Mike Walton (blackeagle)

Learned Helplessness

By: Posted On: 2018-06-08

(NBC News image used under Fair Usage guidelines)

I was taught a new term for what I see around my community here in Dayton and back home in South Lake Minnetonka. Some of you see it in your own town or city. I bet you didn’t have a name for it. It is the actions – rather than inactions – that a lot of youth portray. Lifeless, not wanting to “do anything”. Not volunteering for anything, for that was something that “little kids do” and seeing that adults nor their peers are “doing stuff like that”, they too sit out and let others “do it”. You see them at work, doing the bare minimum or nothing at all because “it doesn’t matter – you’re gonna do it your way anyway….” Not letting them try something new and failing at it, propping them back up or pulling them away from it because he or she is “too young to fail at things now…let ‘em fail when they are an adult and can deal with it….” I called it being “lazy and shiftless” (I never knew what “shiftless” was but it was something I overheard my parents and others’ parents say too about some of the kids in my neighborhood when I was growing up). The term a lot of young people have is called "learned helplessness".  Young people learn this from adults, who on one hand want them to succeed but on the other hand, never want them to suffer the effects of not doing it to the “adult standard”. Those involved in programs like Scouting, however, don’t suffer from that malady. If anyone wanted to see how the principles of the Scouting program are carried out among some youth in this nation (perhaps once and forever answering that question “do girls have a true place in Boy Scouting?”) one can take the example of Saturday, March 24th, 2018 as “exhibit A” to how those sets of words and phrases are carried out by young people. In this exhibit, young people who may only have had a brief exposure to the Scouting program, or something like it, earlier in their lives, are being seen carrying out those principles. They stick to you like the strongest of “superglues”. They ended up doing things not knowing how loyal, courteous, cheerful and especially brave they really are. How they ended up doing their best because they know others – so many others – are leaning on them and encouraging them to use strength, mind and learned personal ethics to help make something important be known to others. A true demonstration of the effects of the Scouting values.

Parkland High School, Florida protest (CNN photo used under Fair Usage guidelines)

A Sobering Photo

I sat in my car and later on the edge of my bed this past Saturday. The entire March for Our Lives and the coverage it received from cable networks was overwhelming. I found myself pulling off the side of the Interstate as I was making my way back to my hotel room, or going to the bathroom in my hotel room and using eventually an entire box of tissues – my face was a visual mess in both cases. The last time I cried so much, so long, was when Carmen Abner’s mother Rosa passed and that day also, I was overwhelmed with the emotions leaving my body. The speeches, all by young people under the age of 20, were brief and passionate. Their words tore into me and forced the tears to run down my face. I could not take anymore and turned my radio to another station and found myself replaying their brief talks to me through the contemporary jazz songs or the country anthems. When I got back to my room, I even turned the sound off so I would not hear the replays of their speeches and I found myself crying just looking at their faces. So determined. So broken. Letting the world see how exactly they felt – and why they felt the way they did. The way I should feel also, they implied. There were no adults introducing each speaker. No sweeping production values and heart-pounding music to introduce or bring them forth. There were times that people skipped lines in their prepared remarks. Times that the wind blew pages of their words away and how with poise and self-confidence they simply ran after it, picked it up and returned to the podium. There were no “hi moms.” This was business, important business and they took it as if they have been doing this for months. There were groups of three or four, then a song or video would play. The videos got to me also, even though on the drive coming up the Interstate, I could only hear the voices and sounds since fortunately my car isn’t equipped to show video images. I finally got it all together and went to go eat dinner across the street. Upon my return, I started to take mental and later electronic notes of the day for this posting.

What does the day have to do with Scouting? A lot.

Let’s start first with the premise of the day. An impromptu challenge, organized by the survivors, friends and fellow students of a high school in Florida in the aftermath of a horrific school shooting. The challenge was to show their controlled rage, their disappointment, their sorrow and air their grievances and expectations to the nation’s political and economic leaders. To counter the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their supporters who fear that the youth’s activism will somehow upset the balance between owning and using a weapon. A small area high school demonstration became larger and larger and while the largest protest demonstration and march was in the nation’s capital – the site whereby our government sits and crafts laws and guidelines for all of its citizens as well as those who work or live here – there were strong marches and symbolic supporting rallies held in every other state in the United States and several countries around the world. Next, the day was organized by youth a month and a half in advance. Youth with the power of the Internet, and in particular, its social media channels, pipes, and outlets. Youth who grew up having to if not physically duck and shield themselves from firepower had to hear and practice drills to keep themselves and others safe. They grew up knowing what words like “lockdown” and “active shooter” meant. Media savvy youth with the ability to distinguish “b.s.” from what they know is the truth – and not afraid to call out the distinction as they see it. At the same time, these youth are kids. They do not understand the adult ways of talking out of both sides of their mouths, of creating “illusions” to deflect the reality of life. Of knowing that despite their best intentions, the majority of us adults are scared of three things: not having enough money to survive, not being able to be safe in our own homes and communities, and not being able to provide for our children. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.The children are learning. They are learning how to counter the adults by working within their system – the systems they learned in school and through groups like Scouting.These children fearful, no not these children – the ones who did the organizing, leading and following the leaders – they were not afraid at all. They had nothing to lose, after having been already seen in person or through social media. The children already witnessed the deaths of their fellow students, teachers, and administrators. The deaths of the guy or gal down the street or across the alley from where they were just “hanging” at the hands of a person empowered with a weapon to shoot it out instead of talking through things. Or that person who simply gave up and placed a gun to their face or their chest and pulled the trigger.

(FOX News image used under Fair Usage guidelines)

If someone would ask the question, I am positive that many of those young men and women will tell you that “they were a part of” or “they were influenced by” someone or somebodies who wore the uniform of the Scout. That they remembered that person’s willingness to help. To be of service to others. To cheerfully help someone else when they are feeling broken inside. I bring all of this back to Scouting. There is a distinctive and clear parallel between the actions of those high school students and those involved in Scouting. The twelve Scout Law points can be easily illustrated through the actions they took and managed before, during and even after the March. The manner of behavior could lend itself to a group of Order of the Arrow members planning, coordinating and executing a Lodge or Section event. I am sure that both sets of youth had adult advisement – but it was advisement, not direction or “puppetry” on the parts of adults with agendas. All afternoon long, and into Sunday and Monday, I heard, read and seen how the NRA and some adults simply shake their heads and said “I don’t believe that those kids did all of this on their own. It’s the “Left” some said. “It’s the Hollywood establishment”, said others. “It’s the liberal media,” said other groups. I don’t feel that it was anyone on the “left” nor the “right”. These are young people – kids – with their OWN agenda and goals, which sometimes conflicted with each other. When I was much younger, I was a part of a local Council’s training team. We would go to a community, set up and put on basic volunteer training for Scoutmasters and Assistants as well as those adults serving on the Troop’s Committee. Our job was to introduce to them what Scouting is about, give them strategies and coping skills to make it work for their youth, and to resolve general issues with coaching and advising young men who would lead their Troops.“You’re spitting in the wind”, several adults would tell me and the others. It was some flavor of “That crap you showed us is wishful thinking and video. Our boys won’t do anything – I or some other adult have to tell them what to do and how to do it…” It was as if a bell went off in my head every time I heard those kinds of objections. After the first couple of times, my fellow staff members would point to me and say “Mike…” I would first explain that the videos show the ideal example. In a perfect world. The goal. But then I explain that the goal is attainable. It takes confidence – on the part of the youth doing the leading and the adults standing back and letting them lead. It takes training and coaching, which is the role of the Scoutmaster and Assistant Scoutmasters – NOT to lead and “be in charge”, even when things seem to go “down south”. How else will they learn how to do things the right way if every time you see them attempting to fail, they are propped back up? No, you let them “fly or fall” and be there to keep them from hurting themselves when they do fall.“But that’s the same thing as when we get in there and doing things for them…keeping them from failure”, they would say. No, I would answer them, you haven’t kept them from falling. You assume failure so you got in there and do it for them. Let THEM succeed or not and then work with them to make the next time better so now they KNOW better ways of doing things.


Yes, kids can and do lead, I countered. In the past, my visual example was the street gangs in many of our urban inner cities. Those street gangs may be as large as 40 or 50 kids, all under the age of 20. They are led by other kids, not much older than they are, but who experienced failure and success and teach both to the new kids. They learn how to deal with the police, with neighbors, with competitors. They learn how to use a weapon and how to enter in premises. They have a code and follow it – sometimes with deadly results. They are leaders – respected, feared, and admired.  Oh yes, I would say back then, kids as young as 12 or 13 can and do lead. “You”, I would say pointing at the adults in the room, “don’t give them the opportunity to do so. With the right training, coaching and the right set of positive values, those kids can lead others toward doing more positive things”.I now have a new visual example. March 24th, 2018.More recently, some Scouters were talking about the idea that girls are going to be involved in doing skills and tasks which most recognize as “boy skills” as a part of the Scouting program. I had an answer, but a Scouter named Kelly Force (I don’t know where she’s from, sorry…) wrote what I thought was a much better and clearer response to the back and forth about “boy skills” or “girl skills” and how Scouting would navigate the teaching of those skills. 

She wrote: I think back to my childhood. My dad would have scoffed if any of the 4 of us girls claimed to be "too girly" to change a tire or swing a hammer. No kid of his would be helpless or afraid to tackle a challenge. Some of us were girlier than others but we are all grateful that we don't have the "learned helplessness" that a lot of our young people have. Same thing for my boy. I don't care if cooking or sewing isn't "boy" enough. He will learn it. He will not be helpless on his own. Values and skills are not girl or boy - they are tools to navigate real life. 

Those parents, teachers, coaches and yeah, Scouters who taught and coached those young men and women from Florida to stand up, listen to, and lead others toward what some news organizations say is the “largest grassroots, youth-led demonstration, rally and march in the history of the United States”, were not victims of “learned helplessness”. In my personal case, they showed me how those values I and others, perhaps you, teach and coach through Scouting, are put to use and is demonstrated to our nation and indeed the world. Don’t get me started again…I still have to make it to my hotel room from work this evening!

Settummanque is a writer, retired military officer, dad, friend, traveler, public speaker, webmaster, Eagle Scout, and/or "Sweetie"
(LTC) Mike Walton. South Lake Minnetonka area, Minnesota.



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