The Difference in an Eagle Scout and a Boy Scout

There are none.  But you’d never know it if you watched how some scouts, and their parents, approach their eagle project.  Eagle projects usually bring out the best of scouting.  Sometimes the worse.  It depends upon how the scout approaches it.  And their approach is a long process beginning much earlier in lower ranks.  There are tell-tale signs when they are young that a scout will struggle to complete their project appropriately.  If a scoutmaster is aware of the earlier indicators, much can be done to improve the situation.

First, I should be clear that the success of an eagle project has nothing to do with whether the bench gets built correctly or the church door paint has no drips.  Nor has it do with whether the scout plans activities efficiently or provides great leadership.  It only has to do with whether the bench gets built, whether there is a plan, and whether the scout provides leadership.  All the adjectives (great, efficient, correctly) are irrelevant.  Eagle projects, like most everything in scouts, is a learn-from-doing exercise.  If everything goes well, then there is no point.  Scouts should struggle to do their eagle project.  They are boys.

Next, I’ll define classifications of failures that I’ve observed.  Sometimes these lead to a redo of their project or a failure of the scout to ever complete their project.  Most often, they require only corrective actions by adult leaders.

Scouts (or their parents) who want to be an eagle but have no real interest in being a Boy Scout.  They aren’t active.  They strive to complete their rank requirements separate from troop activities. They also strive to “double-count” rank advancement activities (ex. a school presentation counts as a Communications merit badge requirement) far too often.  They never camp, sparsely attend troop meetings, and look for “easy” leadership positions.  These “under the radar” scouts are often encouraged by their parents who want them to list eagle on their college applications but don’t encourage the scout to engage in troop activities.  Sometimes even worse, the parents see troop activities as an imposition.  My position is that these scouts, often abetted by their parents, learn habits and principles that are directly counter to the true principles of scouting.  The early indicators of disengaged scouts are poor performance in early leadership positions, disinterest in helping younger scouts, and cliquishness.

Scouts who wait too long and try to rush their projects.  These might be great Boy Scouts – year round camper and consistent contributors to all activities.  But some wait far too long to get started on final eagle requirements and then have to search for short-cuts to finish before 18.  Although BSA, makes no recommendation on when a scout finishes his eagle, experienced adult leaders all have their own opinion.  Some say scouts are best to wait until 17 or 18 to get the full benefit of the experience.  Others push to get it done before the scout is diverted by high school activities, say late 14 or 15.  Both positions have their merits.  My opinion is that the best suggestion is usually to split the difference.  16 is a great age to finish eagle.  Still two years left to give back to their troop and no pressure to finish by 18 – so don’t have to rush their project.  The best learning sometimes come from failing on their eagle project and having to re-plan.

A story:  a scout planned to build a bridge across a hiking trail.  Permits and red-tape took longer than planned – Connecticut winter set in and he missed his weather window.  He had to plan a different project which he completed in the Spring.  By then he was older, completely self-sufficient, and had learned better to plan for the unknown.  He completed his new project with virtually no adult help.  It was the best eagle project I’ve yet encountered from a Scoutmaster’s perspective.  Lots of learning:  planning, patience, leadership, self-sufficiency, etc.  And the highlight of the whole process was a dramatic failure.  But because he started soon enough, he had time to regroup and be successful.

As a side note, some parents tell their boy that he can’t get his driver’s license until he complete’s his eagle.  I thought that was  horrible message to send to scouts when I first heard of it.  It is certainly counter to scout principles to punish scouts for not completing their eagle according to an adult desire for them to do so.   Now I realize it doesn’t matter.  Scouts never complete their eagle because of this “swinging ax” and parents always cave.  Just makes the parent look silly in the end.

Early indicators of a scout who is waiting too long to start his eagle project are ones who are very active in the troop past 16 y.o. and are Life rank and have completed most of their Eagle merit badges.  Also, scouts with a tendency to under-plan camp outs and troop activities will likely under-plan their own eagle project.

Scouts who try to complete their projects in a cloak of secrecy.  Some scouts work under the illusion that they are to complete their project independently and show the final results to their adult leaders and beneficiary for approval.  They get their sign-offs to do the project and then it seems like they forget all about it.  Until, that is, they show up and ask for final sign off.  This is a problem because the scoutmaster and unit leader aren’t signing off on the end result.  They are signing off of the process.  Did the scout show leadership or did another scout or adult provide the planning and leadership?  The only way unit leaders can (or should) sign off is if they’ve observed the process.  Here is what the Scoutmaster is actually signing off on when the Eagle project is proposed:

Scoutmaster Project Plan Approval

Note that nothing in this signature block relates to the success or failure of the project. And the line “I will see that the project is monitored, and that adults or others present will not overshadow him.”  If the Scoutmaster (or his designee, an Eagle coach) are not given the opportunity to monitor the Eagle project, then the scoutmaster should not sign off.

Note that if you deny your signature, you aren’t saying the scout can’t become an eagle.  You are saying that they haven’t finished their eagle project.  They may have to do it over or find another project and do it right.  The only exception to that is if the scout has run out of time because of their 18th birthday.  These will be tense conversations with scouts and perhaps even more with parents.  (See How to Deal with Helicopter Parents.)  But if you aren’t willing to say “no”, your “yes” means nothing – a huge disservice to scouts who have done it right.

Early indicators of scouts who are going to try to complete their cloaked eagle project are ones who avoid troop activities that require responsibility.  They will attend troop meetings where they can hang with their friends or do their own thing.  But if it requires mentoring a younger scout or doing the planning for a camp out, they’ll be conspicuously absent.  They will also avoid forming strong bonds with adult leaders and  if you play close attention, you’ll notice they hold your most dedicated scouts in poor regard.








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