Thursday, October 11, 2007


The Mad Scientists' Club

Now that The Boy is in first grade, he's at the age where we have to start making choices about what to sign him up for.

We've been pretty aggressive about getting him into different sports, partly because he enjoys them, partly for fitness, and partly to compensate for the gawkiness I've thoughtfully passed along. (Apparently, not too badly. At a recent town event, it seemed like every six-year-old girl in town knew him. They yelled his name from afar in the same tone with which teenage girls used to yell "Ringo!," then got shy when they got near him. He doesn't think anything of it. Only six, and he has already surpassed his father. I'm ridiculously proud.)

But clubs and such are another matter. I've acceded to CCD, since he was baptized Catholic and usually goes to Mass with The Wife. But now we get overtures from the Cub Scouts, and 4-H, and all of those.

I did my time in Cub Scouts. I remember having the power to make it rain, simply by going camping. I remember being chronically off-balance in an organization in which your value was based largely on the power tools your Dad owned, and whether or not you were able to experiment with them. (I never did terribly well at that measure; The Boy would do even worse.) I also remembered a vaguely oppressive battery of meetings.

Then we met the local Scoutmaster, and got the new literature.

I know I shouldn't pass public judgment. But this is just not acceptable.

It isn't just the 'conquer the wilderness' thing that seems vaguely out of place in densely-packed suburbia. It's the view of boyhood that I just couldn't abide, and won't subject TB to.

Many years ago, Denis Leary did a song called "Asshole." The lyric I remember went "I like football, and porno, and books about war. I'm an asshole!" That seems to be the key demographic for the Cub Scouts. It's of a piece with fraternities and Moose lodges. There's a smug, retro, crimped, and incredibly judgmental vision of masculinity underlying all of those. (For example: for the Religion merit badge, my church doesn't count! It's actually disqualified! Can you imagine? "We're sorry, but your centuries-old tradition that includes several American Presidents just isn't up to Cub Scout standards." No, fuck you.) The Boy is far too good for that. Pinewood derbies are all well and good, but there's just too much baggage.

(From what I've seen, the Girl Scouts seem to have a different culture entirely. When The Girl hits that age, I'll take that option seriously.)

Then we discovered The Mad Scientists' Club.

The local 4-H has a "4-H prep" section for grades one through three. Unlike the Cub Scouts, they don't herd everybody into a pack (the actual term that I am not making up) and make them all do the same thing. Instead, they run concurrent (and co-ed!) groups around common interests. TB loves science, so when we saw that they had a Mad Scientists' Club, we had to try it.

Much better.

The kids were about evenly split between boys and girls. The couple who ran the initial meeting made a point of going around the room and asking each kid what interests her about science, so they can come up with projects and experiments over the course of the year that these kids would like. (One kid opened with "I like explosions!") Their own son did the first show-and-tell, proudly passing around a huge dead beetle that, as he proudly declared, "I found in our sink!" TB was entranced. They made star maps that they were able to take home.

The whole feel was different. Instead of what I think of as the boot-camp model -- you're worthless until we make you into one of us -- it's based on the idea that kids have interests, and that the job of the adults is to help the kids pursue those interests. (As the kids get older, the pursuits get more involved. They have a pretty impressive robotics club, for example.) TB had a great time and is already looking forward to going back. I even saw another parent from my church, which I'm fairly confident wouldn't happen with the Scouts.

TB doesn't know any of my reasons for signing him up for this instead of the Scouts, and I don't feel the need to tell him yet. He just likes clubs where he gets to see dead bugs and hang out with other kids, both boys and girls. And I want to let him have that.

If the values are right, he'll pick them up himself, almost by accident. I'm just trying to make him accident-prone. I always was. Mad scientists usually are, too.

DD, You will probably be vilified by a “pro scouts” group but the key here is not you…it’s TB! Surround TB with opportunities that HE enjoys and that HE wants to do and let everything else go.

When my son was in first grade, we had the exact same situation. Every group and organization wanted to get my son involved. It was weirdly cultish the way they recruited us. Needless to say, there were more opportunities than days of the week! It didn’t take long for my son (at age 6) to say, “When do I get to be a kid?” That was enough for me!
I've been anti-Scouts ever since a friend of mine from high school, an Eagle Scout who had won all kinds of national honors, was booted for being gay and out (he sued, and lost). Sorry, but any organization that supports or practices discrimination against people for race, religion, or sexual orientation (or sex, depending -- I have no problem with the scouts being separated into boy and girl) Is a Bad thing. More so if it's targeting towards children.
I continue to be fascinated by the cultural differences between here and there. I have been toying with the idea of enrolling Tristan as a "Beaver" (4 - 6 year old level Cub Scout) but inertia prevented me from getting around to it. Maybe I'm just blissfully ignorant, or maybe it's a secular Canadian thing, but I had no idea the Scouts had any religious component at all, let alone a (shakes head) exclusionary aspect.

But seriously, that mad scientist club? Do they take 38 year old mothers? Because that sounds way wicked cool to me.
My family was into Camp Fire rather than Scouting, so I can't comment directly on how religious or doctrinaire the average Scout troop tends to be. I've heard a few things that would make me think twice about allowing a son into Scouting, but I don't know how true they are.

The Mad Scientists Club sounds like a total hoot, though. I adored those books as a kid, and would have loved a club like the one you describe. It'll be challenging to pull off, especially since smart kids of TB's age can sometimes do spectacularly rash things, but if it works, it'll be epic amounts of fun.

(DD, are you a Unitarian? My husband and I were married by a Unitarian minister; I like to joke that the service began "To whom it may concern".)
For example: for the Religion merit badge, my church doesn't count! It's actually disqualified! Can you imagine?

What religion are you? Boy scouts tries very hard to be inclusive of a wide variety of religions. See, for example, the religious emblems page at It includes emblems that can be earned for many Christian denominations, Baha'i, Buddhism, Christian Science, Mormons, Islam, Judaism, Meher Baba, Quakers, Salvation Army, Zoroastrianism, etc.

"I like football, and porno, and books about war. I'm an asshole!" That seems to be the key demographic for the Cub Scouts.

I guess it was intended this way, but I'll just point out that this is rather offensive.
Unlike the Cub Scouts, they don't herd everybody into a pack (the actual term that I am not making up) and make them all do the same thing.

This isn't the whole truth. Typically, pack meetings are once a month, and do involve the entire pack (usually of first through fifth graders). However, the weekly "den" meetings (the actual term that I am not making up) are smaller groups of kids in the same age group. The dens do their own things at these meetings.
First I'm going to preface this by stating that I have been active in my dad's scout troop since I was 18; I have served on troop committees, I have taught merit badges and I have been camping with them.
My father has run an inner-city scout troop for over 40 years and has helped thousands of boys who otherwise would have been lost in the shuffle. He has an open door policy about membership: any kid who wants to join can come and hang out for a month or two to see if he gels with the group dynamic. Kids are free to come and go at any time and ALL are accepted and valued. I have only ever seen my dad once kick a kid out, and that's because he was caught with drugs.
Yes, the BSA has its issues (and I agree they're big ones) - the anti-gay mentality being the biggest. But, please don't judge the whole establishment based on one Scout Master, or one scout troop. There are good ones out there that are willing to stand up for what they beleieve in (even when it directly goes against the BSA).
As for the church issue, you have flexibility with that, you just need to find a counselor who can help you.
Back in the days of yore I went all the way through and became an Eagle Scout and it was a good experience, but that was 110% the result of having a good scout master and troop. Where we lived all the troops were associated with the dominant religion in the area save one, we were the heathens and mutts. If it wasn't for that good local group I would not have touched them with a 10' pole.
We made the same decision for our 6 year old son. The discrimnation against gays and atheists and UUs (whose religious emblem was decertified after the denomination prostested the anti-gay and anti-atheist policies.) just was too much to stomach.

What really got me was their statement of religious principal "The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God..." Apparently atheists such as Pat Tillman are not the "best kind" of citizens. (Ignoring the fact that many non-atheists don't necessarily recognize an obligation to God but rather to their fellow human beings.)

Girl Scouts are a whole different animal. No religious requirement, and any girl may alter or delete the reference to God in the Girl Scout promise (inserting Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster if she so desires). Girl Scouting is very clear in the statement that they are for "Every Girl, Every Where." Plenty of bureaucratic nonsense, and too much emphasis on cookies, but no discriminatory policies.
It is great that kids today have so many extracurricular options compared with years ago. I was a Girl Scout from 1st grade through 8th and loved every minute of it. I am hoping my daughter wants to join when she reaches pixie age. While Girl Scouts is all about empowering young girls, boy scouts seems like maintaining traditional macho male roles. I have always thought that the animal symbolism was odd and outdated. The most important thing is to find an activity a child is interested in and not to be frustrated if it takes a while.

On the recruiting side, these activities are severely dependent on enrollment. I recall years of disappointment when girls basketball was cancelled due to low enrollment. At the time girls sports were very acceptable, but not taken that seriously.
Just one more comment. Let's not forget to thank the parents for volunteering. Without parental involvement alot of these activities get cancelled. The people running the Mad Scientist Club sound really innovative and interested in the kids. I would love to hear more about what they do.
Growing up in the Scouts, there were Hindu and Buddhist troops in our council, and the first time I heard about Jainists was in an article about a Jainist troop. That being said, there's a strong right-wing Christian streak in the current organization that drives me nuts, and there are a lot of bad troops out there.

Sounds like you ran across one, as there is no Religion merit badge, and if there was, it certainly wouldn't single out any religion for exclusion.

I'm torn on this, because I'm absolutely appalled by the Scouts' ban on gays (and insistence on being just for boys), but that reaction is a direct result of the values instilled in me by the Scouts.

There is an Inclusive Scouting movement, and I hope they succeed in changing the organization from within, because if they don't Scouting won't survive, which I do think would be a shame. But I'm not sure I would encourage my son to participate if I had one.

If you're interested in something similar, check out Camp Fire USA. They used to be the Campfire Girls, but went coed in the 70s and seem to be developing as the alternative to the Scouts:
You are not alone! We wouild not let our son join the BSA because of their insistence on God (we are non-believers) and their stance on gays. Really, its the anti-gay policy that got us. We would love the camping, and group activities, but no way would I support an organization that claims that my gay friends and neighbors are not ethical or respectable enough to help "mold future citizens." My gay neighbors include a judge, an engineer, a college prof, a business owner and a CPA!

My only regret is that I didn't sent the national BSA organization a letter each year telling them exactly why we weren't joining. Thankfully, the local troop at our school has died out quietly -- too many parents think like we do!
I was a CampFire girl after my mother refused to let me join Brownies/Girl Scouts because they insisted on praying at the meeting we went to. Camp Fire was really fun, and our group did a great job integrating my dad into the activities when he was my primary caregiver (the other parents involved were all female). But the Mad Scientists Club sounds like the ticket for TB, and like Dani I'd like to join as well - I like explosions too!
No group is perfect, but both of my boys (and my husband) have participated in Cub/Boy Scouts and have become better people because of their participation.

As with anything, they have taken the good from the group and left what they found distasteful behind. That in itself is a life lesson.

Each Cub Scout Pack and each Boy Scout Troop can generally be judged separately from the national organization. As has been said in previous comments, each is run slightly differently, enforcing and upholding the beliefs that the leaders for that particular group find important.

It's cool that Cub Scouts isn't for you or your family, but many families have been enhanced through Scouting programs. I don't appreciate being referred to as an "asshole" for being part of one of those families.

(Den Mother of Webelos Pack 175)
As with any large organization, I assume that there are both good people and bad to be found. That said, though, this organization went out of its way to declare my faith (Unitarian) invalid.

When you deliberately embrace religious bigotry, well, you're taking the chance of getting called some names. Make your bed, lie in it. Tell you what: stop declaring my church invalid and my friends immoral, and I'll listen politely when you tell me you want to teach my kid morals. Until then, no. Nope. No thanks.

Mike is right that there's a strong Christian Right streak in the group now, and that's a shame.

I'll admit that my previous image of 4-H was pretty much cows. I was very pleasantly surprised at how much range they had, and how respectful they are of different kids. The Scouts could learn a thing or two.
And the interesting thing for me was long ago when I did the Boy Scouts thing for a while, I had no sense that it was a religious organization in the 1970s. We certainly didn't pray.

Times have changed. I didn't even consider participation for my son. He sees enough bigots going through life. I wouldn't want to purposefully expose him to more.
I'm a boyscout, have been since I was old enough to get recruited by the local troop.

HOWEVER: I'm a european scout, more specifically a swedish scout. And one of the things we find most weird in the world is the various antics of the BSA. The clearest example that comes to my mind was when the world Rover meet was organized in the deep swedish forests, BSA explicitly forbade any members to go - with the reason being "There will be swedish girls on that camp!"

If you find a troop you'd be happy with, go for it. Certainly sniff around when TG gets up to the right age. But for goodness sake don't go close to the whackjobs.
I didn't last long in the Girl Scouts, but they seem to be very different ideologically form the Boy Scouts. My husband never joined the BSA because he is an atheist. We'll have to look into 4-H when the time comes.
"When you deliberately embrace religious bigotry, well, you're taking the chance of getting called some names. Make your bed, lie in it. "

By that logic, well, your government went out of its way to declare that non-Americans have no rights, and may be tortured if your government so decides. Does that make every civil servant personally responsible?

The idea of a religion merit badge seems really wierd. And for some reason, it's not on the list of merit badges on the BSA website:

Agribusiness (2)
American Business
American Cultures
American Heritage
American Labor
Animal Science
Auto Mechanics
Beekeeping (2)
Bird Study
Botany (2)
Citizenship in the Community*
Citizenship in the Nation*
Citizenship in the World*
Coin Collecting
Consumer Buying (2)
Crime Prevention
Disabilities Awareness
Dog Care
Emergency Preparedness***
Environmental Science*
Family Life*
Farm Mechanics
Fire Safety
First Aid*
Fish and Wildlife Management
Fly Fishing
General Science (2)
Graphic Arts
Home Repairs
Indian Lore
Insect Study
Landscape Architecture
Machinery (2)
Mammal Study
Masonry (2)
Metals Engineering (2)
Model Design and Building
Nuclear Science
Personal Fitness*
Personal Management*
Plant Science
Public Health
Public Speaking
Pulp and Paper
Rabbit Raising (1)
Reptile and Amphibian Study
Rifle Shooting
Shotgun Shooting
Small Boat Sailing
Snow Sports
Soil and Water Conservation
Space Exploration
Stamp Collecting
Traffic Safety
Truck Transportation
Veterinary Medicine
Water Skiing
Wilderness Survival
Wood Carving
Oh, I loved 4-H as a kid- learned all kinds of useful stuff. And it's co-ed and totally openminded, not religious, and pretty diverse. It's not your mom's future farmers of America anymore:)
If TB comes home from Mad Scientist Club asking if you can buy him some pure sodium, please just say "no". Say no to potassium perchlorate too. Either would suggest that the kid who loves explosives obtained just a little too much control of the group. A dead beetle? That sounds fun for his age. If he's looking for something new, try combining hair gel and salt in a bowl (just a little salt).
The Boy Scouts don't have religious merit badges, they are religious emblems that are worn on the uniform and are earned through programs sponsored by the different denominations. Denominations develop materials and programs for scouts to use to earn these awards, but the materials must be approved by the Boy Scouts.

There used to be an emblem for Unitarian Universalists, but the Boy Scouts didn't approve of the message being taught to UU Boy Scouts, and no longer include the emblem in the program. Some UU congregations still award the emblem to scouts who wish to participate, but the official policy of the Boy Scouts of America is that no boy scout may wear the UU emblem as part of his uniform.
Signing me up for 4-H was probably the best thing my parents ever did. We did a lot of ag stuff, but there were a lot of town kids as well. One of the things I really liked is that they found ways to get the kids who lived in town into the traditional ag as well as offering them opportunities for projects such as rocketry etc. If a kid wanted to, he could participate in a program with a local dairy farmer where the kid goes out to take care of the cow during the year, not every day, but fairly often, and then could exhibit it at the fair, stay all night in the barn etc ...also, livestock photography! but also electronics, computers case you haven't yet realised, I think everyone should at least try 4-H :)
Thanks, guys for giving specifics on which religion it was that the BSA is excluding. I guess they've decided to emphasize the "BS" part of their name.

Yet another piece of information to drive home how different Scouting is today from the organization I knew and loved as a kid and a young man.

"I'll admit that my previous image of 4-H was pretty much cows."

I thought so too until I recently got involved as an adult and, hello, 4-H rocks!

And cows kind-of rock, too, and I've learned an awful lot about them on the side. :)
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