When No One Is Looking

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“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is looking.” That quote has been attributed to H.Jackson Browne and John Wooden, whomever said it first it is one of my favorites. In light of all of the media attention on human beings across the globe behaving badly when they think no one is looking, this quote really does give me pause. The word I seem to ponder on is integrity. How human beings conduct themselves out in the world really is kind of a big deal.

As a trusted adult that works with young people, I have lots of opportunities to see young human beings living their lives when they think no one is looking.

Agreeing that intellectual and academic achievement are important, what will be the keys to the future success of America’s young people? How do we break the cycle of treating others badly and making excuses for it later? Should it really take a video being released or the courage of a victim coming forward to start this conversation?

I would suspect psychological and spiritual well-being are critical. But for long-term success, traits such as personal responsibility, empathy and caring, and good citizenship are paramount. And what about some of the basic things connecting people with one another, like good manners and common courtesy?

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.

Young people will take risks. It is often said 4-H helps young people build character by allowing them to take risks in a secure and nurturing environment. For some kids, that risk is standing in front of a group to give a speech and for others, it is flying down a zip-line at a 4-H summer adventure program.

Here in North Carolina, 4-H has created a respected program for inspiring integrity in youth. We intentionally work to place an emphasis on positive attributes like trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness and citizenship.

Peer pressure has historically led young people down troubling paths. I don’t think there has been a more dangerous time than this for our youth to be out in the elements with negative forces leading them. As kids develop integrity, they learn to stand up for their own beliefs – what they think is right. The youth of today have a powerful, innate sense of right-and-wrong that can be directed at confronting the peer pressure of bullying or drug experimentation. With our 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.

Treating others as you want to be treated is a key principle of every organized society. In 4-H we emphasize basic courtesy, to use good manners, and be polite and civil to everyone. This requires 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.

Empathy could be one of the most difficult traits to teach young people. Empathy: the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. This is one you pretty much have to model to get the point across. Through community service projects and the diversity of our programming, 4-H is extremely successful with helping develop empathy. Kindness, compassion and charity are not always valued in a society where people are judged by “the stuff” they possess or the heights of fame they achieve. 4-H strives to provide all its participants a level playing field where every young person has a chance to learn and grow. Competition is a great way to develop good character and with success in competition comes the responsibility to model good behavior. It is an expectation that 4-H does not back off from ever.

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. 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. 4-H ties the philosophical notion of environmentalism with the very practical needs for clean air and water, recycling and land conservation.

Yes, there are many important skills and abilities which 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 society will need in the years and decades ahead. As human beings we are flawed, the hope is that generations to come will pay attention to how they treat people and themselves even when they think no one is looking.

North Carolina Sate University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, religion, creed, national origin, sex, age disability, or veterans status. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation. North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.