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CYC-Online Issue 135 MAY 2010 / BACK
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The story of the ugly duckling: Marginalisation and identity in child and youth care work

Jackie Winfield

In the nineteenth century, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a children's story called The Ugly Duckling. In this article, I retell the story and share a few thoughts about parallels between the experience of the ugly duckling and our experiences as child and youth care workers in the current South African context.

The Story of the Ugly Duckling
A mother duck had been sitting on her nest of eggs for several weeks. When the time was right, the eggs began to hatch, and soon the mother duck was surrounded by her young ones who made little “peep-peep” sounds. The last egg to hatch looked a little unusual, and when the shell cracked open, mother duck got quite a shock. The creature which emerged looked quite different to all of the others. His feathers were not the same colour and his beak was a peculiar shape. He also didn’t make a sweet little “peep-peep” sound. The mother duck felt rather alarmed at this strange-looking addition to her family, but decided to make the best of it and included him in the family activities.

First of all, mother duck led the hatchlings from the nest down to the water’s edge. As they waddled, mother duck looked at her beautiful ducklings. They were perfectly formed, as little ducks are supposed to be, with fluffy yellow feather and little red beaks. Yes, they were perfect ... except of course, for that last one. He did not have fluffy yellow feathers and a little red beak, and as such, did not fit the picture of a pretty little duckling. He looked nothing like the others ... and the more she looked at him, the more she thought him ugly and clumsy and really “not one of us” at all!

Mother duck and the hatchlings entered the water and swam about, occasionally putting their heads under the water and feeling the coolness on their bodies. Even “the other one” seemed to be comfortable in the water, enjoying the swim. “Perhaps”, thought the mother duck, “with time and proper training, I can make him look and sound like the rest of us”, because, if the truth be told, mother duck was rather embarrassed about being related to this unusual creature. In particular, she was concerned about what the other ducks would say, and how their comments would reflect on her own status in the duck world, and in the farmyard where she lived. Maybe there would be questions as to her own ancestry, or perhaps, the other birds and animals might begin to look down on ducks in general.

As the hatchlings played in the water, some of them began to whisper among themselves, “he doesn’t look like us”, “there’s something wrong with him” and “he’s an imposter”. They laughed at him and called him names and mother duck became increasingly worried. When they left the pond to walk up to the farmyard, the fluffy yellow ducklings waddled as quickly as they could so they wouldn’t have to be next to “the other one”. At the farmyard, the animals looked the hatchlings up and down and a few made nasty comments about the last born. “He looks funny. Maybe he’s some new kind of duck. Maybe he’s not a duck at all. Maybe he’s some kind of insect dressed up in a badly-made duck costume pretending to be a duck so he can obtain all of the duck benefits and perhaps even take over the farm.” And so it went on. Some of the hens pecked at “the other one”. Even the farmer pulled a face when he saw the ungainly figure following the line of ducklings behind mother duck.

As the days and weeks passed, “the other one” worked hard to conform to the requirements of being a duck. He tried to speak like the fluffy yellows, and behave according to duck etiquette
with a correct duck waddle, but it felt so uncomfortable and no matter how he tried, it was never good enough. You can imagine how disheartening it must have been for the young bird (as it would be for any fledgling) to be told that he didn’t fit, he didn’t meet the criteria, he would bring the whole of duck society (and perhaps even bird society as a whole) into disrepute if he continued as he was. So eventually, after months of being insulted, prodded and poked by the farmyard authorities, trodden on and publicly slandered, “the other one” left the farmyard.

He wandered alone in the fields and swam along the streams trying to enjoy the sunshine on his back. Whenever he saw a duck swimming along, he would stay completely still, barely breathing, so that he could remain in hiding and no-one would know he was there. Occasionally, other birds would come towards him but he’d fly away before they got too close, for he was sure that they only meant to attack him.

One afternoon, he was sleeping by the river bank when he was awoken by the sound of gentle splashing and soothing voices. As he scrambled to his feet, he saw three beautiful long-necked birds coming towards him. “Hey,” they called. “Where are you from? We haven’t seen you around here before.” “The other one” tried to hide himself, but the long-necked birds continued, “Come on out! It’s a fabulous day for a swim.” “The other one” tried to make excuses, but the long-necked birds would not give up, and there was something about them that filled the lonely creature’s heart with hope. Hesitantly, he stepped out from the reeds, but he was still so busy trying to hide himself that he slipped in the mud and straight down into the water. He expected the birds to laugh at him and call him names as so many others had done before, but instead, they seemed to be looking at him with admiration.

“Why are you staring at me like that?” he asked. “Well,” one of the long-necked birds replied, “it’s been some time since we saw such a handsome young swan, so we’re enjoying the view. Yes, you’re a very fine swan, indeed!”

And then, “the other one” – the one who had been mocked and teased and rejected, the one who had never felt part of the duck family, who had looked all wrong, and despite his efforts, just couldn’t behave like a proper duck – caught a glimpse of himself, a reflection in the water ... and he gasped. He was no longer an “ugly duckling” (and in fact, he had never been a duckling at all!); he looked just like the three birds swimming next to him ... for he was a swan and he was absolutely beautiful.

Lessons from the story
Ducks and swans are both birds, but swans are not a special/peculiar kind of duck and ducks are not a special/ peculiar kind of swan.

Ducks and swans do not and should not behave like each other.

When ducks dominate the farmyard, the dominant culture will be Duck.

A healthy environment has space for ducks and swans to swim in the same ponds even though the way in which they swim might be a little different.

If you are a swan, pay more attention to being the best swan you can be and far less attention to the judgement of ducks.

Child and youth care work as “The other one"
Throughout history, societies or groups within societies have marginalised those who are different, or somehow “other”. Dominant cultures have denigrated indigenous cultures. Those in power have used themselves as the yardstick against which all should be measured, and those who are “other” can never measure up.

As child and youth care workers, we need to recognise ourselves and claim our identity. We need to be clear about who we are and how we practise in our daily work. Each of us needs to take responsibility for standing tall and showing that our work is valuable, that we know what we are doing and why we are doing it. If we allow others to define us or to tell us what it is that we do, we lose part of our essence, the uniqueness of who we are. If we continue to hide ourselves or expect that someone else has the responsibility to improve opportunities for child and youth care workers in South Africa, the process of professional recognition will be slow. For too long, child and youth care work has been “the ugly duckling” of the social services. Let us go forward into 2010 with confidence and purpose, so that we may emerge from the reeds along the river bank, and hear, “Yes, you’re a very fine swan, indeed!”


Andersen, H. C. (2009). The Ugly Duckling. [online] Available at: ugly duc.html [Accessed 10 November 2009].

This feature: Winfield, J. (2009). The story of the ugly duckling: Marginalisation and identity in child and youth care work. Child and Youth Care Work, 27, 6. pp. 34-35.


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