August 2010
4-H Extension Corner

Building Optimism, Humor and Faith


In 4-H, we believe working with kids is like fishing. If you want to enjoy it, you need patience and should take real pleasure in every success, no matter how small.

What values and personal attributes do you want Alabama’s children to develop? What are the things that will help them succeed, now and later in life? Every parent and every youth development professional recognizes there are certain characteristics to help a young person become a healthy and happy adult, and those should be central to how we treat kids.

We hope our children will be empathetic, to be able "to put themselves in the other person’s shoes." Certainly, we all want kids to become adults who are honest, reliable and morally capable. In 4-H, we specifically seek to help develop young people’s sense of Belonging, Independence, Generosity and Mastery.

What are the values you try to build in the kids with whom you come in contact? How about optimism, a sense of humor and a sense of faith in themselves?

Research and common sense both indicate these are three of the most important gifts we can give to children, yet they are three traits we rarely see written about in publications on child development.

When young people have a sense of optimism, their chances of success increase greatly.


A sense of optimism helps young people find the "silver lining," and motivates them to never give up. A positive outlook is what moves us beyond life’s failures and setbacks. That upbeat view of the universe helps us grow from our experiences instead of dwelling on what went wrong. And, as we love to point out, university research backs that up: young people who have high measures of optimism are more successful in school and in life.

In 4-H, we see how easy it is for a young person to go down either a path of optimism or pessimism. For example, competitive events can have a tremendous impact on a child. Younger children are not developmentally prepared for the nuances of "winning" and "losing." That’s why the youngest members of 4-H don’t participate in competition. And for older kids, competition is a carefully-nurtured learning experience, with judges trained in how to help young people learn and grow from their competitive experiences, not dwell on what went wrong.


In 4-H, we value competition as a learning experience, not a judgment of “winners” and “losers.” That increases young people’s faith that they have the potential to succeed.

Humor and optimism go hand-in-hand. There’s a saying we have: "If it isn’t FUN, it isn’t 4-H!" Children (and adults) love to be silly. If you ever want to see people having a good time, you need to participate in 4-H volunteer training. Humor reduces stress and helps open people to positive learning. There are many things over which we have little or no control (the weather, the economy, world events), but if we remind ourselves and our kids there is humor amid life’s frustrations, we have given them a wonderful gift. And any adult who can laugh at himself or herself is a healthier and happier person than those who can’t.

Proverbs 22:6 states: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." The third part of the three-legged stool is having faith in your children. That is, of course, based on having faith in the job you have done as a parent or leader.

How do you demonstrate that faith? You do it by being positive toward the child. No good thing ever came from constantly scolding or insulting a child. Would you respect someone who called you bad, stupid or a brat? The same holds true for kids, though more so. Children who are put-down will not only feel bad about themselves, they are not going to feel very kindly toward you. Maybe you have also heard an admonition about "doing unto others…"? That’s a golden rule for all human relationships.

Children thrive on praise, just as they wither from scorn. As children grow older and develop a positive self-image, they won’t need praise so often, but you should never stop praising. Even teenagers need regular thanks and praise for their talents, virtues, routine chores and helpful acts. Occasionally give praise in front of other people or to your spouse when the child can hear you.

No one ever said leading young people or being a parent or grandparent, was going to be a piece of cake. There will always be challenges to our wisdom and our patience. But one can never be too kind, too optimistic or have too much fun with their children. In the end, it is the journey of working with kids that should be just as rewarding as their successful arrival into adulthood.

Chuck Hill is the 4-H Youth Development Specialist. Amy Payne Burgess is a 4-H Regional Extension Agent in Northeast Alabama. She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..