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Make the Best Better

Guidelines for Leaders, Parents and Youth,
and Their Involvement With 4-H

By Todd Biddle

4-H is still one of the best organizations for youth, providing a place and a way for those with shared interests to learn life skills while having fun hanging out with friends (and dairy goats).
4-H is still one of the best organizations for youth, providing a place and a way for those with shared interests to learn life skills while having fun hanging out with friends (and dairy goats).

The Agriculture Industry, which includes dairy goat production, continues to be a dynamic field meeting the food demands of a growing population. Yet, a realistic look across the United States reveals that many areas which once supported an agrarian life-style are now “growing” houses. Agricultural producers are faced with the challenges of efficiency, government over-regulation through the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), the controversy of biotechnology, environmental stewardship, fuel costs, animal rights, and a shortage of hard workers willing to work in one of the most potentially dangerous occupations—agriculture. 4-H clubs for youth continue to be one of the best opportunities to equip young people with the skills and knowledge needed to navigate the challenges of agricultural production today. It is through the cooperation of leaders, parents and youth, that youth in agriculture will be strengthened to live and produce despite an ever-changing world.

Earlier in the 20th century, many youth spent their summers working on farms. Today, opportunities for youth employment are expanding. There are also many recreational (yeah, cool things like paint ball and video games) and educational opportunities competing for their attention. While sports teams and work have always been popular, chances for enrichment are increasing daily. In this mix, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and 4-H clubs continue to be excellent youth organizations focusing on life skills and character development. I have been a 4-H member or leader since I was eight years of age. I credit 4-H as one of the greatest educational opportunities of my life. However, these organizations are changing their emphasis as their clientele changes. Youth animal projects have grown to include animal leasing and non-animal projects. Dairy goat clubs that were once predominantly dairy are now taken over by terminal meat goats. So what should 4-H clubs provide for our youth? 

  • First and foremost, the opportunity for success. 
  • Secondly, 4-H clubs should build pro-social self-esteem. 
  • Thirdly, they should model and teach life skills and character development for well-rounded youth by preparing them to work in a team environment as a professional.


4-H should not be an elite group or it will never survive the changes in agriculture. Every child should benefit from the value of learning life skills, character development, and food and fiber connections in 4-H. However, the way in which these connections are made need to reflect the youth of today as well as the agriculture markets of today. Remember, no two children have the same experience, even though they may go through the same 4-H program.

The stakeholders of any 4-H club are the youth. However, it is the dynamic trio of leaders, parents, and the youth that is responsible for the experience. All parties have roles and responsibilities that meet the respective needs of the community.

The 4-H Leader

This list is the longest and requires the most investment of time and dedication.

  • When working with youth, never lose site of the child. Teach children first and the subject matter second. Many of the youth in 4-H clubs will never raise dairy goats in their adult life. However, all youth will be consumers of agriculture products. Furthermore, the character development skills are transferable into all walks of life. Also, understand that youth come to meetings with different backgrounds and family involvement. There are so many factors that impede learning and not always is the youth ready to learn what we want them to learn. If a student is intrinsically motivated and not overcome with the factors that impede their own learning, we are the antecedent to life long learning.
  • Understand all children have different learning styles. While some are audible learners, others are more visual or hands-on learners. Our uniqueness is that we are still one of the best experiential learning opportunities on the market. Since 4-H is based on project learning, youth learn how to set goals and then work on obtaining them. As a leader, encourage the building of goals and then jointly establish checkpoint meetings to see how these goals are coming along.
  • Make use of the senses in meeting activities.
  • When developing programs, always establish objectives first. Learning should be structured around learning objectives not activities. Many 4-H leaders come up with cool activities, but they may not address what the child really needs to know. So, decide on what they need to know and then pick an appropriate activity. One 4-H meeting should never focus on more than one main objective. If there are too many objectives, the learner will be lost. Also, make sure the objective is age-appropriate. An objective needs to address the following information: (1) when the learning will occur; (2) what the 4-Her will be able to do after the meeting; (3) the degree of accuracy or proficiency that they will be able to perform their new skill, and; (4) the standard that they will use to perform their new skill. Next, establish instruction and activity ideas to teach the objective. Do not forget to incorporate an interesting approach that engages them into the material. There should always be an opportunity for the you
  • th to practice their new skills as well. After the lesson, take a minute to perform an assessment as a checkpoint to see if the students learned what they were supposed to learn. I am not recommending a formal test. Here are some ideas that will work well:
  • Ask every member to share verbally something they learned. I always tell them that while I recognize they were exposed to the same material, each member can offer their own unique viewpoints. I always let the youngest members go first.
  • Give the 4-Her an index card and have them write one thing they learned, and have them also write an unanswered question of their interest, based on the content of the meeting. Before the start of the next meeting, review a few cards with the group, and answer some of their questions. This is a great way to connect past meetings with present ones.


Incorporate recreational and service learning opportunities into your club. Your club should be both fun and educational. These opportunities foster good teamwork opportunities among your members, which is a great connection for preparing students for future work environments. Some service learning ideas include:

  • Affiliations with organizations such as Heifer Project International. You can set up some neat live displays for living markets.
  • Petting Zoos with the opportunity for the 4-Her to milk a goat.
  • Visits to nursing homes with animals or dairy goat products such as soaps.
  • Make use of your resources. While you may be the leader, it’s ok to ask for help. There may be a local feed dealer, vet, etc. who can shed light on the subject. Make use of other adults and 4-Hers in working with younger members. There is no reason for a leader to teach any of the basics. Let your older members teach the breeds and parts of the goats. One of the local clubs in my area has every member do a demonstration at a 4-H meeting. This is a great way for members to share what they have learned and develop strong communication skills at the same time.
  • Admit when you do not know an answer and either look for the answer or know where to direct the youth to find their answer. If you use the latter approach, have them report their findings back to the group. Never let questions go unanswered or treat them as insignificant, as these are the questions that stem from their intrinsic motivation.
  • Have meeting ground rules and be a consistent enforcer of rules and/or 4-H policy. While many of us have bleeding hearts for the youth we work with, once you make an exception, you will always need to make that exception. It may hurt the first time you enforce a rule, but if the youth and adults know you will be firm on it, they won’t try to get away with it the next time.
  • Never allow yourself to be the only adult supervising children that are not your own. If you have a mixture of genders, make sure you have a mixture of adult genders as well.
  • Involve youth in the decision-making of your club. If you involve them and then provide them with the opportunities they asked for, they will be more inclined to take ownership in the idea and will learn more in the end. Always remember the club focus is the youth you work with, not you reliving your past.
  • Have thick skin. You are a volunteer. Likewise, you will never make everyone happy. So when people complain, do not personalize and let their negative comments influence how you feel about yourself. Instead, validate their thoughts and ask them how they would suggest handling a situation. You may find that they have no plausible alternate solution! Perhaps upon discussing an issue, you can agree on a compromise that benefits all parties. Remember, it is easy to criticize, but difficult to become part of a solution. You can remind them that you volunteer your time because you do care and you do want to make a positive influence.
  • Treat all youth equally. While it can be hard to eliminate personal bias, you need to remember that all members deserve the same opportunities for success. To be honest, you never really know what member might get the most out of a particular meeting. Also, never discuss one child negatively among a group of members or other parents who are not leaders.
  • Be sensitive to touchy material and model industry language in your teachings and discussions. Avoid colloquial expressions.
  • While some of us are affectionate people, try to avoid touching 4-Hers. If you’re going to touch a child, ask for their permission first. Use other forms of encouragement and endearment when possible.
  • Avoid turf battles!
  • Have a recognition/awards program that recognizes as many youth as possible. Not every child in your club has the same resources available to them. Every child leaving an awards program should take something home, even if it’s just a 4-H year pin (I still remember receiving my first pin). County fair competitions should not be limited to animal and showmanship/fitting placings alone. Skill-a-thons, poster contests, costume classes, obstacle courses, and fun classes (such as goat races or fastest goat eating contests) give all members a chance to win a blue ribbon. One of my favorite awards is the most improved 4-H member. However, make sure you have a published criterion that is readily available before you make decisions on club member of the year, etc.
  • When electing officers, hand out responsibility lists to go with the respective offices. Make sure to announce the responsibilities of each position to the club members prior to elections. When a member is falling short of their responsibilities, talk to them and see what problems they may be encountering. They may need help, but are afraid to ask for it. If a particular position does not work for your club, eliminate it. Do not allow club elections to become popularity contests. If there are enough members in the club, consider implementing the rule that no one person can run for the same office for two consecutive years.
  • It’s ok not to commit to being a 4-H leader for a lifetime. If you do not have the energy to continue or have other life challenges or interests, it’s ok to step down and support the club in other ways.


The Parent’s Role

  • Remember that 4-H leaders are volunteers. Being a 4-H leader is a big commitment with a lot of work and few thank you’s. Please do not consistently complain or criticize your child’s leader. Instead, be proactive. As Steven Covey would say, “Seek to understand before being understood.” When you disagree with something, go straight to the leader and try to express your concerns calmly, without expressing your emotions in a negative manner. Also, do your best to involve as few outsiders as possible. These discussions should not happen during club meetings in front of the membership; hold them separately or over the phone. If you are having problems coming to an agreement, involve the extension agent in mediating.
  • Offer to help where you can. You may not be a goat expert, but you can coordinate meeting snacks or a club fundraiser, or use your technology background in creating club displays that have a professional image. Some of the best fundraisers involve parents who take the sales forms to their workplaces.
  • Make sure your child attends as many meetings as possible, without being late to the meeting, as tardiness can disrupt the flow of the meeting. Also, know when your child has too many obligations and is having difficulty handling all of them in a positive manner. While nothing is better than a positive experience, bad ones can be unsafe and detrimental to your child and others as well. Do project check-ups and be the extrinsic motivator when you need to be.
  • Remember that this is your child’s project. Offer support and encouragement along with help where appropriate. However, do not do their work for them or they will not have the best learning opportunity.
  • The next time you think about complaining about a feed bill, remember that no feed bill will ever be as costly as a drug rehabilitation program!
  • Avoid consuming alcoholic beverages in front of other 4-Hers. Never go to any 4-H activity under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You will severely embarrass your child and set a bad example for everyone.
  • Try not to be a pedant at 4-H meetings. When there is a guest speaker, it’s ok to ask questions, but do not try to outsmart them on the subject matter.
  • Try to limit your comments at 4-H meetings and make sure they are always positive.
  • It’s ok for your child to experience failure (as long as they experience more success overall). Failure can be a wonderful motivator and transition into a future success. Many of the most successful people experience lots of failures. However, they have the extrinsic motivation to pick up from there and move forward. They continue to take risks, but still use past experiences as a learning tool.


The 4-Her’s Role

  • Use your manners and watch your language. Also, please dress appropriately at club meetings and in the show ring.
  • Always thank those who offer assistance through your youth experiences. If your club has an awards program, honor your leaders!

  • Todd Biddle, PA, is a licensed dairy goat judge with the American Dairy Goat Association. He particularly enjoys working with and teaching youth, as in this showmanship class at the 2006 ADGA National Show in Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Jennifer Stultz
    Todd Biddle, PA, is a licensed dairy goat judge with the American Dairy Goat Association. He particularly enjoys working with and teaching youth, as in this showmanship class at the 2006 ADGA National Show in Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Jennifer Stultz

  • Follow through on your commitments. Remember this is your project. You are responsible for your own success stories. Do not expect people to provide you with effortless recognition.
  • Promote your club to your friends. Invite your friend to attend a meeting. Be proud of your projects! Share your expertise and resources in school functions.
  • Keep good records on all your recognitions and accomplishments. These become very important when you apply for scholarships or other awards.
  • Know your club expectations, from knowing the 4-H pledge and the 4-H motto to knowing the number of meetings you need to attend to show at the fair. Read the rule book!
  • Take officer elections seriously. Who can do the best job? Vote for competence, not looks or personality!
  • Practice good animal welfare practices, especially out in public. Avoid pulling tails or slapping goat faces.
  • Save the brother and sister rivalry for home!
  • Always take time to reflect on your project!


There is a lot that goes into making a 4-H experience a positive one for youth involved. However, if there is a partnership between the stakeholders, 4-H leader, parents, and youth, youth can have an incredible opportunity that will provide them with skills and wonderful memories/childhood experiences. Take advantage of the moment, make wise choices, and as a team—”Make the best better.” 

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