How to be an involved 4-H parent in 10 easy steps – Step 4: Backseat driving

Your child has joined a 4-H club, now what? Try these tips to help 4-H members and parents have a successful experience.

Let’s start by clarifying there is no such thing as “easy” when it comes to being a parent. Parents play an important role in 4-H programs by supporting and encouraging their child throughout the 4-H experience, in much the same way they would advocate for the child through school, sports or other activities. Being an informed and supporting parent can enhance your child’s 4-H experience to ensure they receive maximum benefit from the program. This article is part of a series that will provide a number of tips for 4-H families to bolster their 4-H experience.

Step 4: Backseat driving

 “4-H is the nation’s largest positive youth development and youth mentoring organization, empowering six million young people in the U.S.” This headlining statement from the National 4-H website directs our attention immediately to the fact that 4-H is an organization intended for youth. There are plenty of adults with connections to 4-H who support the program and the youth participants throughout their experiences include volunteers, staff and parents. However, it is imperative that adults keep their focus on the ultimate goal: positive youth development. Parents and other adults can follow these tips to become better “backseat drivers” while helping youth take charge of their own 4-H destiny.

As discussed in the previous article, “How to be an involved 4-H parent in 10 easy steps – Step 3: A safe place to learn,” youth may not be successful in everything they try. As a parent, watching your child struggle can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. It is important to remember that in most circumstances your child will learn from their mistakes and gain resilience, problem solving skills, confidence and be proud of what they have learned or accomplished regardless of how you may view the outcome.

The Michigan 4-H Guiding Principles clearly outlines the expectations of the 4-H program. Two of the Guiding Principles that have significant relevance in relation to the balance of youth and adults providing direction in the 4-H program are:

  1. Youth are actively engaged in their own development.
  2. Youth are considered participants rather than recipients in the learning process.

Youth should have the opportunity to make decisions that affect their 4-H experiences at the personal level as well as their club, county and beyond. Youth decisions could include project selection, club and committee decision making and holding leadership roles. As a youth gains more experience, a greater share of responsibility for decisions should shift from adults to the youth. The Michigan State University Extension article, “Encourage 4-H youth to engage in their own development,” provides additional ideas of ways youth can be engaged participants.

A simple place to start in relinquishing control to your 4-H member is in the selection of which projects they will sign up for this year. Giving the child the opportunity to select their own project may greatly increase their sense of ownership in the project. As a parent, you can help guide this process with establishing realistic boundaries such as discussing a budget your family can afford for the project, or in the case of animal projects, the feasibility of housing and caring for an animal. As long as the child selects a project within the discussed boundaries, allow the child to pursue their interests. Even if the project does not lie in your interest or expertise area, it may spark a new passion for your child. The MSU Extension article, “Tips for 4-H project selection,” provides additional considerations for helping your child select a project.

Another important aspect in taking the backseat as a 4-H parent is project completion. It is your child’s responsibility to complete the projects they do in 4-H. Completing your child’s project for them sends a number of messages that are counter intuitive to what we hope they gain from their 4-H experience:

  • They may feel their work isn’t good enough, causing a decrease in confidence and self-esteem.
  • They could come to depend on you to do other tasks for them instead of learning how to do the task themselves.
  • They learn the final product is the only thing that matters, not the learning that takes place through the project.
  • They feel it’s not OK to make mistakes, even during the learning process.
  • You instill in them that receiving the top award is the only thing that matters.

Often times a judge will be able to determine through the interview how much of the project was completed by the child. Most judges will take into consideration what the child has learned, not just the final product.

Parents may find that one aspect of 4-H involvement that can easily be accomplished from the backseat is helping to guide the debriefing process of 4-H learning experiences. “Debriefing Part 3: What's that all about?” explains how the Experiential Learning Model can be used to help 4-H members process what they have learned.

Your family’s 4-H journey can provide your child with an unlimited number of learning encounters. Whether your journey is just getting underway or if your family has been involved in 4-H for years, you are likely to find something new to learn and experience at every step along the way. You will find there are people along the path to help guide you, but ultimately the path of your family’s 4-H expedition will be individually determined.

Look for the next article in this series soon – Step 5: Fostering healthy competition.

For more in this series

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