I have written before about the importance of wording choices, when I examined the legislation that California had brought in to help improve situations with how the LBGT community are treated in convalescent care. In that post, I looked at how just a simple phrasing could be interpreted one way, which totally negates the spirit of the legislation.
The spirit of the law and the actual law are two entirely different things. This is why it is vital that legislation and policies need to be carefully scrutinized by those well versed in legalese. In a way, it’s a lawyer’s job to find those loopholes in the way things are worded.
However, when you are not talking about legislation, many are willing to forego the importance of wording choices, and just paraphrase things. At times, this is perfectly okay. There are other times this is not.
Emails sent as a public statement in response to a court case verdict is not the time to be paraphrasing and forgetting about the importance of wording choices. As much as you might hate the idea, people do take things literally. Wording matters.
Let me set the stage.
In December 2017, a NZ Scout leader pleaded guilty to charges for sexual assault on youth. He was sentenced in February 2018 to jail time. The entire issue brought into the light a whole rafter of problems for Scouting NZ, issues that the organisation is currently working through.
Before I go too much further, I should point out that the guilty leader is NOT representative of Scouting NZ.
Don’t judge an organisation by the actions of one man.
I have been involved with Scouting NZ for 11 years (since my son was a Kea). I was a Scout leader myself for 6 years. While my son is no longer in Scouts himself, he still values the skills he learnt and keeps in contact with some of the guys who were in his troop. My daughter has gone through the system and is now a senior Scout. My husband served on the executive for the Scout Group where I was a leader for 8 years (staying with the group for 2 years after I resigned as a leader), and has now become a Scout leader himself.
Every leader that I have ever met volunteers their time, because they strongly believe that the youth deserve the right to have a safe environment to learn scouting skills. They do it for the children. Many have grown up in the scouting community and wanted to give back to the organisation that taught them so much.
The current situation that Scouting NZ is in can be equated to the church when a priest is convicted of child molestation.
Please, I beg you, don’t judge an organisation by the actions of one man.
That being said, it was an email from the Chief Executive of Scouting NZ that sparked this post. In particular, a single sentence that caused a mountain of confusion.
The spirit of a message is one thing. The wording is another.
After the sentencing of the guilty Scout leader, a public statement was sent to ALL parents, leaders and families associated with Scouting NZ. This email detailed Scouting NZ’s position with regards to the situation and how they do not condone the actions of the man. The email also highlighted what the policies are regarding leaders and their associations with the youth.
For the most part, I had zero issue with what was in that email. In fact, when the email came in originally, I had only skimmed it and brushed it aside. However, my husband (a Scout leader himself) got the same message that I did — and my husband reads ALL of his emails. We were talking about the email from the Chief Executive, and my husband brought to my attention a section of the email (that I didn’t bother reading initially) that was filled with ambiguity and would likely have the outcome of total confusion among parents and leaders.
I quote (and I feel safe in doing so because this was a public statement sent to ALL within the Scouting NZ community):
I want to remind you about the key aspect of our current child protection policy: Our Leaders will never be alone with a Kea, Cub, Scout, or Venturer. This expectation is for all scout activities, including meetings in the scout hall, overnight camps, or tramps. There should always be another leader around. It is never ok for a Kea, Cub, Scout or Venturer to spend the night in a Leader’s home. This is our policy, and it applies even if the parents have given consent.
It’s the last two sentences of this paragraph that make me blink multiple times.
Remember that this post started with the importance of wording choices. With the way those two sentences are worded, it brings into question the fact that majority of leaders are parents of youth within the movement. My husband was starting to wonder if this sentence meant that our daughter wasn’t allowed to have a sleepover with another youth who just happened to also be in Scouts. Meanwhile, my brain started to question if this sentence was going to impact on the fact that my husband and our daughter live under the same roof.
This is NOT the spirit of what was intended, I know that, but as I keep saying, over and over, wording choices matter. The spirit of the words and the actual words are two entirely different things.
I publicly questioned this sentence, and asked to see the actual policy documents so I can see the actual wording in the official enforced document, and not rely on the badly worded paraphrased statement. For those interested, you can find the Scouting NZ Child & Youth Protection Policy on the Scouting NZ website, along with all the other policy documents that leaders must follow.
In the Code of Conduct (which is actually a better document than the Child & Youth Protection Policy document), it says:
Adults in SCOUTS New Zealand must
- avoid unaccompanied and unobserved activities with youth members wherever possible. Remember, “in sight – out of hearing”.
- for their own protection, should avoid potentially compromising situations by ensuring, where reasonably possible, that at least two adults are in attendance whilst supervising and/or accompanying youth members. It is recognised that, in certain circumstances, it may be necessary for a Leader or adult, whilst acting responsibly and exercising their “duty of care”, to be alone with a youth member.
The Code of Conduct document then goes on to define duty of care, and the strict responsibilities thereof. This document clearly states what a leader can and cannot do. It also defines the protocol if a leader is ever in the unavoidable situation where they are alone with a youth.
Not once in any of these documents is there ever a mention of youth not being allowed to spend the night in a leader’s home — alleviating any concerns that I, my husband, or any of the other leaders that I had spoken to about this, had about being parents of scouting children at the same time as being leaders.
Here’s what I think the email sent to ALL should have said:
I want to remind you about the key aspect of our current child protection policy: Our Leaders will never be alone with a Kea, Cub, Scout, or Venturer. This expectation is for all scout activities, including meetings in the scout hall, overnight camps, or tramps. There should always be another leader around.
Notice that is the only thing I did was to remove the last two sentences from the original statement. It was those sentences that caused the confusion. It’s those sentences that should have never been made public.
Lesson to be learnt: be clear and concise.
Remember this is all about wording choices and how those words can be interpreted. Whenever in doubt, at least get another person to read through what you have written, deliberately trying to poke holes in your statements. People do take things literally, but they are also not stupid. Don’t treat them as such. Be clear, concise, but ensure that the true intent behind your words is as obvious as they come and someone can’t twist your words around to mean something else.
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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2018