10/04/2010 12:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Confessions of a Failed Parent

I stopped boy scout camping when the weather got cold.

For a while, I prided myself the boys were even in boy scouts. I was not a rabid fan of scouting. I balked at the militarism, all those salutes and uniforms and hierarchy. I didn't like the God stuff and mumbled during the "One country under ... " line. I descried the anti-gay thing, of course. Precluding gays from Boy Scout leadership was preposterous. But finally I succumbed. Scouting seemed mostly about teaching values--teamwork and helping old ladies across the street. The gay edict was an absurd quirk imposed by the right-wing Utah governing body. Most every state council--certainly Illinois, mine--had rebuked that position. Was it fair to deprive the boys because of a handful of ignorant Mormons in Salt Lake City? Let's get on with the knot-tying!

I did my part. When the boys were cub scouts, I went on several camping trips. I drove scouts to the campground. I helped clean pots and pans. I slept in a tent. True, there was one afternoon when my wife and I snuck off for cocktails at a roadside bar. But it wasn't as if we missed anything. We thought of you all the time, boys.

Eventually, however, my commitment weakened. In retrospect, the signs were hard to miss:

  1. Our first Pinewood Derby car was so light I had to scramble to scotch-tape pennies underneath just seconds before the final check-in. Other dads crafted aerodynamic designs that looked like GM prototypes: our car resembled a block of wood, pretty much as it came from the box. I did not, like other dads, spend hours sawing and sanding at the basement tool bench; I had no tool bench. The closest we came to a trophy was the year we won "most colorful car" award; the next year we skipped the competition entirely.

  • Our laundry room remains filled with boxes of microwave popcorn we failed to sell for the annual fundraiser. These cost me hundreds of dollars. If it hadn't been for my wife's large contingent of brothers and sisters, I'd be further in the hole. I went from going door-to-door in my office with order forms to a sign-up sheet (less pressure), then dropped it entirely (the boys were supposed to be selling). When the fundraiser switched to boxes of chocolate I ate half the bars myself to avoid further embarrassment.
  • I allowed the boys to persuade me that most of the merit badges weren't required for Eagle Scout. Privately--to my wife--I mocked another scout whose vest was festooned with badges, telling her, "Anyone can get the reptiles badge if you've got nothing else to do for a weekend but buy a turtle."
  • I stopped volunteering to drive the boys to weekend campouts, pointing out our car was too small. In truth, I preferred our Saturday date night and the chance to sleep in with my wife on Sunday morning.
  • I let one of our sons skip the winter campout, fearing I'd be pressed into joining them in the arctic wilds of Minnesota.
  • I didn't insist the boys sign up for the 100th anniversary Boy Scout jamboree, because the idea of camping out with 10 thousand other scouts sounded like a nightmare.
  • I am still not one 100 percent confident I know their rank.
  • I don't know how to tie a slip knot.
  • My own withdrawal appeared to have no impact on the boys. Besides, boy scouts--as opposed to cub scouts--was designed to encourage independence. That's what the scoutmaster told us parents. "If they come home soaking wet because they forgot to bring a pair of dry shoes for the canoe trip," he said, "you can bet they'll remember the next time." The school of hard knocks. I was all for it! And what if they did drop out? In my mind, I'd pictured the boys at a future job interview. "You're an Eagle Scout, son? So am I! You're hired!" But perhaps the Eagle elite was a less hallowed club than I thought. The pre-jamboree issue of Boy's Life pictured a gallery of famous ex-scouts. Only one president, Gerald Ford, had gone all the way. Ringing endorsements from Steven Spielberg and Warren Buffet made no mention of rank (i.e., when they'd quit). Three other "celebrities" were football players I'd never heard of. But wouldn't premature withdrawal shortchange the boys in the morals and values department? I dutifully scoured the research and found not a single study that linked behavior to scouting. It was this dearth that led a team of Baylor social psychologists to launch their own study in 2009. It was funded by the John Templeton Foundation and I spoke with Dr. Kent Hill, Templeton's VP of "character development," to find out why. "You'd hope the social skills in scouting would have a positive impact," said Hill. "But amazingly nobody's bothered to document this. It's the depth of our study that excites me. We're going to compare not only the success of eagle scouts versus other scouts but scouts to the general population of kids. The impact could be huge." I'm withholding judgment on my own dubious participation until the study reports results, which should be two years. By then, maybe those Mormons in Salt Lake City will be chased out of town.