Monday, October 22, 2012

The Secret Blessings of Scout Uniform

I must admit, I have a hard time with uniform. Not because I don't like them, but because their value is so obvious to me, that I can't quite explain them to non-believers. You see, I grew up in the UK, where school uniform was mandatory, then in university I was part of the Royal Naval Reserve (more uniform), and finally I attended the Royal Military Academy, where even differing levels of civilian clothes had uniform designations.

I'm lucky enough to teach training courses for Scoutmasters with some frequency. When I started doing this, I tried to explain the value of uniform to an often fairly skeptical audience, and it didn't go too well. I tried to persuade them, but they didn't really hear what I was saying.

As my teaching skill improved, I tried a new approach. I now ask each member of the class to identify one benefit of wearing uniform. As a group, they usually come up with a compelling list of reasons. I then ask them if these reasons are enough for them to re-commit to wearing and promoting uniforms. I think this approach strikes more of a chord than trying to persuade them of my own beliefs.
At the risk of breaking my self-discovery method, here's the sort of list that groups of Scoutmasters come up with for uniform (in no particular order):

The author in the
Royal Military Academy, 1995.
  • Boys behave better and are more focused when in uniform.
  • Uniform promotes unity and brotherhood.
  • Scout uniform is a parallel to the 'missionary uniform' young men will be expected to wear later in life.
  • Uniforms offer a way to proudly display awards the young men have earned.
  • Optional uniform items (such as neckerchiefs and hats) allow individual patrols to create their own identity, which reinforces the patrol method.
  • Wearing a uniform can help young men take pride and care in their appearance.
  • Frequent wearing of the uniform develops a respect and appreciation for the Scouting program, which increases activity and retention.
Now, here's the problem. A boy wearing an un-tucked shirt with a pair of jeans does not benefit from the blessings/lessons listed above. For uniform to be leveraged as a method of Scouting, it must be worn properly, and reinforced with an example and expectation from adult advisors. Like so many elements in Scouting, we have to work to develop a culture of wearing uniform in order to benefit from it.

As a final word, let me quote from the current edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, which includes perhaps the best summary of the benefits of uniform that I have seen:

"Your uniform is a symbol of the BSA. It tells others that you are a Scout and represents Scouting's history of service to the nation and the world. Wearing uniforms allows Scouts to show that they are equals and that they share values and beliefs. Your uniform is also a sign that you are a person who can be trusted and that you will lend a hand whenever help is needed. Dressed as a Scout, you will want to act as a Scout." ~ Boy Scout Handbook


  1. There was a reality TV show on Discovery channel recently called "Head Games". In the first episode, "Conforming" they investigated the effects uniforms, ANY uniforms, had on people. A male actor dressed in street clothing went into a restaurant and asked people if they would give up their table for him. Of course everyone he asked said "no" to him. He then came back in various uniforms (fireman, policeman, even a janitor) and EVERY single time the people gave up their table for him.
    When my husband was recently called to be an 11 year old Scout leader in our LDS ward, I made sure I had his patches all sewn onto his shirt (from his Boy Scout days) and that he had uniform pants, belt and socks. He showed up to the first meeting and the other 11 year old leader (whom I've never seen in a uniform) asked him, "Have you done this before? You look like you have." My husband replied, "I was an Eagle Scout." Uniforms definitely puts an adult in a position of being an "Authority" and something I wish all leaders would understand since so many leaders (at least in Cub Scouting) seem to have den discipline issues that would most likely melt away if they invested in even just a uniform shirt that they tucked in! $30 for a new shirt might be worth the hassle of weekly headaches after den meeting.

    1. Thanks for your comment MrsTips (and thanks for sewing your husbands patches on ;) I didn't see the show, but I can imagine that being the case. Uniform certainly gives a sense of competence that is helpful to any adult advisor in Scouting! Also consider the advantage given to a fully uniformed youth leader when dealing with a new member of his troop or team!