Growing Up American: From Church School to Scouting

State StreetAbove: The church where my parents were married.

So maybe life in the old days wasn’t all Ozzy and Harriet, or Wally and Beaver. In their day, however, we do know that one in ten school-age children were not being diagnosed with ADHD. That also means two-thirds of those children were not being treated with stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. Neither were 5% of 12-19 year olds taking anti-depressants. This raises the question: besides the egregious influence of pill-pushing pharmaceutical companies, what was different in American life previous to the prescription drug culture in which our children now live?

Television stereotypes aside, let’s take a look back at how children used to spend their time:

Church School

My mother, like most of her classmates, left school once a week to attend church school. With parental permission, students left at 1 p.m. and spent the rest of the school day studying their faith at the church of their choice. When McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) stopped religious instructors from entering public schools during the school day to provide religious instruction, it didn’t affect our town. For years, students had already been leaving school grounds to receive education at their own church. For many students who couldn’t go to church on Sunday, this was the only formal education they received concerning biblical principles and social mores.

For nine years, my mother and her friends left school in the afternoon, walking to church school at the Methodist Church. Friends would part ways, some going to a Catholic Church, some to an Episcopal Church, and so on. By 1952, when Zorach v. Clauson was handed down, and the Supreme Court upheld an arrangement that public schools could release students from school to attend religious education off school grounds, our town had already been in compliance for years. Nothing changed, and all was well in our quintessential American community.

A Turning Point

In 1962, Engel v. Vitale ruled that opening the school day with this prayer was illegal:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country.

Thus began a prolonged war on Christianity, and countless attempts to deny the faith of our founding fathers and its influence on the documents they created.


On my honor, I will try: To serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout law.

Scouting was a major activity in most towns, providing youngsters practical skills, self-esteem, and the strong character traits they would need to weather life’s storms. It was a thread that seemed to weave naturally through the fabric of communities across the country.

It was also family tradition. My mother’s father joined the city’s first Boy Scout troop in 1912. Not surprisingly, it was Troop #1.

Like her brothers and sisters before her, my mother joined scouting when she was 10, and as with scouts across the country, the pledge would be ingrained in her brain for a lifetime, as deeply as her own name.

During WWII, all scouts packed rags and collected dry goods for wartime efforts. The Court of Awards (or Court of Honor for the Boy Scouts) opened with a flag ceremony, the Pledge of Allegiance, and singing the Star-Spangled Banner. Scout troops from around the county would gather for annual events, arriving in full uniform and executing full pomp and formality. My mother worked hard to earn every one of her badges, and she wore them with the same pride with which she carried the flag at special ceremonies.

In addition to hard work, they had fun. They biked and hiked trails. On Saturday mornings, buses took them to children’s stage shows in the plush grandeur of Loew’s State Theater in the nearby “big” city.

My father joined Sea Scouts and learned how to tie every knot known to man. I’ve watched those knots come in handy more times than one could have thought possible.

The Sea Scout Master took his aspiring mariners up the rivers that led to the Great Lakes. They learned camp crafts, sailing, and rowing, and they held nautical events and contests. When my father was done with that, he joined the Navy.

Youth Fellowship

Youth Fellowship was something most teens in our town participated in, and churches of every denomination had their own version every Sunday night. The Methodist Youth Fellowship was held at the church annex, a huge, stately old building aptly called the Century House, which had ample room for games, crafts, sing-a-longs, snacks, dances, formal dinners, and costume parties.

At the Episcopal Church, the reverend opened up the parish rooms and installed a jukebox, welcoming with open arms any teenager in the community who needed a place to hang out and have fun. It was open every night of the week. They too held dances, and they formed their own choir that performed at special events.


The day before high school graduation was Baccalaureate service, a voluntary ecumenical religious service for graduates. Seniors arrived well-coiffed, donning pastel suits, white shoes, and gloves. Local churches were represented from Catholic and Protestant faiths. It was held, as it had been for decades, in the high school auditorium — a fact that today would have the ACLU choking as they regurgitated the Establishment Clause and clamored for airtime on CNN.

At the local college, Baccalaureate services (held on campus) also included a rabbi, to serve their more diverse population.

In 1951, dressed in her freshly pressed pink suit, my mother listened to the Baccalaureate sermon while excitedly anticipating graduation the next day.

The reverend’s sermon, now forgotten in the dusty archives of a newspaper file room, reads in part:

Be sure of your goals. Some goals, as of German and Italian youth a few years ago, led millions to death. If your goal is better social, political, economic, moral and religious standards for men everywhere — as God would want — then your goals are right.

If you hear the forces of Communism claim that they too are working for a classless society and a just economic order, remember that Communism is trying to use a bloody club to do what only the Cross can do. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life…for the world.

Surprisingly, no one was protesting outside.

It was a life without video games, Pop Warner, Dance Moms, soccer games, Facebook, or television — but somehow they turned out okay.

And while everyone had his or her own growing pains to overcome, American youths didn’t need Ritalin or anti-depressants. Someone should do a study and find out why. It may prove more beneficial than studying snail sex.

Ira Palmer 1912

Above:  My grandfather, Ira Palmer, in Boy Scouts in 1912. Back row, far right, standing.



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