I like Girl Scouts. Scouting offers girls a broad range of experiences that help them develop into smart, well-rounded women.
I’m also one of my daughter’s troop’s co-leaders. This insider’s view has helped me to appreciate all that Girl Scouts does not only for girls who come from supportive, stable families, but I also have realized how much the organization does for disadvantaged girls, many of whom register for our troop through scholarships.
These girls who come from less-than-ideal homes and circumstances are the ones who need Girl Scouts the most. They benefit from the experiences scouting gives them, which they might not have otherwise. But they are not always the easiest children to work with. Anyone with experience with any kind of after-school program – Boy Scouts, Boys & Girls Club, etc. – probably understands this.
My Troop’s Background:
A little background information: my daughter’s school and, as a result, her Girl Scout troop are racially and socioeconomically diverse. Sixty percent of students at our school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Our school has a high number of homeless students because of extended-stay motels in our area, and when families move out of extended stay into other housing, the children remain at our school. That stability is good for children, but it has a cumulative effect on the challenges the school – and potentially our Girl Scout troop – faces.
There are girls in our 4th and 5th grade troop who come from stable homes, but there also are girls who come from low-income homes, single-parent homes, homes where they have witnessed abuse, homes where they are raised by someone other than their biological parents, and homes where I wonder if parents are involved with substance abuse and any other number of vices.
Before I lead you to believe our troop is simply awful, we do have many sweet girls. About two thirds of the troop consists of reliably easy kids.
Even the difficult kids are not difficult all of the time. Sometimes they melt my heart with a greeting when they see me volunteering in the school lunch room, or they may make an unexpected kind gesture toward my daughter (a few days after they cussed at her). I’ve learned to pick my battles carefully to avoid more conflict than is absolutely necessary.
Roughly a third of the girls in our troop are extremely or moderately difficult to work with. And that minority can overshadow everything sometimes.
The girls without stable home lives tend to be more disruptive during meetings. They often are more defiant toward authority and can be either withdrawn or loud, impulsive, and attention seeking. They often are foul-mouthed and may be fixated on entertainment and social trends not appropriate for 4th graders. They can be less willing to help with chores and group tasks, prone to getting into power struggles with adult leaders, and more likely to bully other girls. Some of these girls also carry their own smartphones to meetings, which at best deters the girls from engaging with the group and at worst may expose them to content that is not appropriate for elementary students.
At Girl Scout camp, some of these girls are likely to refuse to take their turns cleaning latrines and doing other camp chores, opting to sit on the ground and pout when we threaten to call their parents. At night, they run around the cabin talking loudly, climbing on beds, and refusing to go to sleep before 1 a.m.
Then there are the parents. Our troop leader repeatedly laments how parents don’t return her phone calls, text messages, or emails. She may be met with silence even for important things like turning in cookie order forms and money. On rare occasions, we are lucky to get assistance from a few parents/guardians at meetings, but generally we don’t count on help then, and we get no extra chaperones or drivers for field trips beyond the troop leader, the other co-leader, and myself. Some parents are frequently 30 minutes late dropping their girls off at meetings. Some parents used to be very late picking girls up after meetings until our leader firmly addressed the issue.
A Recent Outing with Our Troop:
Our troop recently went on a field trip that highlighted what I like about scouting, but it also reminded me why working with some of these kids can be difficult.
We visited an endangered wolf center, and before going outdoors to look at live wolves and foxes in enclosures, we spent time in a classroom where a guide gave a presentation. The guide could hardly get through her speech because several girls – their eyes wide with curiosity and bafflement – kept raising their hands to ask questions about the preserved real animals in glass display cases around the room, and about some wolf and fox furs spread on a table.
“Are those real?”
“Are they alive? Were they alive once?”
“Did you guys kill them?”
“Where did you get those from?”
“How did you get them to stand up like that?”
“Are their eyeballs still attached to the fur?”
“Is their face attached to the fur?”
I take preserved animals and furs for granted because I grew up in a family that enjoys the outdoors and visits nature centers, and my daughter is familiar with these sights, too.
It was clear that some of these girls had never been to a nature center, or even to a store like Cabela’s or Bass Pro, both located within a 10- to 15-minute drive of our school. Their minds were blown. I was happy that scouting had given them a new, valuable experience.
Then, one of those same scouts attempted to steal an item from the gift shop at the end of our visit. Our other co-leader caught her, and our troop leader made her apologize to the shop worker.
That trip encapsulated how Girl Scouts gives disadvantaged girls a boost, but it also illustrated the challenges leaders face.
I do not always blame the girls. I do not always blame the parents either. The cycle of poverty and dysfunction is hard to break. It can trace back through generations in a single family, and we are becoming more aware of systemic injustices in law enforcement, employment, and housing that make it difficult for some families to get ahead. It is good to do what we can — through legislation and through community involvement — to help people. Yet my experiences in my community illustrate what an uphill battle it is for those of us who want to make a difference.
What Some Girls Desperately Need:
Our troop leader’s sister-in law leads a troop in an affluent part of town where parent involvement is almost 100% and behavior problems among girls are low. To which I say: those girls are going to be fine whether they’re in Girl Scouts or not. They will grow up to be functional adults. It’s the girls in my own troop who truly need organizations like Girl Scouts.
The girls in my troop need role models, mentors, cheerleaders, and safe adult figures who demonstrate appropriate behavior and set clear boundaries and expectations about what is and is not acceptable in social settings. They need the experiences Girl Scouts gives them, which they might never get otherwise. They benefit from camping, hiking, learning how to start a campfire and be safe around it, canoeing, doing archery, roller skating, learning how to make cake pops at a bakery owned and operated by a woman who also is an airplane pilot, picking up litter at a park and rescuing a bird stuck in discarded fishing line, and selling cookies outside the grocery store while learning how to interact with customers and make change.
In short, the girls in my troop benefit from seeing what is available to them in life beyond what they experience at home.
But it’s difficult work for leaders. We are all volunteers. We receive no pay, and when I prepare to go to our meetings, sometimes I feel more like I’m going into battle than going to hang out with 9- and 10-year-old girls. Sometimes I question whether I want to continue working with the troop. Because it is hard. It. Is. Hard. I admire our troop leader, who treats our girls with compassion and expresses genuine happiness upon seeing them gathered for each meeting. She sees the great possibilities in each girl.
I have heard teachers who work with disadvantaged students talk about how the kids who are the hardest to love are the ones who most need to be loved. This is true. I also have a new respect for teachers who work with kids like these every day.
There are no easy answers to the problems of poverty, inequality, and dysfunction. But I can do my small part to help by staying involved with Girl Scouts. As long as my daughter is in scouting, I’ll be there.
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Tags: Girl Scouts