Children nowadays have a lot less independence than they used to have. Most don’t get to play outside until the street lights come on, most are ferried to school by car rather than walking there and back. Free time is spent either in organised classes or in the house. I’m not interested in getting into an argument about whether the past was the good old days of freedom, or indeed, whether they were eras when neglected children were left to roam wild, for that is a whole other argument. Though it had it’s downsides, one upside was that children had to learn to be self-reliant. They had to work out ways to occupy themselves, often relying on their own imagination in the absence of many ‘bought’ toys, because the adults didn’t organise their entertainment for them. If they had a problem, they had to solve it for themselves initially, there wasn’t an adult on the spot to step in and take charge. In these modern times when many children don’t go anywhere without their mobile phone connecting them directly to adults, are ferried everywhere by car rather than ever walking by themselves, spend increasing amounts of time in the house playing alone rather than being outdoors with neighbouring children – their scope for self-reliance has been massively eroded. Many children today have little experience of making decisions unaided and then living with the consequences, or of having to use their imagination to occupy themselves and others in the absence of many toys or gadgets, of being part of a gang of friends who live near each other and play together most evenings and learn to get on or not as the case may be - because most of their friends or potential friends are either away at hobby sessions every afternoon and evening, or in their own houses – if they aren’t themselves. Hence the default reaction for most of the children to any problem which arises – is to look to the nearest adult to deal with it for them, and if there isn’t an adult at hand, then the sole thought is to find one as soon as possible.
What does that mean for us as Leaders in Guiding? Well, it means that we have to be aware of this change, and of the implications for our programmes. We can be faced with children, (and yes, sometimes with parents too) who genuinely struggle to handle being told that they have to choose whether to sew badges on the uniform, and if they do choose to, they have to choose for themselves whereabouts – because we do not supply diagrams or guidance, and we do not tell them what choice to make. We demand that they decide for themselves. They are shocked, they are surprised, and yes, some are genuinely frightened. Why is it that Guiding makes this demand, when some parents would clearly prefer to be told what to do? Simply because it is actually a decision with very few long-term implications. If they try a layout and it doesn’t work – the badges can easily be unpicked and moved. The decision they make needn’t be permanent or even semi-permanent, it is in every sense, a small decision. But – if you practice making small decisions, if you become accustomed to making them regularly, it will make it easier when the bigger decisions of life come along which do have significant impacts. Today, decide whether to sew the County badge on the sleeve of your Guide hoody or on a camp blanket. Tomorrow, decide whether to hang out with the popular crowd from school even though you often aren’t comfortable with what they do? Yes, that could easily be.
If the girls are so unused to making any decisions for themselves, does it matter? Well yes, I’d say it does, because I reckon decision making is an important life skill which everyone needs to develop from an early age. Life is always going to be full of choices both big and small, insignificant and life-changing – small ones like which clothes to put on this morning, what to have for breakfast, whether to walk or take the bus, whether you will need a raincoat/umbrella or not – lots of small everyday choices we all have to make with small implications. But life also throws up bigger choices – what subjects to study at school in order to stand a chance of starting a particular type of career, what line of work to aim for, how much time to devote to studying for exams, what to do on leaving school whether study or job-hunting, whether to drink alcohol or not, whether to take drugs or not, when to leave home, who to live with and where, what sort of home to rent/buy, whether to get married, whether to have children – lots of big and important decisions which will have long-lasting implications - whether you make what turns out to be the right choice, or what turns out to be the wrong one. So I take the view that the more practice we can let the girls have at making small choices unaided from a young age, and learning to cope with the outcomes of those small decisions - the better able to cope they will be when the big decisions of life start to come along, all too soon. And – their turn at being adults is coming. Won’t be long before, in the lines of that classic internet tale, they look around for an adult to deal with the problem - and suddenly realise that actually, they are the only adult in the room, and everyone’s looking to them to decide what the group should do about it!
What can we do to help? The answer is simple. Hand over as much of the decision making in our units to the girls as we can, so they get practice at discussing pros and cons, handling disagreements or varied opinions, reaching a conclusion, enacting it, and seeing how it works out. It can start very simply, at the Rainbow stage, which is meant to be 10% girl-led. Shall we play game A, or would you prefer game B? Why not let the Rainbows vote sometimes, rather than always just deciding it for them? We’ve got a new helper starting next week who will need a Rainbow name. Could the Rainbows suggest the ideas for the shortlist the helper chooses from? We’re having a party next week - should it be uniform, party clothes, or fancy dress – what do they think? And of course, there are Roundabout activities to choose, and lots of scope there for offering the girls choices and encouraging them to think about, and voice, opinions, ideas, preferences. After all, even nowadays, little girls all too often aren’t encouraged to speak up for themselves and express their opinions – and when they do speak up, they don’t always have their ideas and opinions listened to properly or heeded – can Rainbow meetings be an exception to that? By Brownie age they can be taking on more responsibility in the unit, indeed as much as 25% – choosing activities from the Adventure book, or coming up with ideas for the unit programme. Having some say about which girls they want to share a room with on Brownie holiday – and perhaps which ones they don’t. Doing activities as a Six, and having an active Sixer who has genuine responsibility for the girls in her Six and the activities the Six does. Planning some activities, and having occasional Sixer-run nights. Having regular Pow Wows or other activities which collect and utilise their ideas, showing that those ideas are listened to, genuinely considered, and acted upon in some way if they can’t be completely followed through. For if the girls’ suggestions are regularly just snubbed or ignored, they’ll soon stop offering them - and it’s hard to regain that trust once it has been lost.
By Guide age there should be a rapid expansion in delegation, with Guides meant to be 50% girl-led – Patrol Meetings, Patrol-organised GFIs, Guides choosing which Patrol to belong to in the unit, and organising Patrol meetings and activities. Girls encouraged to consider working for Baden-Powell Award, Commonwealth Award, Patrol Camp Permit, Community Action Badge etc. As well as unit activities, there should be opportunities to go to large-scale camps in the UK and attend International Selections for camps abroad, Patrol Leader Trainings, Scout & Guide Orchestra and other outwith-unit opportunities. And for Senior Section? It’s 75% girl led, but really, limits do not exist. Youth Parliaments, Guiding Forums, Senior Section Groups, SSAGO, POLARIS, DofE, Leadership Training, Adult Leader Qualifications, voting in national elections, GOLD, gap-year activities – loads of ways to become involved in decision making, become involved in making a difference in the community, wide horizons. Lets make the girl-led ratios for each section be meaningful.
Yes, in the space of 10 years in Guiding from 5 to 15, we can, and we should, take the girls in our units right through from simply choosing between game A and game B, to planning and running a weekend camp for themselves without any adult aid, or working on a major challenge scheme, or actively campaigning for causes they believe in, or seeking to learn more about the world they live in and their place as active citizens in it. But – all of this entirely depends on us being brave. Brave enough to step back and let the girls make as many decisions as possible, large and small. Yes, it may be that they take 20 minutes to discuss, argue, and reach a verdict on something you could have decided for them in 2 minutes flat with 115 seconds to spare. But that 20 minutes isn’t wasted if it’s time invested in learning the life-skills of discussing, persuading, bargaining, seeking compromise and consensus, listening to alternative views, reaching a conclusion. Yes, in the end they may choose what we reckon to be the ‘wrong’ option – but will it turn out to be the wrong option? And even if it does, will they learn more from experiencing the mistake and it’s consequences, than from being protected from any adversity or consequence? . . . Yes, from choosing between game A or B right through to being a national representative in a Youth Parliament, it is Leaders like you and I who can provide the guidance and experience and opportunities that open up the path for the girls to confidently handle difficult decisions, and argue capably for the things they believe in and against the things they don’t. Or – we can take the easy option, make all the unit decisions ourselves, and just have the girls ‘turn up and do’.
What prompted this thought? A discussion on a forum asking how people sort out the Patrols for Guide camp. I was shocked to see that the vast majority of the Leaders who commented - would either sort the Patrols by themselves with no input sought from the Guides at all – or would only allow each Guide to submit a couple of names of people they would like to be beside, requests which may or may not be granted dependent on whether their choices happened to suit the Leaders’ plans for the Patrols or not. There were only 2 or 3 amongst over 30 who even considered letting the Guides try to sort the groups amongst themselves if they could do so amicably. Most were absolutely certain that their Guides couldn’t be trusted to sort out fair groups without adult interference, and would be sure to end up with some Patrols formed of cliques of pals, and the others containing all those who were not in the clique. So much for girl-led Guiding!