Why It’s Important for Boy Scouts and Altar Boys to be Boys

It’s especially important, in this day and age, for boys to have spaces where they are learning from men, with other boys, what it means to be male.

(photo: Unknown artist, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons)

Is your daughter interested in being a Boy Scout?

If so, then you’re in luck. The 107-year-old organization recently made the announcement that girls are not only now permitted to join Boy Scouts of America for the first time ever, but they will also have equal access to the rank of Eagle Scout. While it appears that (for now, anyway) small “dens” may elect to remain boy-only (and, conversely, girl-only), an executive with BSA summed up the policy change by saying that “the values of Scouting” are important for both boys AND girls. So, why not open it up to both sexes? 

As a mother to seven girls and two boys, I am no stranger to children and their behavior. Over the years my kids have participated in their fair share of athletics (cross-country, soccer, swimming, and tee-ball), the fine arts (like choir and musical theater), and countless church activities. Some of the aforementioned extracurriculars have been co-ed, and others single-sex.

It has been interesting to sit back and see how children just kind of naturally organize themselves, regardless of the situation. Swim team, for example, is a mix of boys and girls—but you can be sure that, in general, the boys always form a group and share a special sort of camaraderie. The girls do the same.

Soccer, on the other hand, is generally segregated by sex. My sons’ club team was comprised of a bunch of loud, rowdy, rambunctious boys—it didn’t matter whether they were practicing in the 90-degree heat or having a pizza party, they were rough and tumble and, well, stereotypically boy. The converse could also be said of the girls’ team. Those young women were tough, and though many of them pushed themselves just as hard as the boys on the field, they were different from their male counterparts. More feminine, somehow.

And in our home, although brothers and sisters are always mixing and doing things together—we certainly don’t actively promote same-sex pairing off—my sons share a unique bond. They just do. Whether it’s shooting baskets or taking a walk out to the field, there is a deep and abiding brotherhood there. The same could be said of similarly-aged sisters, who whisper and giggle about who-knows-what long after they’ve been told to go to bed at night.

Should it really be so surprising that “male and female” are, well, different from one another? Even when they’re doing the same thing?

A few years ago, our parish developed an altar-serving program. It is only for boys. And though it has apparently ruffled a few feathers (both at our church and in the blogosphere), I cannot even begin to tell you the tremendous benefits of having such a thing. My sons, who are normally distracted and derailed at the drop of a hat, are 100% engaged when they are vested and serving at the altar. They carry the crucifix and the candles with pride. They look up to and admire our priest and deacon. They remember the homily, internalize the Scripture, and forge strong friendships with their fellow servers. It is a beautiful thing to see so many boys dedicated to serving their parish in such a reverent and important way, week-after-week and year-after-year. They have an up-close window into the priesthood, and it is obviously compelling.

Now this isn’t going to win me any popularity points, and I’m not making some huge case here, but things would be different if girls were permitted to serve alongside the boys. There might be fewer mishaps (girls, in my experience, tend to be more careful and precise at this age), but there would also be fewer boys. The program would probably lose some of its allure, though certainly not because boys don’t like girls. (Oh, how they do.) It would be because, somehow, some of the meaning behind altar serving (preparation for the priesthood) would be lost, and the masculine nature of the thing would be diminished. I suspect that the boys who did decide to serve would still enjoy it, but in a different sort of way than they do now. They sense that this is part of serving God as a male, and they rise to the occasion.

Would the girls love the opportunity? Probably. While our parish has a beautiful sacristan program, where girls prepare the sacred vessels for Mass, it’s a very different thing. When some of my daughters asked why they can’t be altar servers like their brothers, I explained to them not only the deeper reasons, but also some of the more practical things. It’s especially important in this day and age, I believe, for boys to have spaces where they are learning from men, with other boys, what it means to be male.   

Now, none of my children have ever done scouting. Save for a brief stint as a Brownie in the second grade, neither have I. Boy Scouts admittedly always seemed more appealing to me than its female counterpart (cookies aside), because the camping sure sounded cool, and all I remember from the Brownie meetings was singing a really cheesy song. But, I understood that Boy Scouts wasn’t for me. It was, well, for boys. Were my sons Boy Scouts, I’d be disappointed that girls were joining them for campouts and hikes and lock-ins. The nature of those events would change.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the BSA went this direction, and I find myself wondering if at some point, single-sex dens won’t be permitted to exist at all. There is a general suspicion in our modern culture of anything that is limited to boys or men, and an assumption that there’s no potential objective good in allowing for that type of space. Being the rebel that I am though, I am happy to question this assumption. As far as I can tell, girls don’t need the Boy Scouts to grow up to be strong, successful, resourceful women. And girls can learn their value and worth apart from organizations or activities designed to promote fraternity between boys.

We need to speak out when women are mistreated or belittled by men, and I encourage each one of my children to live up to his or her potential and human dignity. To work hard. And to push themselves, whether it’s athletics or education or something else. Boy or girl. But we are selling girls short when we tell them (either implicitly or explicitly) that to be fully-actualized women, they must do the Very Exact Things in the Very Same Way as boys and men. Women are important and worthy of respect, in their own right. We don’t need to infiltrate this or that organization to be recognized or deemed as such.

Too bad that Boy Scouts of America doesn’t feel the same.