The Emotional Socialization of 4H and FFA Kids

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?

Photo available under a Creative Commons License via flickr – Darlene/smittenkittenoriginals

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

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