Developing life and leadership skills beyond the rule book

Consider these tips to make rule interpretation easier in youth-serving organizations and focused on youth development.

Rules for youth development programs are written with the best intentions to level the playing field and outline expectations for participation. Unfortunately, rules are rarely written in a way that require no interpretation. Every individual may read a written set of rules differently, or present a circumstance that the rule writers never considered. In the real world, this rule interpretation is left to the justice system. In the 4-H Youth Development world, it’s often a combination of 4-H staff and volunteers in leadership roles that work to determine the fairest course of action. Before the next rule book controversy, consider the following tips to make rule interpretation easier in youth-serving organizations.

  • Involve youth in rule setting. Michigan State University Extension operates the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program which is first and foremost a youth development organization, and embraces seven guiding principles that include, “Youth are actively engaged in their own development.” In any youth-serving organization, it’s important to consider ways youth can be involved in leadership roles that set policy for programs in which they participate. Youth tend to worry less about individual rules and more about the overall experience, providing a different approach to adult policy setting.
  • Remember that life skills development includes more than “following the rules.” Iowa State University Extension has created a life skills wheel of over 30 life skills youth can gain through their participation in 4-H clubs and groups that go above and beyond simply learning to follow directions.
  • Develop a rubric for rule interpretation. Ask, “What’s in the best interest of youth?” Consider the consequences for the program, and ask if there’s any way youth might still be able to gain the positive benefits of participating. Sometimes, youth can still gain the benefits or participating while also paying a consequence for the rule violation.
  • Match consequences to the violation. While rule violation may result in consequences, be sure the consequences are in alignment with the violation. Missing an enrollment deadline by 5 minutes and treating an animal inhumanely do not deserve to be punished the same way. For example, if a driver misses the deadline to renew their driver’s license, they may be fined a late fee or be required to pay a ticket. It is unlikely, however, they will lose the privilege of driving for the year. Multiple offenses, of course, may warrant a different outcome.
  • Involve youth in rule interpretation. Some adults may be hesitant to allow youth to make determinations about rule interpretation that affect their peers. If youth are coached in some of the guidelines outlined above, youth are very capable about making rule interpretation decisions that impact their peers. By being included in these conversations, youth also build important life skills in critical thinking, empathy and decision-making. In fact, adults may find that youth take more time considering all sides of the issue and grant plenty of forgiveness and understanding.

Rules are in place for a reason—to ensure everyone has an enjoyable, safe experience. But always keep in mind that youth programs are also aiming to grow and develop young people. Make sure you don’t “miss the forest for the sake of the trees.” Young people are wired to test boundaries and push limits. Just because there is a challenge with abiding by rules does not mean the consequences should have a negative impact on the perpetrator’s experience. Turning the mistake into a positive, learning experience ensures your use of rules stays focused on positive youth development. 

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