The Power in Our Children

As one of the largest positive youth development organizations in the United States, 4-H believes in the power of youth. We know every youth has valuable strengths and abilities to improve our world. In 4-H, we empower youth to be true leaders in their club, community, country, and world. Research from Tufts University has shown that engaging in high-quality positive youth development (PYD) programs such as 4-H, youth are four times more likely to contribute to their community, two times more likely to be civically active, and nearly two times more likely to make healthier choices. One of the key components of high-qualityPYD is a lasting relationship with a caring adult outside of the family, also referred to as a developmental relationship. 

Building relationships is something we can do as we engage with youth every day. A developmental relationship is defined as one between a child and an adult that reflects mutual warmth, respect, and trust. As children grow and mature, they become more independent, competent, and confident. This relationship will evolve and become more complex as the focus shifts to youth being an equal contributor.  According to the 4-H Thriving Model, research has revealed five components of successful relationships. These components include expressing care, challenging growth, providing support, expanding possibilities, and sharing power.  

  • Expressing Care: We can express care by listening, being dependable, warm ,and inviting to youth with whom we work or engage with every day. In a world where we all seem to be in a rush, take the extra few minutes to listen to the youth in our lives talk about their challenges and successes. You may even hear them start to talk about their passions or sparks (read on for more about youth sparks)! 
  • Challenging Growth: By challenging growth, we are holding youth accountable and expecting them to bring their best efforts. through encouragement and support in tough tasks we can teach life skills. As such, challenge youth to fail forward. Failure is often our best teacher so help them reflect on failures by finding what worked and what didn’t and what they can change in the future.  
  • Providing Support: Children and youth need adults to provide support by setting age-appropriate boundaries and helping to navigate situations and systems in which they are not familiar. We can empower them by helping to raise their voices up and encouraging new connections to further their passions. 
  • Sharing Power: Sharing power with youth in a relationship helps youth feel valued. As adults, we need to show respect for youth opinions and backgrounds, collaborate with youth in a variety of ways, and include them in making decisions that will affect who they are and what they are doing. 
  • Expanding Possibilities: As adults, we have access to opportunities that aren’t always available to youth. We can expand opportunities and possibilities for youth by introducing them to new ideas, providing support in their endeavors, and connecting them with others who can help them reach their goals.  

These five components of developmental relationships are not independent of each other, rather they act together and move fluidly throughout a relationship. These relationships are an important component to PYD and helping youth thrive. “Positive youth development is not about young people doing ‘okay’ or well enough; it is fundamentally about making sure young people have the experiences they need to develop to their fullest and become positive contributors to society” (Scales, 2010). We are helping youth thrive 

Another major component of thriving youth is youth “sparks”. A spark is a passion or interest that ignites a fire in a young person’s life and expresses the essence of who they are. It is something that gives youth a sense of direction and encourages goal setting. Sparks are different from fun activities or hobbies in that a spark generates an action that not only benefits youth but also their community or society. Sparks provide essential motivation for a young person’s growth in knowledge and skills and provide an avenue for youth to build their personal network as they engage with others with similar sparks.   

To support youth in building sparks, adults can become a spark champion. A spark champion is someone who helps youth identify their spark by paying attention to their world and interests, listening to their values and opinions, and recognizing when they achieve significant milestones. We need to be intentional in talking to youth about their sparks, encouraging advancement in their spark, and providing opportunities to help youth get better in their spark. A few things we can do include: 

  • Help youth set goals to follow their spark. Encourage setting SMART (small, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals to improve in their passion. 
  • Allow space for youth to develop their own projects. 
  • Allow failure! Providing a safe space where youth can fail helps build resiliency and problem-solving skills. 
  • Provide support and encouragement. Some sparks may be hard for adults to resonate with as it may not be one of our interests, but it is important for us as adults, to show our support and encouragement. 

Building relationships with youth and supporting them in their sparks are just two important components of PYD. This quote from Nelson Mandela sums it up nicely. “History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.” Be the difference maker. Help youth know they are valued in our society so we can watch them change the world. To learn more about positive youth development and Nebraska 4-H Youth Development, visit our website at  


Arnold, M.E. (2019) Fostering Developmental Relationships. Oregon State University Extension 4-H Youth Development

Arnold, M.E. (2019) Facilitating Youth Sparks. Oregon State University Extension 4-H Youth Development

Scales , P. C. (2010,December) Finding the student spark: Missed opportunities in school engagement. Search Institute Insights & Evidence 5(1). 

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