In Guiding in the UK, a Promise Badge is a metal pin badge. Currently each is in the same design, but with a different colour of ‘enamel’ infill for each section. Not always very expensively made, nor of great monetary value, but after all, not everything can be measured by the quality of it’s manufacture or the price at purchase. And such it should be with Promise Badges in Guiding. They have always been far more valuable than their monetary value ever was.
In it’s way, a Promise Badge is a bit like a wedding ring. It’s a tangible symbol or representation of the lifelong commitment to keeping certain promises which were voluntarily entered into, often at a comparatively young age, presented at the very time those commitments are first made. The one difference between them is that although divorce has been created to allow people to give up their wedding commitments if they feel they can no longer continue the commitment they made - no such system has been created to allow people to give up their Guiding Promise. Once made, the Guiding Promise lasts every member for life, in uniform and out, no matter what life brings, and whether they feel as able to keep up the commitment as they did when they first agreed to do it. You can cease being a member of Guiding at any age, and yet your Promise will still be just as binding. And yet – whereas making marriage vows is restricted to over-16s only, Guiding Promises are lifelong commitments being made by children as young as four or five years old! Who can say being a Guide isn’t tough?
In the first handbook back in 1912, the Promise badge is stated as being the “Guide’s life” – something to be worn with pride as a symbol of the commitment made - but it is to be returned to the Guide Leader in shame, if the Promise were ever broken. Losing one’s Promise badge in this way or for this reason - was reckoned to be the most severe punishment for wrongdoing which a Leader could apply. Because it showed a breach of trust.
Over the years, designs in Promise Badges have varied – and there have been times when they were hard to obtain due to wartime conditions. But Leaders did everything possible to ensure their members had the badges they were entitled to, in spite of factories turned over to war work and bomb damage to warehouses – homemade badges if needs be, but badges they would have. There are accounts from WW2 of Rangers and Leaders wearing their Promise Badges under the lapel of their military uniform jackets or works overalls while they served their country, as a constant reminder of their Guiding Promise. And there are also accounts of Guides in concentration camps, determined to keep their Promise despite their circumstances – even one account of a Guide keeping her Promise Badge in her mouth whilst being body-searched by camp guards, so precious a possession was it when all other possessions were lost. It really meant that much to them.
On the surface, we may seem to take our Guiding quite a bit less seriously than that nowadays. Where once it was daring and radical to join Guiding, and not the sort of thing genteel parents would approve of for their girls, that hasn’t been the public perception for many years now, we’ve become entirely mainstream as far as much of society is concerned, perhaps too much so – but nevertheless, each person’s Promise Badge should, and in many cases does, still mean quite a lot to them, and many adults will still look after their Promise Badge, and remember the commitments they made all those years ago. Many of us can remember where or when we made our Promise, some can even quote the date. I know I can.
Sadly, some people don’t take the Promise and Promise badges very seriously – even amongst Leaders within Guiding. Some see Guiding as little more than a craft club or a games club for children – a place for girls to have fun, and nothing more than that. Perhaps it’s a lack of awareness and understanding of the founder’s ideas and aims? Perhaps more training is needed on some of the core principles which lie behind Guiding during the training for Leadership? Embarrassingly, we hear of girls being given fabric fun patches instead of proper Promise badges, sometimes by Leaders whose mentors have clearly not shared all the knowledge they should have done, sometimes through Leaders not understanding the meaning behind the badge – but shockingly, sometimes through Leaders who knowingly and deliberately deny their girls the badges they are entitled to. And in these cases all sorts of excuses are given. Sometimes they claim it’s on safety grounds, that the girls would injure themselves or damage their clothes. Sometimes the excuse is given that ‘there’s no point, they just lose them’. Is either claim really true, or justified? Some even claim that the fabric badges are equivalent whilst knowing that it’s a bare lie! And I can’t help but wonder – why? Are their girls so much less capable than their equivalents in the rest of the UK, who manage to go uninjured by their Promise badges month by month, and who either don’t lose their precious badges, or pay up for replacements if they do? And is ‘it happened to someone once’ reason enough to deny every girl who joins that unit thereafter the chance to prove herself capable and responsible? And – what message does it send to the girls about their Leaders, if the people who accept their solemn Guiding Promises – are adults who will choose to lie to the children about one of the key parts of that very ceremony, the presentation to the girl of her ‘Guide Life’?
A Promise Badge is important. A Promise Badge is precious. A Promise Ceremony should be a meaningful occasion where a girl makes, of her own free will, certain lifelong commitments. We are asking each girl to take on a lot at a young age. A commitment that may last 365 days a year, for a hundred years or more. Do they not deserve to be given the proper £1.50 metal badge in return?