published Sunday, September 15th, 2013

Kennedy: Scouting and a loss of innocence

My 6-year-old son has joined the Cub Scouts.

Last week, before his first den meeting, he appeared in the kitchen in his freshly pressed uniform and asked his mom, "How do I look?"

The clerk at the Scout supply store convinced us to buy a big-boy shirt so he could grow into it. For now, the shirttail hangs down to his knees.

"Tuck your shirttail in," I told him.

"What's a shirttail?" he asked blankly.

Note to self: Little boys don't tuck in their shirts anymore. It's a 21st century thing.

I was reminded again of the passage of time as I helped my son learn the Cub Scout promise. When I was a Cub Scout, back in the 1960s, we solemnly promised to, among other things, "be square and obey the laws of the Pack." Today, those words sound stale. "Be square and obey the laws of the Pack" sounds like some sort of Rotarian oath.

The new promise says: "To help other people, and to obey the laws of the Pack."

Much better, I thought. I'm glad the Scouts are updating their handbooks for a modern world.

At his first official Cub Scout meeting, we arrived at the Scout house behind our church at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning. A kind older scout helped show the boys the Cub Scout sign, the salute and the handshake.

I felt my son's face press against my back. He extended two tiny fingers of his right hand, but couldn't find the courage to raise his hand above his head. It was OK. I have a lifetime of experience with shyness, and I know how intimidating it can be to stand in a room full of strangers and feel like every eye is looking at you.

We worked down a checklist of Bobcat-badge requirements on a little note card. When we left, only one task remained. Parents were reminded to go over the "child protection" chapter in the handbook with the boys later at home. Privacy was required, we were told.

I was puzzled.

A letter to parents in the front of the Tiger Cub handbook explains: "Child abuse is a serious problem in our society, and unfortunately it can occur anywhere, even in Scouting."

The next night, as he climbed into bed, I sat down beside my first-grader and cracked open his Cub Scout book. I don't know what I thought the child protection chapter was about, but the reality was striking. The handbook contained a list of "what if" scenarios to discuss with your son:

What it a neighbor asks you to take in the groceries?

What if relative suggest an inappropriate photo?

What if a stranger touches you in a public restroom?

Most of the answers involved immediately seeking out a trusted adult.

With a sense of growing dread, I worked down the list with my son. It seemed to bother me more than him, but I couldn't help feeling that a bit of innocence was being lost in the transaction.

For days afterward, my son quizzed me about whom it is, and isn't, permissible to get in a car with.

What about Papa?

What about the lady who lives on the cul-de-sac?

What about a teacher?

I could tell our earlier discussion had started a conversation that was both healthy and unsettling. But that's modern life, right? Better safe than sorry.

Still, I couldn't help but pine a bit for the 1960s, a simpler time when we worried about shirttails and imaginary monsters, not real ones.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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