Board of Contributors: Life as a Scouting mom: more than casseroles and sewing on merit badges | July 2, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 2, 2010

Board of Contributors: Life as a Scouting mom: more than casseroles and sewing on merit badges

by Nancy McGaraghan

One summer, many years ago, our oldest son, Neil, then 12, packed his backpack for a week at Camp Oljato, the Boy Scout camp high in the Sierras.

As he stood there in full uniform, his backpack in place, his 2-year-old brother Michael stood looking at him in awe. It was a Kodak moment and I love the photo we have that brings it all back to mind.

This year, the Pacific Skyline Council of the Boy Scouts of America is celebrating 100 years of Scouting nationally. Having shepherded our four sons through the ranks all the way to Eagle Scout, we feel like we have chalked up almost 100 years of Scouting ourselves.

"Be prepared," the Scout slogan, is a family joke, mostly because I am usually under-prepared while my husband is generally prepared for any possibility — no doubt a throwback to his Scouting days.

When raising our boys we welcomed any help we could get. Scouting fit the bill. It advertised good fun, healthy activities and best of all it was run by dads. We moms played back-up crew — an easy trade-off for me.

Some years earlier, I had hung up my Cub Scout leader's whistle in failure when one meeting ended with a child falling out of a tree in my backyard and breaking his arm. My husband, Pat, himself an Eagle Scout, assured me Boy Scouts was different and he was eager to have our kids get involved. Thanks to Pat, our kids had lots of good years in Scouting.

Along the way, the national organization of Scouting has weathered and survived controversies such as its position on gays and religion. In our experience, the local troop leaders were sensitive to these issues and did not raise them to exclude or embarrass any Scout.

To the contrary, Scouting let kids be kids and feel good about themselves. Rough edges and dirt under their fingernails were part of the deal. In fact, they were so dirty when they returned from camping trips that their clothes were left in the garage, along with all the gear.

And there was the outdoors itself. Growing up in Portland, Ore., where on a clear day Mt. Hood reigns over the downtown skyline and beckons all city dwellers, I know that any time in the outdoors is the perfect antidote to city life, social pressure and busy schedules. Any organization that made camping its main activity had my vote. Scouting lets kids experience the outdoors and find a home there to which ours have returned often.

Last year, as the Scouting centennial neared, I asked our now-grown kids what was most important to them about those years. They came back with pages of reflections.

First was their deep and lasting love of the outdoors and a desire to protect it. But there was more.

"It was empowering to be out there, far out there, on our own two feet and with all our supplies on our backs, and to feel at least moderately proficient with a compass, some matches, some First Aid training," one recounted.

One son built a play structure for a pre-school in East Palo Alto for his Eagle Project. He used the experience as the basis for his college-admissions essay. He is one of many Eagle Scouts who still list that rank on their resumes.

An unexpected benefit of Scouting was the camaraderie. Scouting was a whole new world. Our kids remembered that it gave them a chance to be with a new set of friends. It was a chance to be un-cool and away from the pressures of school. Being in a thousand-year-old grove of redwoods allows pretense to slip away and a sense of awe slip in.

And dads got to have some together time with sons in their own element and outside of the competition of sports. It was also a chance for dads to dig caves in the snow for snow camping. This was fun? Must be a guy thing.

The secret to Scouting's success was the fun. Our boys discovered the thrill of boot skiing at 10,000 feet on a 50-mile hike, and the craziness of a dozen people swinging on a rope swing at the same time.

They learned that Lil Smokies are one of nature's perfect foods, and that when planning a menu you should first check if the area in which you will be camping allows open flames.

They learned that you should not rub poison oak on your face to prove that you are not allergic to it. (We have the picture to prove it. Until now, I had no idea how he got it.)

They learned that "it felt good" to help with community-service projects, such as the massive sandbagging effort one particularly rainy year when San Francisquito Creek overflowed.

I learned to sew on a half dozen merit badges onto sashes on the way to a Court of Honor while balancing a casserole on my lap. Today, my boys admit that sewing ought to be the first merit badge earned — not one would ask someone else to sew so much as a button back on a shirt. They also make better casseroles than I do.

Their discoveries helped create bonds that in some cases would last a lifetime.

As one son put it, "Really, how could you ever break a bond shared by friends who had to go out in public in those uniforms?"

There were other, more serious lessons. One time two of the dads (my husband was one), ran the last few miles of a 50-miler because one of the Scouts gashed his shin on a tree root and needed medical attention. Other Scouts and dads applied emergency First Aid.

If it had not been clear to the boys before, they learned then that they were in good hands. They were with adults on whom they could depend, and have fun with.

"I know it had a huge impact on us to know that there were adults in our lives (and not just our own parents, but a community of parents) who had high but manageable expectations for us, and who encouraged us to have high but manageable expectations for ourselves," one son added.

Scouting was a lot more than slogans or those silly uniforms or whipping up casseroles and sewing on merit badges. It was a chance for kids to be part of something bigger than themselves and learn that what they give is always less than what they get back.

Scouting is there for the kids. And to me that's worth celebrating. n

Nancy McGaraghan is a member of the Weekly's Board of Contributors. She can be e-mailed at


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