Tufts-led study to evaluate Boy Scouts impact on development

A three-year study led by child development professor and Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science Richard Lerner will examine how participation in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) impacts scouts’ development. 

Lerner said he was approached by the CEO of the Cradle of Liberty Council, a greater Philadelphia section of BSA, to examine its methods and the effects they have on the chapter’s members. 

“We are in the initial stage of data collection, so we don’t have any results yet, but what we’re looking at is the model of youth development used by the Cradle of Liberty Council, and our goal is to try to understand the impact of being in Boy Scouts on the positive development of young people,” Lerner said.

Lerner added that his previous research on youth groups attracted the BSA to ask for his help. 

“We just completed ten years of research on young people who are in 4-H, which is a large youth serving program in the United States,” he said. “This work got the attention of folks in Boy Scouts of America, and they began talking with us.”

The data collection process includes survey data on various character attributes of the young people, Lacey Hilliard, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, said.

“In addition to the quantitative survey or questionnaire data, we have a large qualitative component, so we are interested in interviews and focus groups and some of the more rich experiences of both the youths in Boy Scouts, but also the leaders and parents involved in the organization,” she said. 

Though not a primary focus of the study, the recent allegations against BSA of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation could play a role in the overall results, and the team is prepared to take a potential change to membership rules into account in the study, Lerner said.

“We will be able to look at the impact of the program as it currently exists on youth development,” he said. “Should the rules of Boy Scouting change and should that be manifested in the Cradle of Liberty Council, then we’ll hopefully be able to see if that change has any impact on the scouts.”

The study is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which is based out of the Greater Philadelphia area, and funding has been granted for a period of three years, according to Lerner. 

“We are starting at the Cub Scout level, and we only have three years of funding, but we are hoping that we produce well enough for the foundation that they might be interested in continuing to fund us,” he said. “We would then have a longitudinal study of kids starting at Cub Scout level and how they may or may not move on across scouting and become Eagle Scouts.”

The John Templeton Foundation has a vested interest in promoting research into youth development, according to Lerner. 

“They are a very enlightened foundation,” he said. “They care a lot about character development – it is a central theme of their work.” 

The research team also includes  Baylor University sociology professor Byron Johnson and  Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development postdoctoral fellow Rachel Herschberg,  well as a number of other graduate and undergraduate students working as research assistants in the lab, according to Lerner.

The students who are involved in the research are encouraged to incorporate the data into their own research and coursework, Hilliard added. 

“We encourage the students, if there is a particular piece of interest to them, to continue to look at the research,” she said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version stated that the John Templeton Foundation funded Lerner’s prior research on 4-H. This is incorrect. The current version reflects this change.