It's my pleasure to judge a few county fairs each year. I steer clear of livestock rings, but I judge crops, hay, garden, photography various animal posters, soil conservation and weather, and shooting sports whenever someone asks and I can work it in. It's a great way to get ides for stories too- the cover for August that you will see soon and a story about a young man who had a close call on a bike are both from trips I made to judge 4-H fairs.
I judged shooting sports at the Ohio County fair in Rising Sun on July 7. Ohio County is the smallest in the state, with only four townships. But they like their shooting sports, and I visited with some 60 4-H'ers, judging their projects and trying to pass out a few tips along the way. The main reason I enjoy judging is to visit with the kids and see what they've accomplished.
When I arrived Saturday morning, kids were beginning to line up outside the door where almost all projects were judged. I noticed there weren't parents in line as there are at most fairs I go to. As it turns out, Ohio County has open judging, meaning that the judge talks with the member, but parents aren't allowed in the building during judging. To make sure they get feedback, the judge writes comments out for first year members. Older kids, even 5th graders, should be able to remember the main tip or two form a judge so he or she can do better next time around.
No parents where the judge is talking to the kid- what a novel concept! Turns out they've been doing it in their small projects building there for years. What that does is let a judge relax, and feel more open about discussing what went right and wrong with a project with the person that counts- the 4-H'er. Kids are also a bit more likely to tell you how much they did and how much mom or dad did on their project without mom or dad standing over their shoulder.
One little boy had a great poster, and he really knew his stuff about both archery and guns. His poster included safety tips for both. The only problem was mom finished it up for him by gluing on the safety tips, and she mixed them up in the two categories. My guess is in that case it was mom that got a lecture on the way home, not the 4-H'er. It did let me make the point that it's Ok for mom or dad to help, but it's still your project, and up to you to make the final decision on whether the poster is correct or not.
The other thing no parents in the building does is prevents an overzealous mom or dad from stepping up and taking over the conversation if the youngster gets tongue-tied. That's usually not a problem- they like to talk, although I did make one little girl cry just my looking at her. Obviously, she wasn't quite ready for this live judging deal. Intimidating? Me? No, I'm just a big, cuddly teddy bear!
If more counties considered such a policy, I believe there would be less cheating. Judges would get a better idea of whether the kid did the project or mom and dad. And the focus could be kept on the 4-H'er and what he or she is learning, not the ribbon mom or dad wants them to get.
I would even try it in the livestock barn. I believe it's been tried before with varying success. But it's about time the focus of 4-H returned to the child, not the parents.