Aerial shot of campus.

How Scouting Builds Character

Boy scount troop in front of monument

For more than 100 years, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has offered young people programs and activities that build character — and develop leadership skills. Family Science and Human Development professors Jennifer Urban and Miriam Linver have received a Boy Scouts of America National Character Initiative subaward to explore and understand how scouting helps to build character.

Principal Investigator (PI) Urban and co-PI Linver have received a $780,000 grant funded by the Stephen D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation that was awarded in February for their yearlong study, which is the first phase of a more extensive project. The team has subcontracted with partner American Institutes for Research to learn more about the role training and experience play in developing effective adult volunteer leaders, including scoutmasters and others with direct contact with scouts.

“Historically, little attention has been paid to understanding how adults develop youth character,” says Urban. “We want to understand the process adults go through so we can replicate it.”

The two have developed a “pathway model” of the training and experiential process adult volunteers go through, as well as a model that sketches out how youth character-building happens.

They are currently conducting nationwide focus groups with young people and adults to get feedback on the models. “Preliminary data indicates there is nationwide consistency in understanding how the Boy Scouts work,” says Urban. “It is one of the few examples of a clear, shared understanding of how a program is supposed to work.”

While the team’s youth model focuses on how scouts develop moral and ethical character, emotional skills and a sense of identity, their adult model emphasizes sustained caring relationships between youth and adults, skill building and youth leadership. “Helping young people take on leadership roles is an especially hard thing for adults to do unless they understand that a significant part of the process is allowing the young would-be leaders to fail,” explains Urban.

By mapping insights from what the focus groups have told them, as well as from research literature, Urban and Linver will be able to understand and pinpoint gaps in adult development and training methods.

Ultimately, they will make recommendations for changes that BSA can implement to strengthen its training programs for adult volunteers who help build character in scouts. “We want to create the best programming possible,” says Urban.