Why the Boy Scouts are for girls now, too

Girls can join Boys Scout of America
Girls can join Boys Scout of America

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Story highlights

  • Mike Surbaugh: Welcoming girls into Cub Scouting will strengthen the fundamental values of future leaders
  • The change establishes single-gender environments for both boys and girls, he writes

Mike Surbaugh is the Chief Scout Executive of Boy Scouts of America. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Consider for a moment the benefits of camaraderie, confidence, resilience, trustworthiness, courage and kindness. If we hope to see these attributes in our children and in the future generation of leaders, it is important that we strengthen efforts to instill those values. I will celebrate every institution that seeks to do so -- and that includes the Girl Scouts.

Since its inception in 1912, the Girl Scouts' renowned program has helped empower generations of courageous and confident young women who seek to make the world a better place. It is a strong program that works. I believe in the Girl Scouts just as I believe in Boy Scouts and all character-building efforts. Nonetheless, we decided it was time to open our doors, and welcome girls into Cub Scouting. This decision does not make our programs co-ed; it provides single-sex programs for girls, in addition to the current programs for boys.
Mike Surbaugh
Still, this decision has, not surprisingly, stirred up a fair amount of controversy. My hope is that the conversations taking place will bring more attention to the powerful work all youth-serving organizations do -- but I also want to explain as clearly as I can how and why we made this decision.
    First thing's first: We did it because our members requested it. For years, they've been asking us to bring our unique approach to character and leadership development to all members of their families. After all, the cornerstone qualities of the Boy Scouts are invaluable to all, regardless of gender. So we decided it was time to make our iconic programs available for boys and girls.
    But the policy change isn't as dramatic as many people seem to think. We've had girls participating in Scouting for generations. It started in 1971, when we invited girls to join our Exploring program and strengthened in 1998 when we introduced Venturing as an adventure program for boys and girls. For years, too, we've been hearing about sisters unofficially participating in Cub Scouting by "shadowing" their brothers. So officially or unofficially, we've been including girls for a long time. And that led us to formally evaluate the matter this year to determine how best to serve today's families.
    In the spring, we began formally discussing our program offerings. We started by sharing our idea of expanding our programs to girls with professional staff. Overwhelmingly, they felt it was time to open up the discussion of formalizing enrollment for girls in our programs to our volunteers.
    That led us to gauge interest from about 1,000 top volunteer leaders from nearly every council in America. We asked them to vote on whether they'd like to open the discussion to the rest of the volunteers in our organization. Ninety-three percent approved.
    During the summer, our local councils began hosting town hall meetings with families across the country. We asked them for their input, and we got more than 11,000 responses. Just like those original 1,000 volunteers, the vast majority said they were in favor of inviting girls and young women to join.
    Knowing that so much of our existing membership supported the idea wasn't enough, though. Through market research, we learned that about 90% of families not currently involved in Scouting are highly interested in a program designed like the one we plan to offer. Many of these families echoed a common theme: They are busier than ever, and they need activities they can do as a family.
    But in addition to all of this, we wanted to know whether our curriculum and program content is relevant for young women. To that end, we asked a panel of educators to make an assessment. They determined it was 100% applicable to girls.
    Based on all of these factors, our board voted unanimously that the time to act was now.
    We acknowledge and celebrate that boys and girls develop differently, and there are times that single-gender learning is most appropriate. That is why we have outlined a structure that enables us to continue providing single-gender environments -- like dens within Cub Scout packs and a single-gender Scouting program for older girls -- within a broader structure that will allow us to serve the whole family. It will be up to local Cub Scout Packs, parents and chartered partners to choose whether to include boys and girls in family packs or only serve boys or girls; we anticipate a similar structure at the Boy Scouts level.
    Let me also be clear about this once more: We know there are many other fantastic youth organizations -- 4H, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, Girl Scouts and more -- that provide character development opportunities for American children. Parents deserve the ability to choose which option is best for their children. For many girls, Girl Scouts will remain the preferable option. We celebrate and support that decision. Why? Because it is a strong, time-tested program that builds character.
    Yet it's also true that most families in this country are not currently engaged with any character-building youth development program. There are over 70 million children in America that could benefit from our programs, and today, organizations like ours and others only serve a fraction of them. That is a huge unmet need, but one we can help address. Our country needs and deserves more young people focused on the values that serve as the bedrock of our movement: duty to God and country, with a desire to help other people at all times.
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    For skeptics that ask if our decision was made to boost membership, consider what membership means. It means that more children can benefit from the Scouting program, which has been proven to build character and leadership. It means that more young people will learn life skills that will empower them to take on challenges with greater resilience. I fervently believe in the strength of our programs, and their ability to change lives. If this decision allows us to bring the transformational power of our programs to more young people, then, yes, that is our motivation.
    We are exhilarated at the possibilities this decision offers, not simply for the Boy Scouts of America, but for the future of our youth members and future generations of leaders.