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The Emotional Socialization of 4H and FFA Kids

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In July, Animal Place welcomed a sheep from the Orange County Fair. Fish had been raised as part of a Future Farmers of America (FFA) project. We thought this would be a good time to re-share our 2015 interview with Leslie Irvine, who conducted a study on the emotional socialization of children within the 4H and FFA programs.

The Emotional Socialization of 4-H and FFA Kids

The 4-H Youth Livestock Program and the FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience are apprenticeship programs where youth purchase young animals, care for them for a period of time, and then sell them at auction for slaughter. The emotional weight of such work is particularly demanding for young people who often have not yet internalized the justifications around animal use within American culture.

As part of Animal Place’s campaign to expose the inherent cruelty to both youth and animals who participate in these programs, we interviewed social psychologist, Leslie Irvine, of the University of Colorado. She conducted a study on the emotional socialization of children within the 4-H youth program and was particularly interested in the ways in which young people are socialized into the ideology of “dominionism,” which justifies the slaughter of animals in the service of human beings.

What are the primary motivations of adolescents who participate in 4-H’s youth livestock program?

The primary motivations are connected. They want to raise the best animals and earn as much money as they can. The “best animals” mean those that garner the highest prices at auction. The kids often put most of their winnings in a college fund. Along with that, a lot of the kids talked about wanting to have fun. The program puts them around friends and family members who have a tradition of participation. The county and state fairs are big events for them.

In addition to the financial and social motivations, 4-H’ers also tend to enjoy working with the animals. The parents’ standpoint is also important. Many parents see 4-H as a venue to teach responsibility, hard work, and how to overcome challenges. Many of these same cultural values that other children learn from sports, music, or having a companion animal, are also at play in 4-H.

Your research found 3 key emotional strategies that children employ to make the process of raising and selling animals for slaughter more bearable. Can you explain and discuss examples of those strategies in action?

The first strategy is “cognitive emotion work.” The term “emotion work” refers to efforts we undertake to change how we feel. So when we “psych ourselves up” for a party we’d rather not attend, or “cool off” our anger, we’re doing emotion work. Sometimes emotion work involves the body, such as taking deep breaths or making ourselves smile. “Cognitive emotion work” involves redefining the situation so that our emotional response also changes. The 4-H participants did this by trying not to get attached to their animals and not naming them, for instance, or giving them silly names.

“I talk to them a lot. Every day, we get closer. You can’t raise them without developing a relationship.” – 9 year old girl raising two steers

“I used to name them, but when you grow up, you quit naming them.” – Older boy raising steers

The second strategy is “distancing.”  This builds on cognitive emotion work. It involves defining the animals as “market animals” destined for slaughter, not as pets, friends, or family members.

“When I was younger it was much harder because I was attached, but now I realize that they are market animals.” – Girl raising hogs and steer

The third strategy involves the narrative of redemption. By casting the whole livestock-raising experience as having a “greater good,” participants redeem any negative aspects it may have. For example, saying “I raised a cow so she could be killed and eaten” has one set of connotations. But “I raised a cow to earn money for college” has another set entirely. By making the college fund, and the purchase of the next year’s animal, the focus of their effort, the participants create a positive narrative and thereby redeem themselves from conflict over involvement in an animal’s death.

“I was sad, but happy to get money for next year’s animals.” – Boy raising hogs for several years

“I still get kinda sad, but it’s for a good cause.” – Older girl raising animals for several years

What long-term effects might result from this kind of relationship with animals?

It definitely helps to maintain the belief that certain animals are created for human consumption. That’s why we titled our paper, “Reproducing Dominion.” The participants learn that human use of animals is not only normal, but natural.

4-H also promotes a nostalgic perspective on animal agriculture. For example, many people raise pigs and chickens. Kids who raise these animals never confront the realities experienced by those pigs and chickens raised in more conventional agricultural environments.

Where do you see alternative opportunities for youth who want to work with animals outside of the context of exploitation?

One of the best opportunities for young people is in Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots programs, many of which are found in schools. Roots and Shoots groups give youth the opportunity to engage in efforts that help animals, people, and the environment. The youth themselves are the leaders.

In addition, many humane societies have programs for youth that involve helping care for dogs, cats, and rabbits. Of course, the dogs and cats eat meat, so it depends on how far removed you want to stay from exploitation.

Patti Nyman, Intern, Volunteer, and Campaigns Manager



33 Responses so far.

  1. At the Sacramento County and State Fair they have a hill behind the animal barns they call “Crying Hill”. This is where the kids go to mourn for the animals they raise. Thank you for opening up the conversation. I have often wondered about these programs and what they teach kids about animals. Seems we could use more empathy in the world for them for sure.

  2. Kimberly Hyde-schmitt says:

    I would imagine it would be very difficult process for children. How could they not get attached to the animals?

    • Rebecca says:

      It breeds callousness. That is a very basic reason that our society has such a high threshold for brutality—everywhere.

      • Barbara says:

        Rebecca – I inherently knew there was something wrong, unethical, and cruel about the 4H program – indeed, reading the above psychological ‘tactics’ they brainwash these poor kids with, such as ‘distancing’, ‘not getting attached’ (detachment) – teaching them how to psych themselves into believing that this is all just great and dandy, and ‘for a good cause’ (what ’cause’…their college tuition fund???)

        Well, you have certainly identified this practice for what it is, and you have defined it quite succinctly! I completely agree with you. I often think that this ends up being worse for a sentient animal in the long run, to have known love and caring for much of their young lives, then face the harsh reality of their demise in such a brutal way. Can you imagine the utter shock and feeling of harsh abandonment for the animal to go through this? For much of their young lives, they enjoy love, attention, and bonding with these young kids. Then BAM – they are herded off to the slaughter house, probably fattened up even more, crowded conditions, harsh, uncaring…sometimes abusive treatment, then slaughered with the rest of the herd – and it’s not like they get a shot and go to ‘sleep’ .

        These kids need to go into this commitment EYES WIDE OPEN – they need to begin this journey AT THE SLAUGHTER HOUSE, before they purchase their animal and care for them in their artificially concocted fantasyland. They only have some vague idea of how it will end for their animal, they need to SEE FOR THEMSELVES, beforehand, how brutal it actually is.

  3. Jerry Townsend says:

    I have been very concerned about these organizations training children to be supporters of the meat industry. A program to reach parents about what is happening to our children is needed and made wide spread so that all parents are made aware. The conflicts and disconnects are forced upon our emerging young adults. Jerry Townsend, retired School Psychologist and Marriage, Family Therapist.

  4. LES GUZIK says:

    Shoot a deer, slaughter hogs and steer, butcher chickens and God knows whatever other animal satisfies your disgusting palates. I never was much of a meat eater but finally at age 68 I gave it up altogether and I sure feel good about it. Animals are not disgusting but eating them certainly is. Torture them, frighten them, kill them and then eat them? Sickening.

    • d says:

      So very true. And the longer you are a vegetarian, the stronger the realization becomes that it was so very wrong all along. we were just brainwashed by the people who make money off of the cruelty to animals. We were all brainwashed by that industry. most don’t know it yet.

    • Barbara says:

      I completely agree with you, Les.

      • Jamie says:

        All 4h kids spend everyday taking care of their animals. Our pigs get walked outside everyday 2 times a day. They eat the best food we can afford. They get daily baths in the summer and brushed. I was a vegetarian for about 8 years because I didn’t agree with the daily animal abuse that most commercial farms perform and the life that they live. I can genuinely say that 90% of 4h animals are treated better then most dogs. My kids show Rabbits (Angora English, Mini Lop, and Netherland Dwarf). They also show Sheep, Hogs, and Steers) . They balance home, school, and barn chores. At 9, my daughter balances her own 4h checking account. When she needs a new cage, medical, or special shampoo she pays for it with her own earned money. Our white and black pigs even get organic sunscreen on before they get walked. The kids spend everyday in the summer training their animals and helping them to be socialized and comfortable at fair. I understand if you have a problem with people eating meat. But, my kids love being in 4h and love animals. They don’t like sports. I can’t say enough about how 4H has shaped my children and helped them gain confidence.

        • Claire C says:

          We don’t doubt that students feel love for their animals, and provide good care. However, at the end of the project, they must send their animal to slaughter. This is not a kind act, no matter how much care they were provided before they are killed. No slaughter of animals is humane.

          Though there is certainly a lot to be learned from interacting with animals, 4h is not the only way to gain that experience. Volunteering at a shelter, or sanctuary, provides children an opportunity to connect with animals.

    • Veronica says:

      Who is out here scaring and torturing animals? Are you referring to factory farms? Just because you are intolerant of something doesn’t make it disgusting either. I am glad you have found a better life for yourself later in life than you feel like you had before. I only hope that you learn to grow and be open to other’s thoughts and opinions without senselessly grouping a large group into such finite categories. It’s no different than when people judge all vegans or vegetarians. It’s sad that this is the generation I had as parents. So intolerant.

  5. jean publiee says:

    our tax dollars at the federal, state, county and local level support 4H. that is disgusting. it is time to stop all tax dollars to this kids killing involvement. please work with your congresspeople and other politicians to stop funding for 4H, which is horrible.
    no kids should be taught its ok to make money from kiling animals. would you eat your dog?

  6. I actually had an excellent experience in 4-H, but I did not raise animals. I took youth veterinary science courses.

    This early experience and training has served me VERY well in my role as the owner / custodian of a small private cat sanctuary and rescue foster. I don’t exploit animals, I save them! And I learned a lot of that compassion and skill at a very early age – in 4-H.

  7. Wendy Adams says:

    I grew up on a ranch and participated in 4H. I was young and it’s the way things were done, but something always bothered me about the way the animals were “just animals” on the ranch. On the other hand, the 4H animals were all treated very well and some even spoiled. I do not eat meat and wish that nobody did, but if I had to, I would choose a 4H animal over any because I don’t see the suffering and I have to say that in many cases, once the child does this and forms a bond with the animal, they don’t want to do it again, because they have learned the separation that is in the future is painful. After one year of having to sell my pig, I chose to just participate in the Horse and Rabbit clubs, that don’t sell their animals. This happened with several people I know, so it may teach children something good.

    • Cynthia says:

      I participated in 4-H cooking classes as a child, I know they are not all about animals. But to say the rabbit clubs don’t sell their animals is misleading. I now volunteer in an animal shelter with rabbits & have been approached many times by 4-H & FFA children that raise companion rabbits in the same way as meat rabbits…that is they don’t know much about rabbits other than fattening them up in a short time. And some of them go to showing rabbits only because they didn’t like giving up their meat rabbits. The rabbits are still mistreated, housed in small wire bottom cages outside & then the kids come to me asking why their rabbit is covered in foot sores, fleas or why they died from fly strike, etc. I can’t see any benefit in a program that misinforms children on rabbit health & behavior. What else are they misinforming the children about?

  8. Mary Baker Dittman says:

    Why don’t they take these kids to a slaughter house – the END product. Let them see the horrendous cruelty these animals endure before they finally die.
    It is never okay when an animals life is better dead than alive.
    It is time that empathy is taught, that caring is a better option than cruelty that being a VEGETARIAN is better for you than eating the flesh of a dead animal.

    Maybe just maybe if caring was taught instead of cruelty and ending an animals life for the ‘fun’ of was taught we might not see the horrendous acts of cruelty that we see today on innocent animals.

  9. Lori says:

    I’m 46. I grew up showing cattle, sheep, hogs and dogs in both 4-H and FFA. The lessons and skills I gained participating in these activities have made me a successful adult today. Yes it helped pay for college and thank GOD or I would have never been able to go to college! I learned that hard work pays off, I learned to speak, I learned to work with a group and independently. My animals were so well takenCare of it was crazy. Everyone had there own specia feed and exercise program. . I loved them and yes I hated it when it was over. However there isn’t a single thing I would change about how I grew up! Yes I played sports was the caption of my cross country and basketball team but 4-H and FFA by far gave me skills that I have utilized to be successful in my career. I’m a crazy animal lover have two rescue dogs and cats. You are wrong on this one! One thing that made both FFA and 4-H so special was family.

    • Barbara says:

      There are many that think YOU are wrong…including me.

      But then you were young, and innocent, and basically brainwashed into thinking you were doing this for a good cause (your college fund; earned on the backs of exploited animals). There are plenty of other ways to earn $ for college that don’t involve ‘spoiling’ and ‘loving’ animals for your own profit and, ultimately, their brutal demise.
      Have you ever thought about what the animals you raised and ‘loved’ went through after they were sold and carted off to the slaughterhouse? It was no picnic for them along the way, I can assure you.
      These are sentient beings;humans are also. Sentient basically means that they CARE about being alive; they fear losing their lives; and any sentient animal would fiercely fight for their life if they could – just like you and me, and any other human. They get attached to other animals, and they get attached to humans who treat them kindly, and pretend to ‘love’ them.
      You don’t think that these animals that you ‘loved’ didn’t love you back, and suffered horribly for not only the harsh, brutal reality they were sold into, but ALSO in separating from you, as well? Sentient animals are entirely capable of love and attachment, and are subject to grief and heartbreak when removed from their loved ones and the life and home they loved and were used to. Just because they cannot express themselves verbally, does NOT mean they are dumb, or that they don’t have feelings.
      How wonderful for you… there is not ONE thing you would change about YOUR life in the 4-H environment – that’s awesome (for YOU)

  10. Craig Downer says:

    Excellent article! The kind of callous denial that ignores the sentient beings in the various animal bodies that are exploited, mainly just for their bodies, but often for what they can do for people, is disgusting and shows that humans have a long ways to go in their spiritual evolution. I really fee that we need a New AGe of Compassion for all of life, and would be willing to come give a talk on this subject that I have prepared. I am a wildlife ecologist and with the Andean Tapir Fund/Wild Horse and Burro Fund. YOu may have seen or read my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy. Would like to attend more of your events, not too bad a drive for me if you are in Grass Valley (right?). Happy Autumn, for all sentient beings here!

  11. D Thorne says:

    We need to stop justifying cruelty…We don’t have to eat meat in this country. Teaching a child that’s it’s okay to kill another living being is wrong. Teaching them to not care is wrong.

  12. Joseph Farnsworth says:

    It is sad, problem is that these things were ingrained in our parents who passed them down and they’re not willing to break the cycle. I broke away after years of indoctrination I always had a bad feeling about it so I followed my own intuition and now I don’t eat meat there are so many good substitution now a days I don’t miss it…

  13. I don’t believed “natural”, it is NORMAL that humans use animals, and the 4H program is perpetuaton of a new generation to exploit animals for MONEY..but then that the WHOLE PURPOSE…MONEY and it BIG MONEY for the animal agriculture business, for the DISEASE business; heart disease, cancer, diabetes, alzheimer,etc. for pesticides business, Monsanto, Dow, Dupont. Big Pharma, antibiotics, hormones, steroid, Good BIG BUSINESS, and everything else suffers and die, farm animals, rivers and lakes polluted, land eroded and polluted, Animals, humans, and all of EARTH SUFFERS and are dying.

    • Barbara says:

      Dr. Georgie – Thank you so much for expanding on this dialog and bringing to light all the factors you’ve brought to light about ALL of the consequences of this horrible practice. Many are not aware of its far reaching damage, and the way in which our capatilistic worship of $$$/power at any cost – people; animals; the beautiful earth that is being destroyed in the process – all for the almighty buck. They like to call it ‘progress’. Those of us who are awake realize we are ‘progressing’ right off the cliff…

  14. Michelle Morgan says:

    I am 67 years old. Healthy and happy — and haven’t eaten an animal since 1977. I can’t even imagine how many animals have had a happy and healthy life also, because of my decision 40 years ago. I can sleep peacefully — each and every night.

  15. I always had my suspicions for years about the 4-H clubs even though the kids I met were decent kids and truly did take care of their animals. But I overheard one 4-H club boy, about 9 years old, said, without hesitation, that if his pig did not get auctioned off, his parents would take him to the slaughterhouse and have the pig for Sunday dinner. I said nothing, but it confirmed what I had suspected all along. I like the fact that one can raise animals with great care, but to ultimately send these animals to a horrible, cruel death in the factory farms is just horrible and I would hope that the kids would be truthfully informed that the animals they cared for so much would be disposed of, perhaps, the kids will pull away from this program. Let’s hope so!!

  16. Steph says:

    Children are naturally nurturing and gentle with animals, and inherently empathic toward the suffering of others. Decreasing or extinguishing those innate tendencies requires systematic conditioning in favor of domination and subjugation. It’s unconscionable that children are brainwashed to turn a blind eye to cruelty and participate in it.

  17. Catherine Adams says:

    This is horrible and I’m so saddened and heartbroken that this practice is still going on. Why are we teaching children to be insensitive to God’s creatures?! What a betrayal to be loved and eventually slaughtered.

    Animals aren’t ours to mistreat, exploit and kill for pleasure and personal gain. All lives matter.