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children and families

My introduction to family systems theory

Jack Phelan is a teacher in Child and Youth Care in Edmonton, Alberta

My first child and youth care job was as a community worker on the Lower East Side in New York City. During the day I worked with 8-10 year olds, evenings with teens and two nights a week an English teacher for adults in the neighborhood. I was living in a tenement in the neighborhood and I learned an enormous amount during that year, mostly because I was smart enough to know how dumb I was. I realized that I could learn how to be effective with people if I listened carefully to what they were saying was needed and didn’t try to assume that my answers were the ones that would fit them.

On New York’s Lower East Side most of the tenements have a long flight of stone steps known as the stoop, and this is where people sat and talked – I spent lots of time on the stoop at night, often listening to Spanish, Polish, Chinese and other languages as well as several versions of English.

During the day I worked with a group of 12 children, two of these were brothers, Benny and Kenny. Benny was older by a year at 9, but Kenny often seemed older, since he was more articulate and outgoing.

Part of the program was recreation, lots of trips by subway to all parts of New York City, but the mornings were spent on reading skills and English. We used games and activities; Hangman, 20 questions, and a series of high interest booklets of increasing difficulty in a reading program set.

Couldn't read
Kenny was a good reader, but Benny couldn’t read at all. Both boys enjoyed being with me, and we often spent extra time on reading. Benny tried very hard and even memorized a few of the easier books to impress me, but he wasn’t able to read.

After several weeks, and because I had met their mother who was a classroom aide in the school system, I asked the boys to see if their parents would allow me to visit them at home to talk. I didn’t have any elaborate plan, I was just looking for support.

When I visited them at their apartment in "the projects", I was struck with how much Benny looked like his dad, while Kenny resembled his mom. The dad was a bit shy and reluctant to talk, but his wife got him to join us. He was a cab driver, who had worked hard even as a young boy in Puerto Rico, and had left school very early to make a living. He stated that he had never learned to read, and was obviously proud of his wife who had completed high school. He was also proud of himself and what he had accomplished through his own hard work.

I asked him if he thought it was important for Benny to be able to read. He said that he didn’t know if it was essential, since he had succeeded without this skill. His wife jumped in and said that she really wanted Benny to read, and her husband said," Ok with me, if that’s what you want".

Somehow I realized that this wasn’t enough, so I asked the father to decide for himself if he wanted Benny to read. He said he wasn’t sure, and I asked him to take a few minutes to decide. He spent a few minutes thinking and then said "This isn’t Puerto Rico, he will need to read in New York". I asked the parents to call the boys in to join us and the father said to Benny, that he wanted him to learn how to read. We talked for a few more minutes and then I left.

Benny was reading within a week.