ISSUE 133 MARCH 2010 BACK

PRACTICE

On hitting, hand-cuffing, caring

Karl Gompf

Why would you hit me? I’m just a little kid!

He was just a little kid “Kirby “about three years old. I was much older “not necessarily wiser. I was his Dad. He wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t cooperate, he didn’t seem to care about anything I said. He yelled, he screamed, he threatened. He wanted to do things his way, but I wanted him to do things my way. It was time to act. Reaching over, I gave him a gentle swat on his bottom. My hoped-for results were achieved. The wailing stopped, the tearful child's face looked up at me, and then came the question that taught me one of the most profound lessons in parenting, “Why would you hit me? I’m just a little kid! “

From that moment of great learning, I knew I would never resort to using a gentle swat ever again “talking and working things through with my son would be enough. And it was.

Why would you handcuff me? I’m just a little kid!

Fast forward to March, 2005, in Florida. Ja–eisha, a five-year-old kindergarten girl is “acting out” (often the preferred definition of the frustrated) in her classroom. She wouldn’t listen, she wouldn’t cooperate, she didn’t seem to care about anything the teacher said. She roams the room tearing items off the walls, climbing on desks, and defying all instructions to settle down. A video camera records it all for about thirty minutes as the teacher and the assistant principal attempt to calm her down.

Ja–eisha, often appearing calm, ignores all instructions. At last, she begins to clean up “her” mess, but refuses to leave the room. Asked to make a choice before the count to five, she agrees to leave but things escalate in the assistant principal’s office. With the tape rolling, five- year-old Ja–eisha is seen swinging at the assistant principal and twice climbing onto a table. Both times the assistant principal lifts her to the floor. Finally, three police officers in uniform arrive as Ja–eisha is sitting calmly in a chair. She is pulled from the chair and hand-cuffed behind her back. The tape ends just as Ja–eisha starts screaming and the agony is recorded on her little kindergartener face. The local newspaper reports that no charges were filed against Ja–eisha.

Have I told you today that I love you?

I like the story told by Martin Brokenleg at the National Child and Youth Care Conference in Calgary last year. It goes something like this. A father receives that dreaded late night telephone call from the police. His teenage son, Josh, is being held at the police station after he was picked up drag racing in his father’s car. The father agrees to go to the police station immediately to release his son. He walks into the cell and greets Josh with these words: “Have I told you today that I love you?” A powerful statement that highlights the concept of belonging, so badly needed by our youth today.

These stories weave together as I think about how our words and actions can hurt and can help children. As child and youth care practitioners, are we able to be like the father in Brokenleg’s story and use caring words that build self- esteem and create that belonging feeling? Or are we still symbolically hitting and handcuffing when faced with so called “acting out” behaviour? I say we are guilty of the latter when there are reports of the following in some child care settings:

Here’s the challenge. In the corporate world, before making a heavy duty decision, leaders are asked to stop and ponder “What would the Lone Ranger do?” In our child and youth care world, before making a crucial decision on an intervention or speaking to a child about misbehaviour, stop and ponder “What would Kirby, Ja–eisha, and Josh say about this?”

 

Gompf, Karl. (2005). On hitting, hand-cuffing, caring. Relational Child and Youth Practice, 18, 2. p. 81.

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