Beyond intellectual and academic achievement, what will be the keys to the future success of America’s young people?
Certainly, psychological and spiritual well-being are critical. But for our long-term success, we should also consider such traits as personal responsibility, empathy and caring, and good citizenship. And what about some of the basic things connecting people with one another, like good manners?
One of the key roles of 4-H is to complement and supplement classroom education. Studies have shown the unique and powerful effect of 4-H science, arts and leadership programs. Historically, one of the most widely celebrated aspects of 4-H participation has been our capacity to aid in building good character.
Alabama 4-H has created a respected program for inspiring integrity in youth. This program, Leading With Character, places an emphasis on six key positive attributes: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship.
Like the universality of The Golden Rule, 4-H Character Education applies to the varied cultures and belief systems of Alabama’s youth and families. Since contemporary society sometimes undermines good character – and since too many youth are not taught the fundamental tenets of Right and Wrong at home – 4-H can often help fill a critical function.
Trustworthiness and Responsibility
Peer pressure has historically led young people down troubling paths. As kids develop Integrity, they learn to stand up for their own beliefs – what they think is right. Kids have a powerful, innate sense of right-and-wrong that can be directed at confronting the peer pressure of bullying or drug experimentation. With support, their loyalty to family, friends, school and country can be affirmed. They learn self-control and to be accountable, not blaming others for their actions.
In practice, this means young people understand their personal obligations to do their chores and their schoolwork. It means obeying the law and generally being a "good citizen," a key goal of the overall 4-H experience. Without Trustworthiness and Responsibility, young people cannot bring honor to themselves, their family, friends, school or community. Those attributes are crucial to developing a good work ethic.
Treating others as you want to be treated is a key tenet of every organized society. 4-H has a strong tradition of helping young people "put themselves in other people’s shoes." Leading With Character trains young people in basic courtesy, to use good manners, and be polite and civil to everyone. It emphasizes listening to others and trying to understand their points of view. 4-H places importance on the great democratic ideal of valuing people for who they are inside not for what they wear, where they live or the color of their skin.
Any drive along our nation’s highways quickly demonstrates how courtesy and good manners have room for improvement. From an early age, young people can be taught the importance of taking their turn, being aware of others and showing respect. Whether it is someone who is too self-involved to give a turn signal or a young person who "butts in" to the cafeteria line, lack of respect violates the shared rules holding together an orderly society.
Every young person has loudly and emphatically stated, "It’s not fair!" They are also pretty good at detecting hypocrisy. Being treated fairly and equitably seems to be one of those basic human expectations. Although we all wanted to be treated equitably, sometimes we ourselves pick favorites or make judgments based on our own prejudices. Leading With Character reminds young people that "loving our neighbors as ourselves" extends to a larger group than just the people who live next door. It’s all about sharing, being nice to other kids, being honest and standing up for those who are being treated badly.
It can be very difficult to teach young people Empathy, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. However, research shows 4-H is extremely successful with helping develop empathy. Kindness, compassion and charity are not always valued in a materialistic society where people are judged by "the stuff" they possess. 4-H strives to provide all its participants a level playing field where every young person has a chance to learn and grow.
Through Leading With Character, young people can become leaders in reaching out to meet needs in the community. Their innate kindness and generosity are easily directed into inspiring food or clothing drives, fundraisers and other personal or communitywide acts of caring.
It is often said, "Citizenship is not a spectator sport!" The 4-H approach has always been on loyalty and service "for my club, my community, my country and my world." In practice that means a respect for the democratic process, the law and such symbols as our flag. For example, thousands of young people have learned to practice flag etiquette through 4-H. They have learned the crucial practices of democracy through the management of 4-H club meetings.
Citizenship also means having respect and stewardship for the environment. As Alabama’s premier youth environmental educator, 4-H ties the philosophical notion of environmentalism with the very practical needs for clean air and water.
Yes, there are many important skills and abilities which Alabama’s young people need for a bright and shining future. With the aid of 4-H, they can develop not only the mastery of ideas and information, they can develop the moral and ethical connections of character which our state and nation will need in the years and decades ahead.
Chuck Hill is a 4-H Youth Development Specialist.