Why I’m not a Girl Guide any more

Okay, this is the final post, I think, in this mini-series on how my very, very brief time in the Girl Guides actually gave me some super-useful life skills, and how they can help us in academia. Except this one is about some stuff I learned that got more complicated as I got older. 

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On the one hand, Girl Guides taught me that girls can be strong, active, smart and work well in teams. We could get dirty, make a difference to our communities, and find solidarity with other strong women. That was awesome.

Unfortunately, the scouting movement was based on appropriating African culture and colonial warfare. Baden-Powell, the movement’s founder, lived, worked and fought in various parts of African including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

In 1899, during the Second Boer War in South Africa, Baden-Powell [the founder] successfully defended the town in the Siege of Mafeking. Several of his military books, written for military reconnaissance and scout training in his African years, were also read by boys. Based on those earlier books, he wrote Scouting for Boys, published in 1908. (Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell)

As I child, I was taught that Scout’s pace, the Guide handshake, and the very name of Guides was derived from ‘African tribes’ that Baden-Powell met in ‘Africa’. At the time (I was eight) I thought that was kind of weird, and wondered which Africans they meant, and whether Baden-Powell killed them after he respected them or not.

We were quite a small group, living in a reasonably remote part of Australia. There was a hut that was used by the various Guides groups (we were the younger girls), the Brownies and the Rangers. The Scouts met elsewhere. Everyone in the troup was on the team. Not that all the girls enjoyed all the tasks, or that everyone was one big happy family all the time. But on the whole, we were all playing by the same rules. 

I’ve since learned that there are different rules for different people, even in the same workplace doing the same job. Different rules for different genders, family situations, races, physical ability, family background.  And that when you expand the place where you belong from one small hut full of girls to the wider world, those far off African tribespeople are your modern neighbours and colleagues. Many years later, I’m trying to disentangle my feminism from my white priviledge. 

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Girl Guides ‘promise that I will do my best’. They are advised to ‘Be Prepared’. And they are expected to do a ‘Good Turn’ for someone else each day. These are great things to learn, but not great laws to live by.

I find myself giving out advice about these concepts to two very different groups of students.

One group are getting terrible grades because, when you sit down and add it up, they just aren’t prioritising their studies. They want to go on to law, medicine or consulting, but they aren’t putting in 40 good hours a week. They aren’t prepared, they haven’t put in the hours to gain the skills, or to review the material, or to manage their time. They aren’t ever the person who is able to support someone else in their studies–they never have a great revision flow chart to share; they are never in a position to sit down and explain a tricky concept to a mate–they are always cadging notes and information off other people.

They aren’t doing their best in their studies because they aren’t trying their best. When these students decide to pick up their game and put in the effort, they find their grades, enjoyment and abilities pick up too.

The other group are perfectionists, and ‘do my best’ is an unhelpful goal, because they are always capable of more. They are disappointed by a B+ grade. They spend two hours reading a single article before class. They have revision notes that include every word spoken by the lecturer. They don’t get enough sleep because they are always working, or feeling like they should be working. Every 1,500 word assignment is an original contribution to knowledge. They waste huge amounts of energy being the person who carries class conversations, or does all the work in group assignments. And all of these things are counterproductive.

For these students, the 80% is excellent rule is more useful. When they do less, they find their grades, enjoyment and abilities improve.

Many years later, I’m trying to get a balance between being ‘good enough’ and being a ‘good’ girl. 

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This post isn’t meant as a critique of the Girl Guide movement generally–I was briefly a member nearly 30 years ago, and I know the global movement has continued to work on diversity and social justice since then. This is thinking about how my time in the Guides has led me to internalise certain values, some of which are extraordinarily valuable, and some of which I have tried to combat as I chart a path through academia and higher education.

I don’t think this is perfect either. I’m learning in public, and I’m often as bad at being a ‘good feminist‘ as I am at being a ‘good girl’. I’m not expecting anyone to give me a badge because I’ve made it here. I’m still working it through.

I do hope this helps you to jog alongside me for a bit and help me to keep going; even as I hope I am jogging alongside you and encouraging you on your way.

For some more practical skills the Girl Guides gave me, see my posts on ‘Scout’s Pace’: Or what I learned in Girl Guides that we should use in the workplace and Recognising voluntary labour in Higher Education: More things I learned from Girl Guides.

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3 Comments

  1. That’s a really interesting thought about ‘Do My Best’ not always being a helpful instruction/goal. I can completely see that for some people that would just be a baaaaaad instruction… I guess for those people, I would suggest that if ‘doing your best’ on one thing is leading to bad outcomes elsewhere (eg not enough sleep, neglecting friends and family, whatever) then it might be ‘doing your best’ on “project” but its not ‘doing your best’ overall…?

    1. Absolutely! Elsewhere I’ve talked about valuing ‘excellent’ and ‘good enough’ as also being valid. I will never be perfect, but I can be good, and that’s a fantastic goal!

  2. I was helped by a wise friend to aim to be ‘good enough’ – not second best but good enough for you and others to be as good as was necessary to model the qualities you value. It helped me relax and not to be so hard on myself or others. It ENERGISES and INSPIRES rather than DRAINING and CONFUSING so does lead to ‘being your best’!! win win!!

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