Benjamin René Jordan: “Free-Range Kids” and the Problem of Children’s Citizenship

Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930, by Benjamin René JordanWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Benjamin René Jordan, author of Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930. In this illuminating look at gender and Scouting in the United States, Jordan examines how in its founding and early rise, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) integrated traditional Victorian manhood with modern, corporate-industrial values and skills. While showing how the BSA Americanized the original British Scouting program, Jordan finds that the organization’s community-based activities signaled a shift in men’s social norms, away from rugged agricultural individualism or martial primitivism and toward productive employment in offices and factories, stressing scientific cooperation and a pragmatic approach to the responsibilities of citizenship.

In today’s post, Jordan calls for Americans to better educate youth in the responsibilities of adult civic life.


American parents and educators today, myself included, struggle with the proper amount and ways in which we should give adult responsibilities and opportunities to our children. At the family dinner table and in public forums, we fiercely debate news stories such as the mother who taught and allowed her nine-year-old son to ride the New York City subway alone, whether or how to regulate our children’s use of the internet and smart phones, and the appropriate geographical roaming range for children at play.

The Boy Scouts and other youth organizations emerged in the early twentieth century amongst a range of efforts to solve the separation of adolescent and adult worlds created by new laws restricting child labor and making schooling compulsory. Today’s disconnect, however, is even more severe. In recent decades, many children and even adolescents no longer play outside or down the street unsupervised. Children are rarely sent to the store independently to pick up a few groceries for the family or to attend a movie with friends. After-school programs, adult-supervised playdates, and heavily structured sport leagues fill in the gaps in young people’s regulated schedule and cocooned environments.

When one takes such developments into account alongside the growing American trend toward the “six-year-plan” of undergraduate college education, then a 1923 article written by Dr. George Fisher, assistant to the national director of the Boy Scouts of America, has become even more true and dire today. Fisher warned that allowing young men to “stumble into citizenship,” assuming it only begins at age twenty-one, leads them to believe that civic responsibility is primarily limited to voting or paying taxes: “A boy cannot live his boy life entirely separate from any sense of responsibility to society and then be expected as a man to live a full-orbed citizenship.”[1] Fisher’s statement suggests that our current social and educational structure in which adolescents are isolated from broader community interactions, mature responsibilities, and opportunities for personal growth endangers the very foundation of America’s democratic society by restricting young people’s awareness of the broader community and experience of citizenship.

In the 1910s and 1920s, young adolescent Boy Scouts provided emergency relief to victims of hurricanes and mining accidents, conserved natural resources on public lands, and took over city governments and mayor posts for a day. What active experiences can most of our youth today access that teach them the same sense of civic worth and exposure to the perspectives of people different from themselves? It should come as no surprise, then, that cultural and political divides and the sense of misunderstanding and mistrust between different groups of Americans continues to deepen. A fuller incorporation of practical civic activities into our parenting approach and community engagement would be a good starting point to guide young Americans into responsible citizenship rather than continuing to let them stumble into it and broader adulthood.

Benjamin René Jordan is visiting associate professor of history at Christian Brothers University. His book Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930 is now available.


[1] George J. Fisher, “Boyhood and Citizenship Training,” Scout Executive, February 1923, 7.