December 2013
Youth Matters

Leaving 4-H in Better Hands

Young people need to be part of a group. Belonging is basic to human nature and is fundamental to our sense of happiness and well-being. If youth don’t find a positive group to identify with such as school or clubs they sometimes find that connectivity by “running with the wrong crowd.”  

Having written or ghost-written this column since its inception a decade ago, it is time for me to pass it along to others. I am retiring, so good people may spot me out on the back 40 counting the yellowhammers. But before I go, I thought I might pass along some observations from my years as both a 4-H specialist and a parent.

First, our kids are good. They are really, really good. As much as our society and the media try to crush us with fear and pessimism, I never bought it. Despite the pressures of materialism and narrow-mindedness, America’s young people are as idealistic and hopeful as they have ever been. They will continue to change the world for the better if we give them the tools to think logically and communicate clearly, and if we entrust and encourage them - and if we just step out of their way.

  Isn’t it great to develop a new skill? 4-H helps young people develop such crucial skills as self-confidence and critical thinking, but it also helps build skills that are just plain fun – like gardening, archery or robotics.

Second, the 4-H model of building Belonging, Independence, Generosity and Mastery puts into words the ideals we intuitively value as parents and as a society.

Children and young people need groups to which they can belong, to be valued for whom they are. If not 4-H – or in addition to 4-H, they should be in the marching band or show choir. They need to be in Scout troops and robotics clubs and on baseball teams. And if it is a group that doesn’t always look or think like your family, so much the better, because that will better prepare them for a world where most people don’t look or think like they do.

Cutting the apron strings is done from “I can do it myself!” onward. Self-reliance and personal confidence are slowly learned, experience by experience. There is no more exciting and rewarding indicator of youth maturity than watching children develop their own independence and perspectives.  

Independence can be tough for some parents and kids. But let go! Before he turned 21, our self-reliant son (a former 4-Her) had already ridden chicken buses through the lush jungles of Central America and hitchhiked across the New Zealand Alps – places far safer than riding on I-85. As a result of his experiences and having to be resourceful, his skills at problem-solving and planning are far advanced over mine as a college junior. We trusted him, but we also put trust in the inherent goodness of the world.

Generosity is crucial to the future of our society. In our 4-H pledge, we make commitments "for my club, my community, my country and my world." Generosity is not just financial charity, it means sharing your time, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and having the empathy to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Mastery ought to imply balance. Academic mastery is crucial, an area where America and Alabama have become woefully short-sighted. However, young people really need a wide array of masteries: social skills, health and fitness, self-expression, adaptability, and many more. However, the future is bright when any young person develops true mastery of something that is crucial whether it is water policy, screening for poultry disease or installing excellent septic tanks.

I have often said there is one essential thing we in 4-H, and we as parents, can provide young people - experiences they would not otherwise have had. For some kids that means coming to Auburn for 4-H Football Day or an experience at Citizenship Washington Focus. It can mean wading in the creek or digging up peanuts on a 4-H field trip. We die a little if we, as adults, quit seeking new experiences ourselves. We can serve as role models in our approaches to trying new foods or music and how we seek out pleasant and interesting people who could even challenge us on what we think or believe.

  Left to right, do you put time and energy into making your community a better place? These young people from Opelika are learning new skills while practicing generosity. Twenty years from now, they may show their kids trees they planted - a long-term investment in their neighborhood. Hands-on learning should certainly be fun – “if it isn’t fun, it isn’t 4-H!” Youth and families and communities can make fun a regular part of our lives. Research shows that silliness and games (especially if you connect it to being physically active) make you feel better and connect you with others.

Some years ago, I did a military program I called "The Family That Plays Together, Stays Together." Every child, every teen and every adult needs to have fun. Research shows that fun causes "happy chemicals" to enter our bloodstreams to make us feel good about ourselves and one another. As family, communities and a society, having fun together will lead to "Wag More, Bark Less" as the dog lovers’ bumper sticker suggests.

My final observations – or advice really: teach your children to wear sunscreen, relish each blackberry they eat, to know the names of trees and birds, to be kind, and to not fear those things over which they have no control.

With the connection to "caring, committed adults," the long-term future for Alabama youth is brilliant. We leave them in good hands.

Chuck Hill is a 4-H Youth Development Specialist.