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36 JANUARY 2002
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students and teachers

What I learned about physical punishment and working with families

Jack Phelan

I started my Child and Youth Care career in New York City, in an area known as the lower East side, living in a tenement and working with 10 and 11 year olds in the day time in a recreational summer program. I learned a great deal from the youth and families there, and I was lucky enough to realize early on that I needed to listen and learn more than teach.

Rodney was one of these children. He was an 11 year old boy who generally seemed more well dressed and his mother made a point of meeting me and telling me that I should have high expectations of Rodney and to let her know if he created any difficulty for me. Rodney was generally cheerful, but he also liked to complain a bit if he didn’t like the events of the day or if he felt that he wasn’t getting enough attention. I liked him, but felt that he was a bit spoiled and not as easy going as he might be.

The other children sometimes got annoyed with him if he tried to boss them around. Rodney was bright and full of energy and sometimes pushed the limits, but nothing too serious.

I worked with a group of twelve children and we often traveled the subway system to beaches, parks and other places in NYC. I was always a bit apprehensive about supervising the group on the subways because it was easy to get off too early or stay on after the rest of us had gotten off, so I worked with my teenage junior counselor to keep a running count of our charges, being particularly careful to watch the group while the doors were open at the various subway stops. One afternoon we were visiting the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Rodney found a frog which he wanted to take home. I told him that he had to leave it in the park. Rodney got very mad at me. We got to the subway for the ride home, and we all entered the subway car, but just as the doors were shutting, Rodney stepped back onto the platform and smiled as we watched him from the moving train. I had to get off at the next stop and return to the station, leaving all the children with the teenage counselor. Rodney wasn’t there, and after searching for a while I returned to the neighborhood. Rodney was already there and laughed at his prank.

I was pretty frazzled by this point and told Rodney that he would not be allowed to come to the group for the rest of the week (two days) because of this behavior and that I was going to walk him home to let his mother know about this. The smile on his face vanished, but he didn’t say anything to me, just walked along with me to “the projects" where he lived.

We walked up several flights of stairs until we arrived at his apartment. His mother was home and greeted me with surprise at the door. She asked what was wrong and I said that I had experienced some trouble with Rodney today and that he needed to stay out of the program for two days until Monday. Rodney’s mother looked quickly at Rodney, who didn’t react at all, and she said to me, “don’t worry, it won’t happen again". I was about to reply when she grabbed Rodney’s arm and took him inside, shutting the door behind them. I stood in the hallway and listened as she repeatedly hit and screamed at her son and he yelled and cried as he was bounced off the walls up and down the hallway. I banged on the door for a few minutes, trying to get her to stop and to let me in.

I cried for Rodney that night and spent a lot of time thinking about what had happened. When Rodney returned on Monday, I tried to apologize to him, but he acted as if nothing had happened. He and I barely spoke for the rest of the summer.

I learned many things that year, and whenever I am tempted to use force to solve a youth's difficulties with me, I thank Rodney for what I learned from him.

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