4-H and the Politics of Living in America

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Now that the mid-term elections are over I find myself wondering what to do with all that free time I was devoting to political ads on television. Anyone else feeling that void too? Through my daily travels I see and talk to lots of young people with all sorts of opinions and ideas. Even though our topic of discussion may be centered around one particular thing, current events will inevitably come up and that is when I open my ears and close my mouth and wait with baited breath. No one says it like it is more succinctly than a young person. Please believe me when I tell you, our kids are most certainly having conversations about political elections, immigration and Ebola. Some are quite informed and some are quite opinionated and just like adults, the two don’t always go together. After pondering some of the discussions of the past weeks, I got to thinking about how 4-H prepares young people for the “politics of living in America.”

It really is a good thing for young people to understand how to take part in the political process. What a great way to learn about what matters to them and develop their own sense of community. Not voting and not thinking about politics is a decision to not value their own liberty. In 4-H, we hold elections for club officers, district and state offices. With a certain amount of pomp and circumstance and not a single amount of mud slinging, the process is an important part of the 4-H culture and one of the favorite parts for our 4-Hers. Electoral votes based on the size of a state (or in our case, county), popularity vs. political agenda and all of the details that make elections interesting happen in 4-H.

Believing that free speech should not have a higher value than courtesy is another credo that we want our 4-Hers to grasp. It is important that our children understand the necessity of courtesy in political discourse just as in every day life. It is possible to disagree with respect, to be wrong with integrity, and to be right with humility. This is where positive modeling is important. Maybe political elections are not the best example but they certainly give a platform for the conversation. In 4-H, diversity is one of our greatest assets. With diversity comes the difference of backgrounds, opinions and goals. Learning that the differences are okay and that the common ground may be as simple as each person searching for their own means to an end works.

Children who learn to think for themselves become adults who have a point of view that others will respect. Simply parroting other people’s opinions as their own does not sit well in 4-H. The development of ideas and ‘learning by doing’ are two of the foundations of what 4-H is all about. Young people (and those of us who call ourselves adults) must learn how to cultivate multiple sources when gathering information. We aren’t playing telephone with two tin cans and a string. Using technology and taking advantage of opportunities provided by great resources like NCSU and NC A&T State University give 4-H youth a great advantage. In politics, those who use their advantages to show themselves as the best candidate do quite well.

One of my favorite life lessons that 4-H teaches so well is that the truth can handle good questions. If children (adults too maybe) don’t understand, they should always ask. Good questions reveal truth… or the lie. Either way, good question asking is critical to a political process that works and almost any other process you can think of. In 4-H we hold numerous contests and events that allow young people to ask questions, to use critical thinking skills and make decisions based on those experiences. “If at first you don’t succeed…” is a great saying but when you add a certain amount of preparedness the outcome is pretty great too.

So I know that I am constantly flying the 4-H flag in everyone’s face, it’s just that I want you to pay attention. When we teach our children that there is always more to learn, that people who disagree with us aren’t always wrong, and that narrow-mindedness is the shortest path to political oppression then we all win. Politics can be tricky but it doesn’t have to be off limits to those under the voting age of 18. Why wait to be informed and why put off learning how to become the informer – in 4-H, it’s all about ‘Making the best better.”