younger and could experience his entire time in Cub Scouts under the new, more relevant and interesting program.

If you have a boy who is in the first through fifth grades, it’s never too late to join Cub Scouts and have him start experiencing what the program has to offer. There’s probably a Cub Scout in your son’s class at school that you can get information from, or you can to go BeAScout.org and look up your local Pack.

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Rob is a geek with a 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. He teaches web and graphic design at the college level, watches a ridiculous number of movies, plays as many board games as he can, and loves the history of the technological age almost as much as he loves Firefly.